Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who's who on Team Balls

The men and women behind the shadow chancellor. 

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I profile Ed Balls, one of the biggest beasts of British politics. But who are the men and women behind the shadow chancellor? Balls's loyal and respected team have never been profiled before; here, they are. 

Gary Follis, Chief of Staff

A former Labour Lambeth councillor and special adviser to Gordon Brown's chief whip Nick Brown, Follis has wide experience having worked as head of policy and public affairs at Nationwide and in the equivalent role at Alliance and Leicester for four years. Earlier in his career, he cut his teeth as European and political officer at Amicus (now Unite). 

Follis, who joined Balls in 2012, is well-known in Westminster, so much so that he was mistakenly canvassed by an aspiring Labour MP during the shadow cabinet elections in 2010. His role includes high-level business liaison with chief executives and chairmen. 

Alex Belardinelli, Head of Communications

Belardinelli has now been at Balls's side for nearly a decade. Well-regarded by the Westminster lobby for his straight manner and work ethic, he is also "liked and respected" by Ed Miliband in the words of one Labour adviser. As well as handling day-to-day relations with the media, Belardinelli works on long-term strategy and all of Balls's major interventions. He attends the daily morning meeting with senior party staff and Miliband's chief aides. "The truth is if you want to get something done by Ed [Balls] you need to get him on board first," a source told me. 

He has been nicknamed "Benelli" by some journalists after losing the "lard" by shedding three stone last year. He recently became engaged to Ellie Gellard (also known as BevaniteEllie), who works as head of communications for the charity 4Children. Belardinelli is distinct among special advisers as a prolific tweeter, using the site to promote policy announcements and favourable stories as well as for rapid rebuttal. 

Before joining Balls during his time as a Treasury minister in 2006, he worked as press and parliamentary officer for the Child Poverty Action Group, press officer for Labour MEP Michael Cashman and national campaigns and membership office for Labour Students. 

Karim Palant, Head of Policy

Palant is the man responsible for ensuring the "iron discipline" pledged by Balls. No policy or spending commitment passes without his approval. The former Labour Students chair, who has worked for Balls since 2010, first came to his attention as Labour's education policy officer during his time as schools secretary.

As well as working closely with the leader's office on policy development and liaising with business, Palant is the author of most of the shadow chancellor's one-liners. When Balls was recently called a "clicky-wristed snidey cunt" by Russell Brand, it was Palant who devised the riposte that Brand was "a pound shop Ben Elton". He has known Belardinelli for 15 years since their time together in Labour Students. 

Stephanie Driver, Head of Events

Driver, who accompanied Balls on the day I spent with him in Cardiff, recently joined the team after the long-serving Balshen Izzet became chief executive of Action for Stammering Children (the charity on behalf of whom the shadow chancellor ran three London marathons). She previously served as Labour's south west regional press officer and has also worked at party HQ and for Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

She is responsible for organising Balls's many constituency visits ("his diary is always filled to the nth degree," a shadow cabinet minister told me) and has already visited 40 key seats with him since the start of the year. Well-liked at party HQ and in the regions, Driver will be on the road with Balls every day of the short campaign. 

Jon Newton, Senior Parliamentary Researcher 

Newton ensures Balls is briefed for meetings and is also responsible for IT and managing junior staff and interns. "He fixes everything," one source tells me. Over the years a number of interns - often Leeds University students working in Balls's office as part of their course - have won permanent positions. Newton did several training runs with Balls before last year's London Marathon, finishing an hour and half ahead of him on the day. 

Julie McCandless, Diary Manager

McCandless makes Belardinelli look like a newcomer. She has worked for Balls since he entered the Treasury as chief adviser to Gordon Brown in 1997, first as a civil servant and then as his diary manager after he became schools secretary in 2007. "Without her the whole operation would fall apart," a source told me. 

Balls recently revealed an act of thrift worthy of his zero-based spending review. "On the day I was leaving in 2004 [to stand as an MP], she said to me: 'There's something I've got to tell you. It's difficult, but I'm going to have to tell you this. You know for the last seven years you've had meetings in that office? And you know every day you've had a little tray on it which has got glasses and two bottles of Malvern water? Every morning I'd go down the corridor, fill the bottles up from the tap, screw the caps on and put them on the table. I had to tell you before you went.'" 

"Tap water in a Malvern bottle! If the question is 'is saving money and efficiency core to the being of my office?', the answer is 'it starts with the bottled water'." ]


In the Commons, Balls is supported by shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie, shadow economic secretary Cathy Jamieson, shadow exchequer secretary Shabana Mahmood,  shadow Treasury minister Catherine McKinnell and his PPS Barbara Keely. 

Another key figure is John Wrathmell, a former Treasury civil servant who advises both Balls and Miliband on economic policy. It was he who crunched the new deficit numbers in last year's Autumn Statement (not published until Balls was on his feet) which were passed into the chamber and allowed the shadow chancellor to reveal that borrowing for the next two years had been revised up by £12.5bn and by £219bn across the parliament compared to Osborne's 2010 programme. 

During our conversation, Balls spoke of the importance of supporting and caring about "the personal and career development of the people you’re working with", something that "neither Tony Blair or Gordon Brown were any good at". Several of those shadow ministers who have worked for him have gone on to bigger jobs. Rachel Reeves was promoted to shadow work and pensions secretary after serving as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and Owen Smith was a junior member of his team before becoming shadow Welsh secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood