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Unlike Brown, Balls knows he can’t fulfil his ambitions by plotting

For now, Balls's ambitions are limited to becoming chancellor.

The longest journey begins, as every family knows, not with a single step but with a wail from the back seat of “Are we nearly there yet?” Heading back to Westminster from their summer holidays, David Cameron, Ed Mili­band and Nick Clegg must feel like harried parents driving cars full of fidgety MPs with pestiferous questions. When will the economy grow? How do we win a majority? Why aren’t we doing better? “Can’t you just be patient?” the leaders cry.

The next election will be in May 2015. Cam­eron has no incentive to hasten that reckoning. Even if he wanted to dissolve parliament prematurely, the law setting fixed terms of five years makes the task unfeasible. Nearly there? We’re only just approaching the halfway mark.

There is ample time to decide manifestos and campaign strategies but all three leaders have found the limit of how much discipline can be instilled by asking for patience. The problem is that none of them has offered a clear enough account of his ideal destination. Cursors blink on empty screens where visions of a newly con­fident, prosperous Britain are to be drafted.

Monstrous offspring

The gap yawns wider on the government’s side. George Osborne took charge of an economy that was growing; now it is shrinking. He tries to blame structural flaws bequeathed by Labour and turbulence from the eurozone, which is still an admission of sorts that the three Budgets and Spending Review he has authored were inadequate responses. The kindest gloss that can be put on such a record is that another chancellor might have failed too, failed differently.

The hope in Downing Street is that public expectations of a national renaissance can be managed downwards so that any recovery – just a glimmer of growth – will be considered an achievement and the idea of changing prime minister will feel like a dangerous gamble. As one MP close to No 10 puts it: “You don’t change the general in the middle of a war.” (The vital assumption is that, by 2015, the war against economic decline will look winnable and Mili­band will wear military fatigues awkwardly.)

It is with that message in mind that the Prime Minister warned at the start of the summer that austerity had no end in sight. “I don’t see a time when difficult spending choices are going to go away,” Cameron said in an interview in the Daily Telegraph. Conservative strategists believe they can still mobilise public suspicion that Labour only knows how to govern by indiscriminately spending money that isn’t there.
The main target of that attack is Ed Balls, caricatured by Tories as the monstrous offspring of Gordon Brown. It helps their case that some Labour MPs privately depict the shadow chancellor as a reactionary figure, suffocating new talent, squashing ideas that are not his own, operating a discreet power network – a party within the party – that tolerates Miliband’s leadership but does not defer to it.

Comparisons with the machinations that undermined Tony Blair’s leadership are inevitable. They are also unfair. Brown felt cheated out of an entitlement to be prime minister and, since Labour was already in power, knew the crown could be snatched by plotting alone. Balls has tested his leadership appeal in an election and lost. For now, his ambitions are limited to becoming chancellor and, confident though he might be of his intellectual primacy, he knows that to sabotage Miliband’s bid for No 10 would be to rob himself of the Treasury.

To the charge of domineering, Balls’s team responds that shadow ministers are disgruntled because of a ban on announcements that suggest future spending commitments. Complaints about the shadow chancellor’s iron grip are thus seen as proof of his credentials as a fiscal disciplinarian and, by extension, as a rebuttal of the Tory charge of spendaholism. “We’re not losing any sleep over that one,” says a Balls ally.

Even those shadow ministers who find Balls’s back-room swagger unpalatable agree that the accusation of “deficit denial” – flinching from the need to impose budgetary restraint – is baseless. The concern is more that both Eds refuse to engage with a wider debate over what government can reasonably aim to do on tighter budgets and how. What services might be delivered better by the private sector or by charities – or not at all?

It is too early to go into departmental specifics when the economic outlook is so uncertain, say the two Eds. A plausible sketch of spending priorities is overdue, say their shadow cabinet critics. The Labour leadership has not found the right language to say that it strives for more effective ways to deploy taxpayers’ money because doing so risks owning up to past profligacy.

Nasty break-up

Those questions are not covered by Labour’s Five-Point Plan for Jobs and Growth, a menu of short-term stimulus measures, dogged repetition of which is enforced by the Balls camp. It is meant to signal that Labour has a handy remedy for Osborne’s economic mismanagement. In the mouths of the shadow cabinet, it tastes like political chloroform.

Balls, meanwhile, is no evangelist for Mili­band’s signature economic theme – “responsible capitalism”. The shadow chancellor is not by nature a moral philosopher. He stares down lofty abstraction with a cold, utilitarian eye trained in the Treasury. He won’t put his political muscle behind the Big Idea until he knows what it involves in practice. Miliband is reconciled to that wariness, although his aides don’t deny that it niggles.

When asked how the two men are getting on, both camps give mutually corroborating stories. They meet at least once a week to talk things through, sometimes twice; they have worked together for 20 years; they have a solid professional partnership. All true, but the duration of a relationship is no guarantee against a nasty break-up.

Such insurance comes only from singularity of purpose, which is in place only to the extent that both men are committed to winning the next election and are increasingly confident it can be done. Miliband’s leadership is safe but that is not enough. The missing component is strategic agreement on how Labour completes the journey from opposition to power; who is in the driving seat and who holds the map. Are they nearly there yet? No. Not even halfway.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.