Miliband moves to close down Balls speculation

The Labour leader has enough tricky policy questions coming his way. He doesn't want to be quizzed about personnel too.

Ed Miliband, on the Andrew Marr programme today, when asked about speculation that his brother David might be brought back to Labour’s front line to serve as shadow chancellor, said “there is no vacancy” – which, of course, there isn’t. That is a stock formula for equivocation disguised as certainty. It sounds like a definitive backing of the incumbent without closing down any longer term options. There is no vacancy now. That doesn’t mean there won’t ever be one. But Miliband also said that Ed Balls would "absolutely" be Shadow Chancellor going into the election campaign – a level of support that has hitherto been lacking.

The will-he-won’t-he sack Balls debate is a Westminster parlour game that falls in and out of fashion every few months. There has been a particularly intense bout of speculation recently (about which I blogged more extensively here). Miliband’s dilemma is that he wants to keep options open in case it becomes apparent that Labour’s lack of an effective economic message – or, rather, lack of a popular message-giver – is in danger of costing the election, but if he allows speculation to rumble on it overshadows the rest of his political project. Soap opera and pop psychology easily squeeze policy development and nuanced positioning out of the news. That is especially true when policy development is slow and positioning is cautious.

Miliband will have been particularly keen to kill off the Balls-related speculation as he is about to undertake a risky political manoeuvre that is not universally supported in the shadow cabinet and the party. He confirmed today that he has no intention of matching David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership – a gambit the Prime Minister is universally expected to make in a speech on 22nd January. As I reported in my column last week, Miliband intends to take what he and his allies see as the statesmanlike moral high ground, attacking Cameron for gambling with Britain’s vital alliances and destabilising the economy in the process purely to salvage his position in a frustrated and rebellious Tory party.

But there are those in the Labour party who worry that Miliband will not be able to sustain that position through an election campaign. He will constantly be asked why the Tories feel confident asking the people for their view on Europe while Labour appears to be running scared. Even those in the shadow cabinet who support Miliband’s current position recognise that the going will be tough. (Much depends on whether the Liberal Democrats acquiesce to the referendum pledge or back the Miliband line – Nick Clegg has the power to leave one of the Labour or Tory leaders looking painfully isolated on an issue of  national significance, a rare bit of leverage the Lib Dem leader will no doubt be keen to prolong and exploit.)

Either way, Miliband does not want to spend the next few weeks, when he will have to answer plenty of difficult questions about his holding-pattern policies on everything from welfare to the economy to Europe, also answering questions about whether his shadow chancellor is a temporary feature or a permanent fixture.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Source: Getty

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

Photo: Getty
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Millennials are caught between limited opportunities and declining sperm counts

The lifestyles led by those picturing a future family could make it much harder to have one.

Amid all of the balanced and scientific responses to the news that male sperm counts have decreased by 60 per cent in the last 40 years, one outlet could be relied upon to give a level-headed analysis.

“Humans could become EXTINCT as sperm counts plummet 60 per cent in 40 years – and modern living is to blame,” shouted the Sun’s bold typeface and capitalisation. While extinction is a long way off – at least from this particular threat – there are serious concerns about birth rates in the year to come, with 15 per cent of the report’s 7,500-strong sample size seeing their fertility impaired.

This is not a position men are used to being in. For once, it is our ability to procreate that is being attacked. Scientists behind the study hope that calling into question men’s reproductive privilege will serve as a “wake-up call” for health authorities and fellow scientists to investigate the causes, and for men to take their lifestyles more seriously.

And yet, at this point, many men would be hard-pressed to care. In blaming “modern living”, the Sun predictably jumps the gun – the study was only designed to confirm or disprove a decrease. Research into causation will now follow, but potential factors hypothesised by the study include “endocrine disrupting chemicals, pesticides, heat and lifestyle factors, including diet, stress, smoking and body mass index”. A poor diet, stress, smoking and a high BMI? It all sounds scarily familiar.

That 21st century life creates stressful conditions in which our health is adversely affected is not exactly breaking news. Mental health diagnoses have increased – with many NHS trusts seeing a rise of 30 per cent in referrals, according to recent figures from BBC Radio 5 Live – and obesity is still a huge concern.

It's no surprise that reproductive health will be compromised, too. But there is a cruel irony in that the very same conditions which erode our reproductive health are precisely those which mean we might not care.

For the majority of millennials, the atmosphere preferred for raising a family – owning a house, financial security, and long-term job prospects – has never seemed so distant. This is despite working longer hours, for more years. That cliché notion of “settling down” is far beyond the horizon, something unimaginable for many trying to claw their way on to the housing ladder, or into a steady and secure career.

By the time that millennial men reach the point in their lives where they have battled stress, a poor diet and caffeine dependency in order to become financially – or romantically – stable enough to want to build a family, sperm counts might be irreparably damaged. There are, after all, fears that the rate of decline is not only stable, but rising.

The findings of the study do indicate that sperm levels are still within the “normal” range, so we’re not at Children of Men levels yet. But if the threat of apocalypse doesn’t spur men into action, the thought of declining health definitely should.

Perhaps it is the complacency derived from better living conditions, higher birth rates and longer life expectancy that leaves us so cold when it comes to these findings – but continuing to take risks with our health will have longer-term side-effects.

It shouldn’t take a study to tell us that 21st century living is bad for our health. Scientists behind the research have a point: we must “wake up” and make more of an effort to keep ourselves in good health.

We must eat fewer processed meats, smoke fewer cigarettes, take more time away from our desks and, to quote “Fitter Happier”, Radiohead’s ode to modern misery, get “regular exercise at the gym, three days a week”. We might not be able to change millennial living, but we can certainly create our own space within it.

Who knows – our lives, those of our as-yet-unconceived children and, if the Sun is to be believed, the entire human race, might depend upon it.