In defence of Ed Balls

Dare I say a few words about policy, not personality?

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I'm no fan of Ed Balls. I don't know him. Never met him. Nor do I think I'd back him in any future Labour leadership contest.

I was, however, intrigued by this paragraph in Nick Watt's piece in the Guardian today ("Senior courtier to be reined in by No 10"):

Balls fought hard, until hours before the PBR, for guaranteed spending for his Department for Children, Schools and Families. He had also pressed for the new higher 50% rate of income to apply to people earning over £100,000 rather than the proposed £150,000. He failed to win that battle.

Hmm. Protect the education budget? I agree. Bring in the 50 per cent top rate on incomes over £100,000 (rather than £150,000)? I agree.

But former NS editor, John Kampfner, writing in the Daily Mail, says:

Brown has retreated into the cabal of thugs - Ed Balls, Nick Brown and Charlie Whelan (the spin doctor turned trade union fixer) - whom he feels happy with. It is they who advised him to opt for a 'core vote' strategy, playing up the class war and urging him to focus on messages such as Cameron's 'poshness' and Tory 'cuts'.

Miliband, with the other rebels, feels this tribalism will prove disastrous at the polls.

Hmm. Opt for a "core vote" strategy (as opposed to outdated, pointless, too-little-too-late Mandelsonian guff about "aspiration" and "Middle England")? I agree. Focus on Cameron's "poshness" and Tory "cuts"? I agree. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, negative campaigning, if done properly, can work.)

What's the alternative? To embrace Cameron as a "progressive" rival and defer to the right-wing clamour for"cuts, cuts, cuts", while chasing the fickle, self-serving voters of "Middle England" who long ago deserted the Labour party and are unlikely to come back because they're promised a "New Labour" agenda of "aspiration" and "public service reform" (whatever all that actually means)?

Oh, and "tribalism"? The media pushes this pernicious myth that higher taxes on higher earners is a form of tribalism, of class war, of "core votes", omitting to mention the fact that 98 per cent of the population earn less than £100,000. Whatever happened to the New Labour mantra of governing for "the many, not the few"?

So much has been said about "personalities" in this fraudulent debate over the future of the Labour leadership but, to borrow a line from Tony Benn, what about the "ishoos" at stake? The policies? The dividing lines? The choices on offer?

I can't help but think that Balls is being battered in the press because he is advocating policies, tactics and strategies that fall outside the cosy, centre-right consensus that has dominated British politics - and the press! - for so long. He may or may not be a nice man, he may or may not be self-obsessed and ambitious, but the Schools Secretary is right to try to highlight the few "dividing lines" left between the two main parties.

So don't believe the hype. Despite what Alistair Darling, David Miliband or Peter Mandelson might think, the next decade needn't be a Tory-style "age of austerity". Indeed, our own David Blanchflower has warned of the catastrophic consequences of the Conservatives' "no-growth" strategy.

As a former chancellor of the exchequer once remarked:

Have confidence in our principles... have confidence that Labour values are the values of the British people. This Labour party [is] best when we are boldest, best when we are united, best when we are Labour.

Whatever happened to him?


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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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