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Careful — it would be a mistake to write off Ed Balls

The former schools secretary has a good chance of succeeding his ex-boss as Labour leader.

By Mehdi Hasan

So Ed Balls has finally declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the media’s preferred candidate. And some Labour MPs, too, accuse him of being a bully, a schemer and a behind-the-scenes briefer, lacking in charisma, divisive, too close to Gordon Brown and an unreconstructed tribalist. But as I wrote on the Guardian‘s Comment is Free site during the election campaign:

Perhaps Balls isn’t the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: “If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre right to the centre left of the Labour Party in double-quick time, after all.” But Kettle adds: “The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical — opportunist is the word one hears most often.”

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps — although he has long been a proponent of “dividing lines” between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children’s secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

The same journalists, commentators and MPs who wrote off Gordon Brown for three years, and wrongly assumed GB would be toppled by a coup, or resign in shame, or be humiliated on 6 May in a landslide defeat, now write off Balls, claiming he has no chance.

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There is no doubt that the former schools secretary faces an uphill struggle against the Miliband brothers — especially David, the clear front-runner and highest-profile candidate. But as the Guardian’s John Harris — no fan of Balls — points out today on Cif:

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Thus far, he [Balls] seems to be positioning himself as the poster boy for the less-than-erogenous Labour zone where dog-whistle toughness of the John Reid/Hazel Blears variety meets union-friendly Labourism.

The chatterati may scoff, but to the people who kept their party cards while all around were tearing theirs up, that will have a real appeal.

Meanwhile, the new labour-uncut website makes this observation:

Balls is also the one who has done the most work over the last five years. He’s the only one who’s been assiduously traipsing round the Friday night rubber chicken circuit of local Labour parties since 2005.

He has made the most effort to court the unions, and starts ahead in that section of the electoral college. And he has worked harder than David Miliband, though perhaps not than Ed, at convincing his fellow Labour MPs to like him.

Oh yes, let’s not forget the support of the unions — in particular, Unite.

But Balls’s first challenge will be to gather together the necessary 33 signatures from fellow MPs in order to stand next week. Some newspapers have claimed he is struggling to get above 15 MPs, but a source in the Balls camp claims “we’re pretty much there already. We’re just not putting them all into the public domain at once.”

Interestingly, among Balls’s declared supporters is the Blairite former defence minister Eric Joyce, who resigned from the Brown government over the handling of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as I’ve written before, Balls isn’t as divisive or tribal a figure as is often assumed in the Westminster village.

Either way, my message to the Miliband brothers and the media: you write him off at your peril.