This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about my support for Ed Balls for Labour leader. I’ve already explained on my own blog and in a piece for the New Statesman, why I think he has the fighting spirit to take us through the next few painful years in opposition (painful for us, and for the country) as well as the leadership qualities to one day make a great Labour Prime Minister.
Backing Ed isn’t like backing the other candidates. None of the others attract the same level of vitriol (especially from those Tories who were so vile towards Gordon Brown) or the same degree of misrepresentation.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Ed’s company since the election, as Labour education whip and as part of his campaign team, and have got to know him a lot better than I did when my instinct first led me to nominate him for the leadership. I’ve watched as he’s taken Gove to task over the Building Schools for the Future debacle, forcing a parliamentary apology out of him, and as he exposed the flawed ideology behind the academies bill as it was rushed through parliament in record time.
Some say he’s too pugilistic, and it’s true he’s always up for the fight. Yes, he enjoys it – and who wouldn’t enjoy landing a few well-aimed blows on Michael Gove? – but it’s not opposition for opposition’s sake. Ed is driven by a genuine sense of outrage at the activities of this government, and a fear that they can and will wreak a huge amount of economic damage in a very short space of time. Ed has, more than anyone, championed the view that continued investment is needed to nurture economic recovery, not savage cuts and a rolling back of the state. We can’t cede this argument to the ConDems; it’s at the very core of what we are as a centre-left party, our belief in collective action and active government, and we have to reiterate the wrongness of their position over and over again. That’s what Ed’s been doing, more robustly and more effectively than anyone else on Labour’s frontbench.
I’ve said that Ed has attracted more flak than other candidates. I’ve been particularly disappointed with the kneejerk response by some Labour people to Ed’s courageous willingness to wade into the immigration debate.
I’m not sure it will help if I establish my own credentials on the issue first, but here goes… I grew up and first became politically active in Luton, an industrial, working-class town which was built upon decade after decade of immigration, from the Scots and Irish who came to work in the car industry in the 1950s (including my own grandfather, bringing my eight-year old father with him), to immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently those fleeing conflict in the Balkans, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.
As an MP I now represent a diverse, predominantly working-class constituency. The Somali community, for example, arrived in the last five, ten years; it’s now put by some as high as 20,000. My office is kept busy fighting deportations, backing appeals and pressing for better local provision and support. I can confidently say that I’ve got a good reputation amongst diaspora groups; I’m seen as someone who is on their side and fights their corner.
And yet I am also well aware that there are many in my constituency who take a very different view. It is undeniable – and I don’t care what post election analysis or polls show, I’m speaking from personal experience, from months of knocking on doors and talking to voters – that immigration was the number one issue in east Bristol during the election. It came up time and time again, almost without fail. Not as an isolated issue, but as part of the ‘fairness’ agenda. Many of our core voters, Mrs Duffy included, felt that we were no longer on their side. That they’d worked hard, done their best, but that others – whether it be asylum seekers, benefits claimants, or indeed, MPs and their expenses – were doing much better out of ‘the system’ than they were. (Economic immigration from the EU accession countries wasn’t that much of an issue to be honest, which may reflect local circumstances).
And Ed knows this too, from the many conversations he had during the election as he fought a tough contest in a marginal seat. Being willing to address the issue in public has nothing to do with ‘playing the race card’, and everything to do with actually wanting to ensure that we can find solutions which address the community tensions, deal with the impact on public services (particularly housing), and ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind. As I’ve said before ‘Ed gets it’, and we need a leader who not only ‘gets it’ but is brave enough to talk about it too.
And I think that’s the one quality which, above all, sets Ed apart from the rest. A steely resolve, a courage, a willingness to take the blows rained upon him because he knows that he’s doing it for all the right reasons. It would be easy to take a bit of a back seat when the going gets tough, to let others take the heat, to be a bit more cynical and calculating about what issues will play best with the party faithful, but that’s not Ed’s style. He’s a fighter, a true leader, and I think that’s what Labour needs now.