How Ed Balls must change (and how he already has)

January 21, 2011 9:43 am

Ed BallsBy Sunder Katwala / @nextleft

For the new partnership to last four years rather than four months, Miliband may need his new shadow chancellor to complete a personal reinvention as a frontline politician.

Ed Balls was – from 1997 to 2004 – among the most powerful advisers in post-war British government. As chief economic advisor, Balls had a decisive influence on several of the most enduring economic decisions of the Labour governments – including the independence of the Bank of England, and the decision to stay out of the euro, as well as the broad macreconomic framework which brought Labour a long run of economic success, and the great crash of 2008. Before the age of 40, Balls had made more impact on British economic policy and the treasury than many post-war chancellors.

That experience contains a mixture of blessings and burdens for the new shadow chancellor. What has been less often recognised is that Balls has already had to undergo a series of significant transitions since then.

On becoming an MP in 2005, Balls had to adapt to the different skills required by a frontbench politician, particularly in the media and public speaking, to those of forging policy and using political power behind the scenes.

As power passed from Blair to Brown, and Balls took up a cabinet post, he argued that the party could leave the “prism of Brown versus Blair” behind. It was a nice thought, but proved rather premature. And this factional history was surely one of the reasons why Ed Balls struggled to get a serious run in the 2010 leadership contest, even though he had (like many in Westminster) anticipated a David Miliband-Ed Balls leadership contest for several years.

Yet, perhaps in part because he was freed from the hope of victory, Balls managed to end the leadership contest stronger than he began it. That was partly because his challenge to the coalition resonated with Labour members. (Though, strikingly, a politician often attacked, and occasionally praised, for tribalism began to win praise from political opponents too, being made Parliamentarian of the Year by the Spectator for his destruction of Michael Gove over the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future).

It was also because Balls visibly relaxed and emerged as his own man with his own platform, rather than being defined purely as a second brain for Gordon Brown. This was widely remarked by many of those who followed the Labour leadership contest closely, and widely missed by the majority who did not.

But this will be put to the test over the next few days, with the Conservatives and their press allies making a determined effort to define both Balls and Miliband purely in terms of being a Gordon Brown continuity project.

Ed Balls’ challenge as shadow chancellor will be to ensure that it is this government’s economic record which comes primarily under scrutiny, and not only that of its predecessor.

A longer version of this post can be read at Next Left.

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