There’s a curious “open letter” to Ed Balls in the New Statesman this week from Anthony Seldon, urging Balls to resign for the good of, well, pretty much everyone in Seldon’s opinion. It’s tempting to write this off as “Blairite attacks Brownite”, and certainly Balls won’t be losing any sleep over this. His position as Shadow Chancellor – and in the event of a Labour victory – Chancellor – seems assured. In the words of Ed Miliband, there is “no vacancy”. But it’s a shame that Seldon, such an assiduous chronicler of the New Labour period, seems to have taken his eye off the party over the past three years. The kind of factional, warring party he describes bears little relation to the Labour Party in 2013 – so it seems only fair to bring him up to speed, and explain why Ed Balls isn’t going anywhere – and nor should he be.
First lets dispel the notion that if Balls were to take his flatlining hand gesture, pack up his macroeconomic forecasts and disappear into the sunset, then the Tories would suddenly stop talking about Gordon Brown and his legacy. That’s fanciful to say the least. The Tories have decided that Gordon Brown will be as central to the 2015 campaign as he was to the 2010 campaign. That’s their prerogative. But if Labour were to remove Balls because of his relationship with Brown, then I presume we’ll also be seeing similar pieces asking for Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper, Tom Watson and Michael Dugher (to name but a few) to move along too? Is Seldon advocating a wholesale change of leadership at the top of the party? No – he’s focussed his animosity entirely at Balls, in a piece that is character assassination just about dressed up in the faux-niceties of “advice”.
But aside from the fact that Balls is not the only “Brownite” sitting at Labour’s top table in 2013, there’s also the fact that the very terms “Blairite” and “Brownite” (which seemed terribly relevant when Seldon was writing readable biographies of Labour leaders) now seem redundant. As I wrote a few weeks ago when a number of newspapers attempted to brand Chuka Umunna a “Blairite”:
“It is nearly six years since Blair stood down as Labour leader, and no-one would suggest that we are still in the same political paradigm post-financial crash. Blairism is part of the Labour Party’s history now (and necessarily as a doctrine that won three general elections, is a part of the party’s DNA) – but it’s no longer an adequate way of describing what people are (if it ever was – often it was thrown around in the party as an insult).”
The same could and should quite easily be used to describe “Brownite” (and there’s a debate to be had what – besides personal ambition – the difference between a Blairite and a Brownite really was anyway).
But besides the fact that this piece is an attack based on an outdated view of the Labour Party, there’s another elephant stalking the corridors – Ed Balls is actually doing a good job as Shadow Chancellor. On the major economic call of this Parliament (namely, noting that Tory austerity would create a demand crisis, crippling growth and creating a flatlining economy) Ed Balls was not only right, but also one of the first politicians to come out and make the case against austerity. Other economists were right on this too – but none were putting their careers and their credibility on the line in the same way Balls did when he made his Bloomberg speech back in August 2010. Go back and read it now – it’s prescient. It’s written by someone who understands the global economy – which should be the first thing Labour is looking for in terms of potential Chancellors.
Of course it has become fashionable over the past year to say – yes, Ed Balls got it right on the economy, but we should replace him because he polls badly. What a terrifying view of the world. Being right on the economy is pretty much the only marker by which a Shadow Chancellor should be judged (note – Osborne was praising Ireland whilst in opposition). Balls will achieve popularity with the public only if he becomes Chancellor and growth to the economy – not before. And while we’re on the subject, can we stop pretending that there are an array of alternative to Balls as Shadow Chancellor? David Miliband – turned it down before. Alistair Darling – working on the referendum in Scotland (and has shown no desire to be in the Shadow Cabinet). Chuka Umunna? Rachel Reeves? – both too new to Parliament. Alan Johnson – well, that was tried before and wasn’t a raging success. Ed Balls doesn’t need “Economics for Dummies” – in fact, he could write it. Attack him for his work under Brown if you must, but no-one can deny that Labour has a shadow chancellor with a huge wealth of experience.
That’s not to say that I agree with everything Balls has done as Shadow Chancellor – far from it. I think Balls needs to keep on apologising for Labour’s failure to regulate the banks adequately until the public are sick of hearing it. I think he needs to be clearer on how he’d return Britain to growth and jobs, rather than just repeating the terms as a mantra. I think he was wrong to propose a public sector pay freeze that will further squeeze many of those in the middle and at the bottom of society. I think he needs to articulate how he’d make Ed Miliband’s vision of a radically different type of economy a reality. But on the fundamental call of the day – Ed Balls got it right. He is not the beast stalking the corridors of parliament that some might like to believe. He’s someone who is making a good fist of an incredibly difficult job. Interventions like Seldon’s are completely unhelpful.
But I sense, unfortunately, that being helpful was not entirely the point.