Ed Balls isn’t going anywhere – and nor should he

February 21, 2013 9:45 am

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.

  • Chilbaldi

    Agree there is no good reason for Balls to go right now. But seriously, I think your gushing praise of him is slightly OTT. He simply isn’t a popular figure amongst the electorate and turns a lot of people off, particular with his childish behaviour during PMQs.

    • John Ruddy

      I’d like to see your evidence for “He simply isn’t a popular figure amongst the electorate and turns a lot of people off”….

      • Chilbaldi

        Unfortunately John I haven’t commissioned a national poll for this. You will have to forgive my lack of personal riches, but I have merely reported back on what I have heard while campaigning and from my friends (both left and right wing).

        Do you have a nationwide poll confirming his universal popularity among the electorate? Do your latest findings indicate that Ed Balls would win a 200 seat majority and usher in a golden age of democratic socialism?

        • John Ruddy

          So what your’re saying is that you havnt got any evidence for your claim that he isnt a popular figure amongst the electorate.

          As it happens, there is available a nationwide poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft on the publics views on Ed Balls. I’ve quoted them elsewhere in this thread. They are indifference at best, and when they do recall hin in the last Government, it is as Education Secretary.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/spitefuel Spitefuel

    Reading the letter itself http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/02/good-himself-his-family-and-party-its-time-ed-balls-fall-his-sword

    Not only is is a character assassination that actually makes the target look better but the comments about Ed Balls wife…. a horrible stink of sexism there.

    Then on top of that… there’s the fact that apparently Ed Balls is one of the problems preventing a LibDem alliance with Labour. Voters were utterly betrayed by the LibDems; not appealing to them, that is a ringing endorsement. Any party willing to make an alliance with those frauds and liars is utterly unworthy of support.

    I am myself not a fan of Ed Balls (dislike many of his political choices and find his approach annoying); this criticism has actually improved my opinion of him.

  • http://twitter.com/citizen_colin Colin McCulloch

    Ed Balls is a fine shadow chancellor – until he opens his mouth. He comes across as rude, overbearing and childish and the public (and me) don’t like it. He needs to learn a bit of class.

  • JoeDM

    Well he was Crash Gordon’s right hand man. And he does not seem to have learned from his experience from being at the heart of the financial crash.

    • ColinAdkins

      Is that Cameron behind Lamont on black wednesday? Funny this does not call into question his credentials on the economy.

      • http://twitter.com/garypepworth Gary Pepworth

        That’s probably because Cameron isn’t the Chancellor.

  • David Parker

    Ed Balls may need to improve his public image as suggested in the first three comments but, above all, along with the rest of the shadow cabinet he needs to present his economic analysis as part of the political and ideological response to the Tory class war. A seminar and technocratic style is not going to turn people on however good the economic analysis – and it has been very good.

  • http://twitter.com/garypepworth Gary Pepworth

    The problem is that many in the Labour Party see the electorate as having got it wrong at the last election. The next election, like all elections, will be won on perceived economic competence. Despite all that is happening, people trust Osborne on the economy more than Balls -this is a huge problem. Unless this perception changes soon, in 2015 we will be bemoaning the electorate for ‘getting it wrong’ again.

    • Redshift1

      It’s far more neck and neck now. We’ve closed a very, very large gap on economic credibility and I think that is really down to Balls steering our economic analysis.

      • John Ruddy

        Its so neck and neck that for several months now its been a case of one month we are in front, one month they are.

        Thats not great, but its a hell of a lot better than we were in 2010.

    • postageincluded

      No, that’s quite wrong. There are very many people in the Labour party who think the electorate probably got it right at the election. And we also think that the party needs to change substantially before 2010 – or the electorate will get it right again. I don’t sense any feeling, here or elsewhere, that we should just take a “salmon fishing” approach – just cast the same old line and hope enough frustrated electors bite this time. That’d be the Tory party you’re thinking of.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/spitefuel Spitefuel

    Not being trusted by the LibDems is a bit like not being trusted by a conman… sorry I mean EXACTLY like… quite an endorsement for Ed Balls there.

  • Winston_from_the_Ministry

    As you say yourself Mark…

    “Balls will achieve popularity with the public only if he becomes Chancellor and growth to the economy – not before.”

    Not before.

    The letter seems spot on to me, Balls is a bad smell hanging around Milliband, he should seriously consifer f**king off for a while at least.

  • John Ruddy

    The Great British Public, according to Lord Ashcroft’s (no fan of Labour or Ed Balls) research:

    “In focus groups, most people knew very little or nothing about either
    Osborne or Balls – though if anything knew more about Balls, remembering him as
    Education Secretary. Though some thought of Balls as a “bolshie” character,
    there was no recollection of him as a henchman for Gordon Brown or a participant
    in damaging battles with Tony Blair. Several noted that he seemed a lot more
    competent than Ed Miliband.”

    • John Ruddy

      For emphasis:
      “if anything knew more about Balls, remembering him as Education Secretary.”

      “there was no recollection of him as a henchman for Gordon Brown or a participant
      in damaging battles with Tony Blair.”

  • Brumanuensis

    Seldon states:

    “You say you like David Miliband, but his followers are not doing well under Ed, are they?”

    I count the following supporters of David MIliband either in or attending the Shadow Cabinet:

    Douglas Alexander
    Liam Byrne
    Mary Creagh
    Angela Eagle
    Caroline Flint
    Ivan Lewis
    Jim Murphy
    Stephen Twigg
    Jon Cruddas
    Liz Kendall

    That comes out as 10 in total, with 8 attending the full cabinet.

    The following supporters of Ed Miliband:

    Hilary Benn
    Margaret Curran
    Maria Eagle
    Sadiq Khan
    Rachel Reeves
    Owen Smith
    Emily Thornberry
    Chuka Ummuna

    Hmm, that comes out as 8. Surely Seldon wasn’t exaggerating was he?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

      Though both Cruddas and Angela Eagle aren’t really Blairites.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

      Though both Cruddas and Angela Eagle aren’t really Blairites.

  • John Ruddy

    Everything you can argue against Ed Balls, in terms of connections with the last Government, connections to Gordon Brown, etc – you can level at Ed Miliband.

    If Balls goes, the tories arnt going to suddenly stop trying to make that link in the publics mind – its going to focus on Ed Miliband – and it might start to work.

    The result might not be a sudden Labour lead, but the Tories gaining back credibility – and winning in 2015.

  • AlanGiles

    I think you have to be a little careful here: Balls hasn’t suddenly become great – it is just that Osborne is so poor (a bit like the reason why Miliband seems a feasible PM, because Cameron is so amateurish). The best you can say is Labour look electable because the Coalition has been a crass disaster. It is not that the public really believe that Labour 2012 are that much “better”, or they believe all the old “1N” tat, or they believe Byrne has suddenly become warm and cuddly – the idol of the disadvantaged – it’s just next to the despicable Duncan-Smith, Byrne doesn’t seem (to some) as bad.
    In short people are paying more attention to Labour, not due to the three year policy review, or the pseudo-intellectualism of Crudas and Graf. Drowning men clutch at straws, and most people feel at the moment that the Coalition is drowning.
    As for Balls putting his job and reputation on the line by saying the severe austerity measures would not work, well – many people, politicians and non-politicians were saying the same thing at the same time. Even I said it, but I don’t suppose that will stop all those people who like voting me down (as T.S. Eliot put it “humankind cannot bear too much reality”)

  • postageincluded

    Seldon’s suggestion is so ridiculous politically that I’d assume it’s not even “Blairite attacks Brownite” but rather a mere fit of pique. Not worthy of the attention.

  • http://twitter.com/theNewsfox Newsfox

    Wow, so delusional you almost deserve an award. You don’t think this ‘great call’ by Balls had anything to do with trying to say something vaguely different to Tories? If you’ve read owt about the banks crash you’ll know high profile people were predicting it. Right wingers like Nassim Taleb and wonks within the IMF. Balls did not issue a word in caution and in fact did everything possible to facilitate it. Essentially, this ended Labour as a meaningful political bloc. Apart from that he’s amazing!

  • ColinAdkins

    I do not think Balls should go and if there is a majority Labour Government he has earned his chance to be Chancellor.
    In a hung Parliament he should be the sacrifical offering to the LDs in order to get the essentially social democratic Cable, knife Clegg into the bargain and the dash the hopes of the supporters of one of the most overrated politicians of the modern era – the John Moore of Labour – and prevent a new government falling into internecine warfare.

  • robertcp

    Balls should stay as Shadow Chancellor because he seems to know what he is talking about on the economy. Regarding Blairites and Brownites, they share the blame for New Labour in my view but people like Ed Miliband have learnt from the mistakes of that era. Blairite is still a relevant term for people who want to continue with a New Labour approach.

  • Pingback: The case against Ed Balls as shadow chancellor | Liberal Conspiracy()

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