Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 26 July 2010

Why would either Miliband want Balls on their coattails?

There have been all sorts of rumours flying around in the last few days that Ed Balls was about to pull out of the Labour leadership contest and throw his weight behind one of the two front runners (one of the Miliband brothers). He has denied this and insisted that he is fighting on.

He has the support of fewer unions and CLPs than his two main rivals and it certainly looks like he cannot now win. There have even been suggestions that when it comes to the vote in September that he could end up being eliminated first. This would be an utter humiliation for Balls. So you can understand why the stories about him planning to drop out and swing behind one of the front runners had a ring of plausibility. It would be real damage limitation for Balls and would likely secure him a senior shadow cabinet role if the one he chose was to win. Perhaps even his long coveted chancellorship portfolio (albeit in opposition).

But what would be in it for whichever Miliband he swung behind? OK, so it would give them a few more first preferences although of course not all those who would have voted for Balls will slavishly vote for whoever he decides to grease up to. And because this election is AV, and given that Balls is likely to be eliminated then many of these votes will ultimately transfer that way anyway.

I do concede than in an extremely tightly fought race between the top two, Balls' support could, in extremis make the difference. However look at the price the winner would be paying. They would have Balls in a very senior position and essentially unsackable. Gordon Brown's protege, the man above all others he was politically closest to would probably end up with the treasury role with the leader beholden to them and also perhaps with a simmering resentment from Balls that he did not win himself. Does any of this sound familiar?

Some of the more sensible comments from the candidates during the campaign so far have been to acknowledge that the psychodramas of the past and the nonsense that went with the TB-GBs (that is now being confirmed by very senior members of the former administration such as Peter Mandelson) was very damaging for the party and that they need to move on from that way of operating. The last thing the winning candidate needs to do is set the party up for another decade of dysfunctional internecine fighting at the very top. Far better for whoever does win to do so on their own with their own mandate for leading the party away from its discredited past.

So it would be very wise for both Milibands to resist any overtures from Balls. It would take real courage to reject what could seem on the surface like a way of boosting their chances but they should resist nonetheless.

In fact were they to do this, I would expect Balls to deny that he had ever entertained the notion and to claim that he was going to fight on.

Perhaps the Milibands are made of sterner stuff than it may initially appear....


Will Straw said...

Interesting piece.

The Left Foot Forward leadership model put Ed Balls in fifth place (although I'm fairly certain that this underplayed his support in the membership section of the party). Nonetheless, the speculation this weekend will not have helped his cause.

If he does pull out, I think his endorsement will count for more than you credit it. Since the race is neck-and-neck, any big endorsement will count for something and giving that Balls' supporters are generally loyalists, an indication of what they should do with their 2nd preferences between the two Milibands would count for something.

As to Balls' position after the election, there is a widely held view in the Labour party that he has been the most effective opposition minister since May landing punches on both VAT and Building Schools for the Future. I suspect that means that he'll get a big job whatever happens.

Will it be Shadow Chancellor? Labour will have a woman in at least one of the big jobs and my money would be on Yvette Cooper as Shadow Chancellor. Either Miliband will surely park their brother in the Shadow Foreign Secretary job leaving Ed Balls to take over as an extremely effective shadow Home Secretary or Chief Whip.

He may not be seen by most as leadership material but he's definitely someone you want on your team.

Mark Thompson said...

Will - It's not so much that I do not expect Balls to be in the Shadow Cabinet in some senior position after the leadership election. It's not even that I don't expect him to be shadow chancellor (although my personal preference would be for him not to be). Both of these things may well happen regardless of what he does.

However the crucial thing as far as I am concerned is the manner in which this occurs. If he is able to manipulate events so it appears that he is magnanimously pulling out for the good of the party and ensuring whoever he chooses wins then he could end up in a similar position to Brown after 1994, i.e. almost unsackable. Instead of stitching up deals like this behind closed doors, it is far better for them to battle it out in public and then the new leader has a clear mandate to do what they feel necessary to move the party on. It will also be clear precisely how much support the contenders have from the party at large. If this means Balls gets eliminated first then so be it. If he doesn't want to risk that he should drop out but none of the other contenders should give him cover for doing that.

I would hope that they would wish to learn from the lessons of the past and not repeat them.

Emma Burnell said...

I can't see why Balls would drop out at this stage.

You - of all people - should understand that the dynamics of an AV election make it far less appealing to any candidate to drop out, as they have an equal amount of influence simply by directing their second preferences - whether openly or by strongly hinting at who they would favour.

Balls will almost certainly have a role in a shadow cabinet. He’s a superb attacker of coalition policies, and could do this role well from many of the roles in a Shadow Cabinet, and in my opinion it’s usually better if this is done by people other than the leader except at PMQs.

I’m far from certain he would get treasury though – in fact Yvette may well be a better and more popular choice for that role.

But the point about having a contest – with winners and losers – is that it makes no one unsackable. That dynamic simply will not exist between anyone who is running in this contest. Other MPs who have not run (Jon Cruddas for example) may have positioned themselves cleverly as unsackable, but no one who ran and lost has done so. Is Chris Huhne unsackable? David Davis clearly isn’t.