Labour Uncut interviewed Ed Balls on Tuesday evening. We couldn’t ask all the questions you submitted. There were far too many. We gave Ed the option of whether or not to answer questions – in this Labour leadership interview – from people who clearly weren’t Labour members or supporters. He chose to answer, and we’ve included several.
Ed’s is the first of our leadership candidate interviews. We were impressed by his focus and presence. It will be great if the rest are as good.
Q. (From Alex R) When the leadership candidates say that they were guilty of ‘not listening’ enough in the last government, how and why were you not listening? What steps would you take to listen sufficiently if you had another opportunity?
A. I think our problems about not listening started much earlier than the last Parliament. I think one of the great frustrations that we had in the election campaign, and in my case the year before, was that many of the things people were upset about, like public housing, the impact of unskilled immigration on terms and conditions, the obstacle of upfront tuition fees for young people going to university – these were issues we’d actually addressed. We’d put in place controls on immigration; John Healy was leading a big expansion on public housing; we’d got rid of upfront tuition fees. But the public weren’t hearing at that time what we were saying and it takes time for policy decisions to feed through to the reality of peoples lives.
I think the truth is that the time when we weren’t listening enough was probably during the second term in Government. My election campaign for the last 18 months has been all about repeated public meetings, listening to people and their issues – and lots of other MPs who were successful in their campaigns did the same thing in this last couple of years. If we’d been doing that five years earlier we’d have made different and better policy decisions at an earlier stage.
So your politics can’t be about telling communities what you’ve concluded; it’s got to be about asking them, listening to the voices of people who need us on their side and responding. That’s what I mean by listening.
Q. (From James) Does your ultra marginal seat risk your chance of being Labour leader?
A. That’s for Labour Party members and trade union members to decide. I sort of think that it’s the opposite – if you can win the seat in the face of all that money and pressure and with a smaller swing against you than neighbouring seats, then that shows you can fight and win; and the only way we are going to get a Labour majority back in the House of Commons is by having more fights and more victories like that.
I’m about not just fighting to increase my majority but building a majority of Labour MPs around the country and winning back seats where communities really need a Labour MP. And you only do that by the sorts of grassroots campaigning I’ve done for the last 18 months, which I think is the future of Labour politics nationally.
Q. (From Paul Staines) Do you deny putting your friend Damian McBride up to smearing me in February 2007 after I published an investigation into the Smith Institute and the rather large payment you received from a charity in between leaving your Treasury SpAd post and being elected as an MP?
A. I don’t know what smear you are talking about, but any suggestion that I’ve ever put anybody up to smear anyone is completely untrue. I know you have some debates with people about content on your site but this isn’t something I have ever looked into. If you are referring to the wider issues that Damian McBride and Derek Draper were involved in, I think it was despicable, indefensible – they lost their jobs through it and rightly so.
Q. (From David) Why do you think almost all Conservative voters are so keen to see you elected leader of the Labour Party?
A. I think if the Conservative Party was so keen to see me as leader of the Labour Party, I don’t think they would have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to stop me being elected as a new MP for Morley & Outwood. They threw money at the seat and visits from senior politicians over a number of weeks, including two from David Cameron, and they also, to be honest, colluded in some pretty unsavoury stuff – but they lost and I won and maybe that’s what upsets them.
Q. (From ‘Billy Blofeld’) Did you mislead parliament and the inquiry about the role of Ken Boston, the former CEO of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, concerning the topic of national curriculum tests as alleged in the Independent?
A. No. Unequivocally not. It was investigated very thoroughly by Lord Sutherland and no such accusation has ever been stood up by anybody however much it has lingered on in the minds of some Conservatives.
Q. (from Matt F) Have you ever bullied anyone? Is your private school education an asset or a liability?
A. No. I’m not a bully. That’s why all the people, men and women, who’ve worked closely with me as members of my Ministerial team are supporting me, because they know I’m a team player. I think bullies are cowards and weak. And people don’t normally accuse me of being weak.
Having seen the way children with special educational needs and disabilities talked about their experience of bullying, I feel very strongly that anti bullying work is one of the most important things I was involved in with schools policy. When I was at school back in the 1970s and early 1980s all of us saw bullying happening and neither the students nor the teachers ever talked about it; and I think we all look back with a bit of shame on that reality. I had an education that taught me to be confident and always be myself and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Q. (From Sam Bishop) What will you say to the innumerable white, working class people in Labour constituencies who have turned away from the party for being soft on immigration?
A. I would say that unskilled immigration went too far in the early part of the decade, and we rightly toughened up on that. Although at the same time I think pretty much everyone in my constituency, except BNP supporters, agree that the NHS relies upon people who come and work for periods from abroad, and that is true of other sectors of our economy as well and that is a good thing.
People’s concerns about immigration are often also concerns about the length of housing queues and that is something we need to address. And I’d say to those voters: I’m really sorry we couldn’t stop the Tories taking away your child trust fund; and I’m really sorry we couldn’t stop them cutting 40,000 jobs; and I’m really sorry that we can’t stop them – if they do what is expected – from cutting back on tax credits in the next few months; and that is why we are determined to get back in to power.
Q. Aren’t all the four leading candidates far more than usually identified with the entire history of the regime that lost? You were all in the Cabinet, but, with all of you, it goes much deeper and further back than that.
A. If you think back to past leadership elections, look at 1994 the leadership election: that was after a long and sustained period in opposition. That’s not where we are now.
If you go back to 1983, that was after quite a long period of opposition and difficulty. In the 50s Wilson had left the government with Nye Bevan in 1950 and that did give him a bit more distance compared to Gaitskell. I think the thing about this leadership election is that it is happening soon after we’ve lost, but after a loss that was nowhere near as bad as people expected and in which the party and actually the Cabinet stayed united through the election campaign.
And no one who has walked away or resigned is standing; and inevitably people have come out of the experience of the last few months and are thinking about the leadership. But I sort of think that the reason we may all be associated is because, compared to where one or two years ago we thought we might be, the election actually gives us not a bad base to build from.
The Liberals have walked away from progressive politics; the Tories didn’t get a majority; we fought a united campaign; the party is proud of some of the things we did in the last few years to get through the downturn.
Party members in my constituency have been out campaigning Saturday and Sunday for the last fortnight because they want to carry on and they want to make sure we win it back; and they don’t like the Liberals; and they can’t believe there is a Tory Government; but they are up for it. I think perhaps it’s a positive not a negative
Q. (from Nicola Forbes) Hi Ed. What would you do as Labour leader to reduce domestic violence?
A. I think that one of the things I learned from the work I did on child protection in the last three years is that child protection and vulnerable teenagers are often issues stemming from domestic violence that impact directly on the relationship between parents and children and the behaviour of children themselves. There are great people with expertise in domestic violence, but too often people who are dealing more widely with family intervention projects or child social workers haven’t had enough training and experience in spotting the symptoms which actually point to an exposure to domestic violence.
Therefore we need to make understanding the impact domestic violence has on families and children much more a part of mainstream adult and child social work. We have done some really good things in the last few years but too often it was seen as separate strands of work, whereas actually domestic violence is absolutely central to child protection. Things like alcohol abuse by teenagers can often be directly related to kids having seen their dads doing really, really bad things to their mum and they are then acting in a very difficult way as a consequence.
Q. (From Steve) Should union members be able to choose which party their political levy goes to?
A. I was really proud to be supported by Unite and Unison members who paid the levy. Support from Unite and Unison were very important parts of my campaign. We have a particular way of funding the levy, through check off, and I think that works.
Q. How could we make better use of the resource that political levy payers are, not just for monetary support but as a group of individuals?
A. Parties which neglect their base lose. And political parties which are successful and get back in to government usually start by going back and rebuilding from that base. And our base is our party members and supporters, trade union members and local government. We need to actively involve them in our campaigning from the start and encourage them to participate. We’ve done that in our anti BNP campaigning.
I had a number of local trade union members, both lay and officials, come and help us in the public meetings we did in Morley and Outwood, and that was an important part of their personal development as well as their political activity. We’ve got to make sure that we aren’t just sending a message down from the centre trying to tell them this is what you must do. We must involve them in our campaigning and I think we did that pretty successfully in my campaign.
Q. Don’t all leadership candidates in all leadership campaigns say we must reconnect with our base, and re-energise the grassroots?
A. That is normally because you have leadership campaigns after you’ve lost, and political parties which fail to get back in to power are normally the ones that went in to denial. They are the ones who had a leadership contest about choosing a person who could have won the last election or having an internal intellectual debate about ideas and what went wrong. When actually if you’re going to do it properly you’ve got to also say: let’s learn from what worked, let’s learn from the lessons of local councils where we won back support and the lessons of local campaigns which had a deep connection to our base.
In my constituency we had about 45 active members, but another 70-80 supporters who were doing work on our campaign. Look at Edgbaston: that was probably closer to double the number of active party members but probably three or four times as many supporters and they were working people, trade union members who wanted to make a difference. And if we have that kind of support in every constituency we’ll be in a really strong position, so that’s what we need to do. The issue isn’t about whether candidates say it but whether they do it.
Q. (From ‘A Dandy’) How do you win a land war with Russia?
A. By rolling more double-sixes than your opponents!
Q. What if the Conservatives and Lib Dems fight the election as the Coalition?
A. I went to Thirsk and Malton last Saturday campaigning for the by-election; and as far as I could see, regardless of any coalition nationally, the Liberal Democrat council candidate is ripping the whatever out of the Conservative candidate. So I don’t get the feeling that on the ground, constituency by constituency, whether that’s going to be in by-elections or in local elections, there is going to be any desire for the Tories and Liberals to reach some kind of local accommodation
So it would be quite a journey to get from that to a Coalition deal on the next General Election. I think they’d have to form a new party, to be honest, and if they did that it would be a right-of-centre Conservative-Liberal party which might see some extreme Tories leave and go to UKIP, and a lot of Lib Dem MPs, let alone supporters, would be peeling off and saying that’s not the kind of party I want to be part of. But I think we are a long way from that.
Q. John McDonnell has written to all the leadership contenders today saying after you’ve got your nominations please can I have some for the sake of diversity and plurality. Have you replied? What would your reply be?
A. Well, two of the candidates who have reached the 33 have got the luxury of thinking about doling out the rest of their support. But, someone like me, I’ve got a bit more work to do. Obviously in a comradely way I’d like to help John and Diane if I could but I’ve got a bit of work to do myself first.
Q. We try to avoid personality and focus on policy, but a leadership contest is inevitably going to be about personality. So what is it about Ed Balls the man that qualifies you to be the leader of a big important thing like the Labour party?
A. I think the right way for us to do the leadership campaign is to do it in a comradely and respectful way. I don’t think any of us wants to get involved in the underhand personality politics that the media sometimes invent; and as I’ve said, whoever wins the leadership contest I will back 100% so there is no doubt about that.
It’s going to be a hard fight against the Conservatives and the Liberals, so we need some one who can fight their corner and doesn’t get knocked down. We need someone with a track record of making decisions and sometimes having to make difficult decisions and who is not afraid to do that.
We need a leader who can unite the left and right in the party and build a consensus about some of the difficult decisions we need to take. We need someone who understands the complexity of the world we are now dealing with, particularly the 21st century global economy and how big global forces impact on individual lives and individual communities.
We also need someone who has shown they can talk the language but also persuade people we need to win back, who are the voters of Morley and Outwood to be honest.
The people who are supporting me say that they are supporting me because they think I can beat the Tories; they think that I can make the difficult decisions; that I’ll work hard to build consensus; that I can unite left and right; that I can persuade those voters and that I can win.
Q. (From ‘Nobby Clark’) Who would win in a fight; you or David Miliband?
A. I can’t imagine David and I ever fighting. We did play football against each other once. He was centre back and I was the centre forward. And we won and I scored. Enough said!