Their arguments for Ed will appeal to many in the party: he understands why we lost and can win back our disillusioned supporters; he will defend Labour’s record and he can lead us back to power. Unfortunately, they founder on the last premise – outside of his supporters, does anybody seriously believe that the British people will install Ed Balls in Number 10?
To his great credit, Balls is a dogged defender of Labour’s record and will revel in making life as unpleasant as possible for Michael Gove. He fought and won a tough campaign against a well funded Tory candidate in Morley and Outwood, where anger about immigration and housing seems to have made a lasting impression on his thinking.
But Ed Balls’ status as the least popular high-profile politician in the UK cannot and should not be worn as a ‘badge of honour’ by him or his supporters. He is the man the Tories are praying for, because despite his undoubted talents as a Labour attack dog, he has not displayed the communication skills or mass appeal that will threaten this unlikely coalition government.
There are also many in the Labour Party who baulk at the prospect of Balls as leader. Why? Because Balls faces allegations that aren’t just levelled by the more swivel-eyed elements of the right-wing blogosphere.
People feel uneasy about his alleged briefings against Blairites. He is dogged by associations with Damian McBride, one half of the ‘forces of hell’ that former Chancellor Alastair Darling said he faced in resisting Balls’ appointment to the Treasury.
While many of these criticisms should be viewed in the context of the self indulgence and self destruction of the Blair-Brown wars, the fact remains that Balls is perceived as more directly implicated in those bitter battles than either Ed or David Miliband. This may not be fair on Balls, but the party needs unity now more than ever – and most of the members I’ve spoken to say he is not best placed to facilitate that.
The job of the next Labour leader is twofold: to reinvigorate the party from the grassroots to shadow cabinet and to lead us back to power. Achieving one without the other will undermine the quest for both, and although I have no doubt that Balls can play an important role in fighting the Tories and firing up Labour members I just can’t see him on the steps of Downing Street.
The Labour Party may yet decide that Balls is the right man for the job and if he does win I hope he proves the doubters wrong. But, as Tom Harris puts it, we need to elect a leader the Tories will fear and the electorate will embrace. I can’t help but feel that on these measures Balls has the most to prove.
@TomBage is on Twitter