by Atul Hatwal
Yesterday, George Eaton landed one of the most revealing interviews with a front rank Labour politician of the past few years.
The topline might have been about Ed Balls’ acceptance that he could work with Nick Clegg, but the broader content of the interview was actually far more interesting. Here are three things we now know about Ed Balls,
1. The relationship with Ed Miliband is as dysfunctional as suspected
One of the most revealing passages of the interview is when George asks whether Ed Miliband has guaranteed Balls will be shadow chancellor in 2015. The response is priceless,
“I’ve never had that conversation with him.”
Think about that for a moment. Despite the constant stream of articles discussing the potential for Ed Miliband to replace Ed Balls, and the endless tea room chatter in the Commons, neither man has felt able to address the elephant in the room in their discussions.
In any normal workplace, the union or staff representatives would demand some clarity if an employee’s position had been subject to so much public speculation.
But it’s not normal, it’s Westminster.
With an election rapidly approaching, Ed Balls would not be human if he did not wonder if he was still going to be in post over the coming months. As both Eds’ know from their time advising Gordon Brown in opposition, the effort involved for a shadow chancellor to prepare for an election, is enormous. It requires hard work, commitment and the full faith of the leader.
As a result of yesterday’s interview, we know that Ed Balls does not feel confident enough to ask for this backing and Ed Miliband is unwilling to give it voluntarily.
Labour’s shadow chancellor is essentially on a zero-hours contract.
2. Ed Balls has shifted on spending cuts and is now a hawk
The Labour line has always been that the government’s approach to deficit reduction was beyond the pale. “Too far, too fast,” was the phrase in virtually every press release from 2010 through to 2012. For Ed Balls, even the spending reduction path set out before the last election by Alistair Darling was too aggressive. In 2010 he said,
“In government at the time in 2009 I always accepted collective responsibility, but at the time in 2009 I thought the pace of deficit reduction through spending cuts was not deliverable, I didn’t think it could have been done.”
But now, it’s all different.
“I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible [emphasis added] deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010. I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited – which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted – I think that was a mistake.”
Unlike 2010, Ed Balls now seems to accept that the Darling plan was the right plan. In yesterday’s interview, the cuts which in 2010 were “not deliverable,” had suddenly become “credible.”
For Ed Balls, the emphasis has shifted from warning of the dangers of reducing spending to actively embracing the need for cuts.
It looks like the impending round of budget negotiations between Balls and his shadow cabinet colleagues is going to be tougher than some had envisaged.
3. Ed Balls doesn’t buy Andy Burnham’s big idea about whole person care
Andy Burnham’s defining vision for health is something called “whole person care.” In practice it means pooling central government health budgets with local authority social care budgets to offer a joined-up approach to looking after our elderly. It makes eminent sense but carries with it a big uncosted price tag.
When asked whether Labour would protect health spending, Ed Balls’ response was,
“I always think in politics revealed preferences are a very powerful indicator of future actions and, at every stage, Labour has ring-fenced and supported ring-fences for the National Health Service. I would be staggered if we are anywhere other than wanting to ring-fence the NHS going forward in 2015-16 and in the future.”
No hint to prepare the way for a fundamental revision of how the exchequer funds health services. No mention there about the new finance structures required for whole person care or any suggestion of the pooled budgets that would be needed.
Instead, the clear emphasis was on the NHS. This is not a shadow chancellor thinking outside of the healthcare box. In Ed Balls’ world view, the NHS – not some new integrated system – remains the centrepiece of Labour’s health offer.
Overall, the interview gives heart to those who yearn for a more fiscally prudent approach from Labour which addresses public concern on the party’s spending habits. But this also means the budget negotiations with the shadow cabinet, as part of the zero based spending review, are going to be painful.
In this context, the less than fulsome support offered to the shadow chancellor by the leader is worrying.
Its inevitable that members of the shadow cabinet are going to kick back as cuts are imposed on their budgets by Ed Balls. How Ed Miliband reacts when the calls start coming into his office from aggrieved shadow secretaries and stories start appearing in the newspapers will be critical.
If the two Eds’ aren’t united, the whole process could easily unravel in a very public mess.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut