Ed Balls was a useless shadow chancellor

by Kevin Meagher

‘You are only a man’ servants used to whisper in the ears of Roman generals to stop them believing their own hype on their triumphant return from battle.

It’s a pity no-one ever performed a similar service for Ed Balls.

The former shadow chancellor, who was unceremoniously ejected by the people of Morley and Outwood at the last election, is rematerializing into British politics, with a new book out about his life in politics and some unsolicited advice for the party.

The extracts show Balls for what he is: a clever and effective politician in many ways. Unfortunately for him, his curse is hubris.

His period as shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband was an unmitigated disaster for Labour.

Routinely 20 points behind Cameron and Osborne throughout the last parliament on questions of economic competence and trust, it was clear three years out from the election that the party was stone-cold dead on the economy.

His associations with the dog-days of Gordon Brown’s government meant Balls – so long his factotum at the Treasury – was an insane choice for the role.

He was a constant, corporeal reminder of Labour’s previous mistakes, which the party in government did so little to contextualise when it had the chance.

But he coveted the job when Alan Johnson, Miliband’s original shadow chancellor, quit. Pride got the better of him and he simply wasn’t slick enough to shake off previous form to win a second hearing.

At no point did he manage to alter the terms of political debate.

Labour spent too much and regulated too little. They didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining. They maxed out the credit card. They have no long-term economic plan. The blows rained down on Labour’s reputation and Ed Balls was not equal to the task of rebutting them.

Not helped by repeatedly failing on the big occasions. Invariably, Balls under-performed in every parliamentary set-pieces encounter with George Osborne.

It meant Labour went into the last election with a leader and shadow chancellor who were both utterly mistrusted and disbelieved on the economy – the central, defining issue of the campaign.

If Balls was as smart as he thinks he is, he would have recognised all this and volunteered to remove himself from the job and slot in elsewhere on the frontbench. Who knows, back in government, he may have ended up in Number 11 at some future reshuffle.

But as it was, with Balls in situ, the party ended up flattened by a steamroller. At any time, he could have stepped aside and let a fresher face have a go at selling Labour’s economic message.

But he didn’t. He was busy measuring the drapes in the Treasury. Personal ambition got the better of him every time.

Of course, the other option would have been for Miliband to simply sack him, in the assured way Theresa May did to George Osborne when it was clear he too was a liability.

In October 2014, Uncut reported that a move to replace Balls as shadow chancellor had foundered. Miliband was too weak to insist and Balls too resistant to go. But it was the obvious tactic for the benefit of all involved. Balls included.

His explanation now for losing the last election is that the party “didn’t deserve” to win.

We await the full book to see if there is more personal contrition, but I think it’s safe to say the tens of thousands of activists who flogged their guts out making four million contacts with voters don’t feel the same. They did what was asked of them.

The two Eds lost last year’s election for Labour. Centre-forwards who couldn’t score. Sales directors who never sold anything.

Clever backroom boys who never convinced as the main act. By losing an election Labour had a decent chance of winning, they facilitated Labour’s demise into irrelevance.

Let’s hope that as he tries to rehabilitate himself courtesy of his forthcoming appearance on Strictly Come Dancing that his performance is not affected by previously shooting off his own foot.

It could have all been so different if his advisers had simply whispered in his ear: ‘You are only a man.

‘And pretty bloody useless as shadow chancellor, so change jobs.’

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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21 Responses to “Ed Balls was a useless shadow chancellor”

  1. Warren Tarbiat says:

    Hard to disagree with this, Ed Balls should have been effective Shadow Chancellor yet was just ran around circles by George Osborne in setting the political debate around the last Labour Government how it was wasteful, pro-scrounger etc. Sure ratings narrowed in 2012 when the economy was faltering, Omnishambles Budget of that year.

    Though to be fair Ed Miliband should of had some blame of his strategy saying “Last Labour Government sucked, Vote Labour” (though personally don’t exactly have rose-tinted glasses about it though preferred it today’s state of politics) which did not help.

  2. Much as I can see that Balls didn’t help his own policies through his personality, I feel it’s a bit unfair to lay all the blame on that. The problem was with the policies. A year out from the election a decision was made to offer austerity-lite. No real alternative was put up to Osborne’s policies. With hindsight and looking at the present swing away from austerity and towards investment it’s easy to see that an alternative to the Tory policies could have been argued. Of course the problem for Balls is austerity was what believed in, and probably still does. Balls is not alone, the New Labour old guard will not admit that they were at fault. At least most of the membership seem to know something was wrong with what was being offered.

    (It should be noted that in 2008 Gordon Brown did see the light for a while, hence his fight with Darling.)

  3. Vern says:

    Crikey. If this is your opinion of Balls I shudder to think what your thoughts are on McDonnell…..

  4. Mark Livingston says:

    Balls was far too Tory-lite. Too ready to attack our hard-won social security system and join in with the real Tories’ vicious attacks on the young and on the working poor. No wonder Labour’s core vote in Scotland and Wales evaporated!

  5. madasafish says:

    I think Balls was on a hiding to nothing. As was any Shadow Chancellor.

    When Labour decided to oppose ALL cuts in benefits, they showed their economic profligacy was not cured.

    Now of course we have a Shadow Chancellor who makes Balls look a genius. Who believes that people on benefits should earn more than those who work and pays taxes (yes, that is what his policies mean) and wants to equal the polls winner “spend, spend, spend”.

    Strangely enough, voters – who largely work and pay taxes don’t tend to approve of spendthrift parties as even the dumbest recognise they will end up paying for the inevitable shambles.

    And as a lifetime on benefits corrodes teh will to work – or do anything productive – a Party which was really interested in the welfare of voters would ensure that a life on benefits is impossible for life.

    In summary, Ed Balls could not win when he had a Leader like Ed Miliband. At least Ed lead..or tried to.

    Things can only get worse – for Labour.

  6. Tony says:

    Yes, he could have made a good fiscally responsible argument for cancelling Trident replacement but refused to do so. He also opposed the re-nationalisation of the railways.

    Earlier, as advisor to Gordon Brown, he was just as bad:

    Andrew Rawnsley:

    “In the New Year, he (Brown) returned to the idea…The officials again cautioned that abolishing the 10p band would create many losers. (Spencer) Livermore maintained his opposition. Balls, a much more powerful figure at the court of Brown now flipped in support”

    “Brown had no desire and felt no necessity to pay attention to financial regulation.
    Ed Balls agreed with this approach.”

    “The End of the Party” pages 439 and 483.

    How Balls has the nerve to attack Jeremy Corbyn is beyond me.
    I think I’ll put in an order for Balls’ forthcoming book at my local branch of The Works!

  7. Martin says:

    Labour spent most of 2010-2015 attacking economic policies that were little different to what was officially the Labour position in 2010. This was because the Lib Dems restricted the Tories, but the construction of the ‘most right-wing ever’ narrative pushed labour into a corner that authorised the politics of Corbyn McDonnell and a handful of other MPs.

    Ed Balls thought it was good strategy; it was not; perhaps he genuinely thought that such tactics would break the coalition. Using up effort on attacking the Lib Dems only marginalised Labour and gave the Tories a free run. Trimming Labour’s position going into 2015, failed to convince most of the electorate, but did manage to alienate too much of the Labour membership.

    Moreover it handed the Tories the majority that they have and now, when the country is in desperate need of an effective opposition, there is virtually none.

  8. Tafia says:

    One wonders if Meagher is a Blair-bitch and this article is actually a tantrum about Balls’ recent comments in his memoires basically slagging Blair, (he said something along the lines that history would look more favourably on Major and Brown than Blair and Thatcher)

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    The problem with Balls was that his approach came over as neither one thing or the other….
    Austerity, but not too much. Cuts, but not so fast
    And we really expected people to vote for that?

    The problem is that there would have been no agreement on the alternative. Some would have said that the pro-austerity and cuts approach should have been firmly challenged from the start though that wouldn’t have been easy given that we started it while in government. Others would have wanted to take the same view as the Tories and back austerity.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    The problem with Balls was that his approach came over as neither one thing or the other….
    Austerity, but not too much. Cuts, but not so fast
    And we really expected people to vote for that?

    The further problem is that there would have been no agreement on the alternative. Some would have said that the pro-austerity and cuts approach should have been firmly challenged from the start though that wouldn’t have been easy given that we started it while in government. Others would have wanted to take the same view as the Tories and back austerity.

  11. Sean says:

    The difference between Brown and Balls was that Brown had begun to see that by accepting the Conservative narrative that the last labour government was profligate, taken apart by even some of the most mainstream economists, was to concede them the electoral ground for the recession. Why vote for Labour when they clearly admit, by conceding to austerity rational, that it was their spending which caused the global financial meltdown. The origin of the 2008 crisis was in the private sector and the aftermath has been public. It almost beggars belief to see that groups of the private sector, after receiving public money to correct their hubris, turn round and scold the government for holding too much debt (much of it a direct cost of private sector bailouts). Balls played a difficult hand very badly and I don’t think Miliband did him any favours.

  12. Sean says:


    Got to agree on McDonnell. Was genuinely excited at the dream team on the National Economic Advisory council. Stiglitz, Mazzucato and Piketty really have some fantastic ideas and them coming on board meant a lot to me, a pretty sceptical (though not necessarily anti corbyn) member. I really felt that there was an opportunity to intellectually revive the left in the UK and elsewhere. The fact that the majority of the council, as well as Richard Murphy (father of ‘corbynomics’), now don’t support McDonnell or Corbyn says a great deal to me about their leadership. Ridiculously frustrating to hear Corbyn praise McDonnell for his lead on the economy.

  13. josie Kelly says:

    Ed Ball’s shouldn’t take the blame entirely. Let us not forget Liam Byrne’s letter, which was used to attack Labour’s economic credibility before and during the 2015 election to devastating effect. Whether it was intended as a joke or not, Byrne provided the Tories the means to set the terms of the debate after 2010 that Labour couldn’t be trusted on the economy. Whilst Balls and his team failed to challenge the Tories claim that Labour caused the GFC.

  14. John P Reid says:

    Sean, I’d question that, as Ed miliband was asked during the election on the BBc did he think the last labour governwmnt should have started cutting quicker, to which he said no, and in all fairness to The shadow cabinet, from Yvette Cooper to Andy B and Liz K, all saying after the election was over,they had said behind the scenes to Ed, that labour should have admitted to have cut quicker.

  15. John P Reid says:

    Josie jelly, if Byrne had never left the letter,would the Tories been able to point out that labour was borrowing a hell of a lot to see us out of debt, as even without that letter,they convinced the public, you can’t borrow your way out of debt,

  16. Sean says:

    John P Reid,

    I’m not quite sure what you mean. If you are saying Miliband did a good job of dispelling the myth of the the Labour-caused crisis then I’d have to disagree. If you are arguing that most of the shadow cabinet also got it wrong strategically on the economics of the post crisis state then I’d agree. You do have to make efficient use of tax revenues and borrow strategically to begin to work out the debt but the Tories didn’t make that argument. They claimed that Labour’s fiscal profligacy led to the debt in the first place and used that to justify an ideological push to a smaller state. Labour should never have allowed that narrative to take hold.

  17. Mike Homfray says:

    And if the only answer was for us to adopt austerity – then whats the point of having a Labour government at all?

  18. @ Kevin,

    “Labour spent too much”

    Did they?

    Let’s look at it from the point of view that for years the UK has run a trade deficit. To run that deficit the UK has to borrow. Presumably you think the Government did more than its fair share of borrowing. So what were the options for the pre-GFC Labour govt?

    1) They could have encouraged more private borrowing by reducing interest rates.

    2) They could have forced the value of the pound downwards so that trade was closer into balance and there was less need for anyone to borrow.

    Which one do you think they should have chosen?

  19. Peter Martin says:


    “Labour spent too much”

    Did they?

    For years the UK has run a trade deficit. To support that deficit someone has to borrow.

    So the choices for any UK Govt are:

    1) Less government borrowing has to translate into more private borrowing. ie Ever Lower Interest rates to keep us all wanting to do that.

    2) Devalue the pound until trade balances.

    Which option are you advocating?

  20. John P Reid says:

    Mike homfrary, apart from thes no chance of a labour government for decades now anyway, and after getting out of a financial black hole, we can start spending ,there’s more to the labour parties vision of helping the poor, there’s equality and educating those who can’t get a education and social justice

    That’s the point of a labour government

  21. Mike Homfray says:

    Unless Labour helps the poor, it cannot create greater equality – and that means that education and social justice also go by the by

    There is no other way of creating a more equal society which doesn’t involve targeted public spending paid for by taxation. We need to be honest and say so

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