Neither Blair-lite nor Clegg-lite, thanks, says Eric Joyce

If you read the respective pitches of the Labour leadership candidates, you’ll see the themes which each claim would characterise their putative reign.  So far, I’ve spotted:  ‘reform’, ‘love’, ‘public services and the less well-off’, and ‘I have a working-class background’.

But it seems to me that when Labour folk talk about the leadership race, these pitches count for little.  There are three quite distinct strands of discussion that do matter: each candidate’s personal style, his political record and what his selection would say about the Labour Party. I’ll take each strand in order.

With personal presentation, the backdrop is of course that, for good or ill, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are both early-forties white men with first class Oxbridge degrees who served as special advisers to senior politicians. Both present well through the media.  Notably, neither wears his undoubted intellectual credentials on his sleeve and neither seems remotely ‘geeky’.  Both come across as somewhat Blair-lite. As personalities, they each have broader appeal than many Labour people like to recognise.

To lead us in opposition against Cameron and Clegg, Labour will now realistically choose between up to four other early-forties white men with first class Oxbridge degrees who worked as special advisers to senior politicians.  It is an astonishingly narrow, yet nonetheless talented, field.  And, for some, it’s tempting to think we need a Blair-lite of our own.

Tony Blair, however, is gone and he isn’t coming back. And I’m afraid that in terms of personal presentation, Cameron and Clegg are more polished, less formulaic and less geeky than our alternatives.  They simply out-Blair our Blair-lites.

In my view, to win the next election Labour needs someone who offers contrast with, not similarity to, government party leaders.  I think we need a leader in opposition who’ll oppose the government aggressively when appropriate, stand up for the least well-off and against the worst public service cuts, and empathise with voters across the social spectrum struggling in a ConDem nation.

On political record, it is reasonable to expect the next leader to have some concrete achievements in government under their belt.  The building schools for the future programme is unquestionably such a legacy, and as well as former education secretary Ed Balls, former junior education minister David Miliband can take much credit.

But take a look at last week’s Queen’s speech debate on defence and foreign affairs and give some thought to which party looks the more conservative in its approach.

On Afghanistan, for example, the Tories are now studiedly ambivalent, with defence secretary Liam Fox sounding a note deeply sceptical of the present state of the mission. This week, David Cameron has hosted a Downing Street summit on exactly this issue.  Moreover, many senior Tories are openly questioning whether trident replacement is the right priority for scarce defence resources.

But no such qualms for Labour.  In fact, there is so little evidence of new thinking in Labour’s foreign and defence policy, so little deviation from our line while in government, that while senior Tory backbenchers are deeply concerned about the corruption of President Karzai’s drug-baron brother, Labour’s line is that: “the investigation and any prosecution of Ahmed Wali Karzai, far from being the first step, will be a step rather further down the road” (official report, column 192).

At present, the main opposition to the government, the more radical ideas on foreign policy and defence, are coming from Conservative and Liberal Democrat backbenchers.  This is a profound weakness for Labour. If ‘reform’ is needed anywhere it is in Labour’s foreign policy.

Worth saying too, I think, that if someone has voted for something as a cabinet minister, like the third runway at Heathrow, it’s hard to take them too seriously when they say that wasn’t their view all along.

Conversely, in addition to BSF Ed Balls can point to his years at the Treasury helping mastermind such progressive and popular policies as working and child tax credits, the child trust fund, pension credits and the winter fuel allowance.

Finally, political meaning.  During the Lib-Con/Lib-Lab negotiations, a number of people I rate very highly suggested to me that the obvious solution was to have Nick Clegg as prime minister in a Labour-dominated coalition. This was perhaps the most pure conclusion of an assumption personified in the negotiations by Andrew Adonis – that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are natural progressive partners.

None of these ‘Clegg for pm’ folk are now supporting Ed Balls. In the context of this leadership election, I could not diverge further from this group.  I wholeheartedly reject the idea that the Lib Dems are ‘our dog in the fight within the current government’.  I believe the Lib Dems will trend ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ as suits that party’s interests after each election.  And I think they will be punished by the electorate at the next election for their current conservative flavour.

As a party, we should be reaching out to Lib Dem sympathisers who want change on trident and Afghanistan and who are shocked to discover that they have indeed voted Clegg and got Cameron.

But we should be not risking Labour’s future as a single party of government by missing the key truth that only Labour has as its raison d’etre making society fairer. The political choice is between preserving a still-potent Labour movement with the support of people from across the social spectrum, and risking the pursuit of a chimera. Labour has no ‘natural ally’.

I want a Labour leader who is a contrast to Blair-lite; who will lead us to victory by opposing the ideology lurking behind the coming ConDem cuts; who has a solid track record of personal achievement and who wants to be a Labour prime minister in a Labour majority government.  For me, that’s Ed Balls.

Eric Joyce is Labour MP for Falkirk.

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11 Responses to “Neither Blair-lite nor Clegg-lite, thanks, says Eric Joyce”

  1. Alastair Shanahan says:

    Balls doesn’t have the charisma, I’m afraid. Your experience clearly tells you otherwise. And that’s all very well. But to an outsider – which includes voters like me – this is a very strong presumption he will have to overcome. The Guardian’s support for Clegg highlights the danger in paying too much heed to the views of pundits. I’m trusting my own instinct.

  2. Quietzapple says:

    By the time of the next General Election (2015) the doe like engagement of Chamelon and Ed Miliband will seem passe.

    Ed Balls has the best Chancellor in support, which will save on space in Downing St.

    Don’tyajusknow that Tony Benn’s imprimatur is the kiss of death, and a really good counter indication?

    Policies at this stage are pretty irrelevant imho, it was, and will be the Economy stupid.

    And Balls engages with the best of our past, try @LabAchievements on twitter for a chunk of that.

  3. Tom says:

    “Worth saying too, I think, that if someone has voted for something as a cabinet minister, like the third runway at Heathrow, it’s hard to take them too seriously when they say that wasn’t their view all along.”

    But it was widely known, and reported, at the time that neither Ed Miliband nor Hilary Benn agreed with the third runway. You may say that not resigning over it was cowardly or the wrong decision or whatever, but it seems very odd to imply some sort of change of heart for political expediency.

  4. Quietzapple says:

    The doctrine of collective responsibility doesn’t preclude later dissociation from collective decisions, especially when the then PM has moved on.

    People like Tony Benn sat in cabinet while decisions which they claim to have abhorred were made.

    Why do so many wish for unworkable guidelines for government, and a paradigm of relentless contradictions?

    Ed Balls recalls Harold Wilson a little, much the better for it too.

  5. Phil Martin says:

    It is early days yet in this contest and so far we are seeing only the outlines of the candidates’ thinking. Ed Balls has the most to do because of his association with Brown’s unsuccessful period as Leader. Whilst some of those policies are assets, several are not. The centralist, top down approach Ed favoured as a minister was at times effective but ultimately it enabled the Tories and Libs to open up a successful line of attack about schools snowed under with bureaucracy. He will be characterised as an old style statist, well intentioned but out of touch with what Labour needs today. To date his statements have not dispelled this image and have tended to suggest someone wedded to a core vote strategy with relatively few ideas on how to build the coalition Labour always needs to secure power. If Ed can draw on the useful bit of his legacy as an effective ‘do-er’ but show that he has new ideas of his own for both policies and the Labour Party he has a chance. If he cannot he will attract little more than the shrinking traditionalist vote.

  6. Adam says:

    Question should be who would the Tories and the Liberals want to lead Labour and the answer would be Ed Balls.

  7. Craig Ryan says:

    “Worth saying too, I think, that if someone has voted for something as a cabinet minister, like the third runway at Heathrow, it’s hard to take them too seriously when they say that wasn’t their view all along.”

    This is a silly point really, Eric.
    Are you really saying that every member of every cabinet agrees with every decision that cabinet takes? Sometimes, I assume, you just have to argue your point and accept that the decision goes against you. You can’t resign every time.

  8. eric joyce says:

    Craig, the harsh reality of life is that if in cabinet you agree a policy you can’t really step away from it when it becomes convenient in future. It isn’t grown up.

  9. AmberStar says:

    Hi Eric,

    Labour will win or lose on the economy. I’d like to see Ed Balls as (shadow) Chancellor, which is why I won’t vote for him as leader. I believe Ed B is the one high profile, ex-cabinet minister who could really kick Osborne all over the park (figuratively speaking of course).

    I’m guessing you will be unwilling to discuss the likelihood of him replacing Darling until after the leadership contest is over & done with. 😎

  10. Andrew Old says:

    Ed Balls was the worst education secretary since John Patten. He was a centraliser who forced bureaucracy on teachers through ill-considered initiatives, while leaving the real problems like the Behaviour Crisis and the dumbing down of qualifications untouched.

    Like many teachers, I find the thought that he could be a potential prime minister to be a nightmarish one.

    I can’t understand why anybody would even consider him as a potential leader.

  11. Matthew Cain says:

    I agree with you Eric. Which is why I find it so puzzling that you are supporting a candidate who served the government which went into Iraq only to now suggest that it was the wrong decision. Surely you agree that sending troops in to battle is the most serious decision that any politician can take and that someone without the moral backbone to stand up for what they believe in, isn’t worthy of politics?

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