Interview: Ed Balls

Ed Balls on life with Gordon Brown, not being a bully and why the coalition will survive
Ed Balls on life with Gordon Brown, not being a bully and why the coalition will survive

Ed Balls talks to about life with Gordon Brown, not being a bully and why the coalition will survive.

By Alex Stevenson

The past always comes back to haunt you, and no-one knows that better than Ed Balls. His close association with Gordon Brown throughout the latter's career makes the task of separating himself from Labour's old Blairite-Brownite divide the hardest. From the early days in opposition, plotting the Bank of England's independence, through his time as chief economic adviser to the Treasury, to his stint in the Cabinet with Brown in No 10, Balls has always been closely associated firmly on one side of the New Labour fence.

There are huge difficulties associated with this when it comes to winning leadership elections. The Balls brand of leadership is unequivocal, forthright, resolute. Yet this determined strength could actually serve to weaken his prospects. Activists cannot be blamed for asking: will the new New Labour party really be able to unite behind a man so unafraid of pinning his colours to the mast?

It comes down to a question of character. Does Balls see himself as uncompromising?

"Not at all," he replies, quietly, confidently, utterly unfazed.

"But I also know that at certain points I've been willing to stand up and be counted and that's quite important for leadership.

"The reason why I had a good relationship with Gordon Brown was that at key moments I told him when I thought he was potentially going to make a mistake and he trusted my advice.

"The reason I had a difficult relationship with Tony Blair was that at certain points I told him that I was concerned and he found that harder to deal with."

This is typical fare. Balls' confidence is infamous in Westminster. He infuriated the Conservatives while in opposition and frustrated many civil servants, leading one to suggest with snide bitterness that "Ed Balls is nearly as clever as he thinks he is". There can be no doubting the intellect of a man who assumes the masses are au fait with post-classical endogenous growth theory, the tongue-twister he crowbarred into a Brown speech. The problem lies in his breezy matter-of-fact demeanour which many take for arrogance.

Which post has more power and influence, I ask - his old job at the Treasury or his current goal, being leader of the opposition? "The work at the Treasury, by massive amounts," he says, unhesitatingly.

Balls' train of thought is fascinating. "We were making important decisions in budgets which affected millions of people by thousands of pounds a year. It's a big deal. And also, if it hadn't been for my influence... well who knows? But the decision on joining the single currency or not was a massive decision which will affect our country for many years. That's a big deal. That was not something which was determined by the leader of the opposition. To be quite honest the only place to be if you're a Labour politician is in government."

This straightforward hunger for power perhaps reflects the healthy self-respect Balls enjoys when he surveys his own period in government. I decide to test the case further with three forays into the recent past.

Number one takes Balls back to the coalition negotiations with Labour, when he and others refused to compromise on the bulk of Labour's manifesto. "I was never hostile in principle to an agreement," he insists. "But when David Laws across the table said 'this will only work if we can agree to a £6 billion cut in spending this year', and I said, 'but that is absolutely 100% contrary to your manifesto and our manifesto' - and he shrugged his shoulders and said 'I know, but that's what we'll have to agree' - I thought that was a step way too far." Balls accepts my reading that this shows him to be a robust sort of guy. No surprises there.

Number two: a few weeks earlier, when debates over the Labour general election campaign centred on the party's attitude towards VAT. Balls admits reports in the press that he was calling for the VAT rise to have been ruled out were true. "I think risking the recovery with immediate public spending cuts and a raise in VAT is economically misguided," he says, summing up his argument. Again, he accepts the example shows his strong personality influencing his politics.

Number three: back to 2009 and the spat with select committee chairman Barry Sheerman over the appointment of Maggie Atkinson as children's commissioner - in spite of Sheerman's recommendation to the contrary. Here, Balls finally disagrees with Sheerman's suggestion that Balls is "a bit of a bully".

"I thought to be honest I would go with the independent experts rather than that short four-page committee report," he says, with the air of someone reciting oft-repeated lines. "That's less about bullying and more about integrity."

But the implication has obviously driven home. "Bullies are cowards who use power against people who are weak," he adds later. "I don't think anyone's ever seen me as a coward or somebody who picks on people who are weak, but there are times when I've stood up to people who are strong and that's quite important for leadership."

There can be no denying Balls' personality should not be dismissed so quickly. Far from cramping his career through conceit, that ebullient confidence could just be his biggest strength.

What has attracted many left-wingers to the Balls cause is his determination not to compromise in the fight against the Conservatives. Balls' lengthy experience at the heart of government - and winning elections - has given him a striking perspective on the best ways to take the fight to the coalition.

The catalyst for this revelation comes from a question on how to deal with the unions. All the signs are suggesting they will meet the impending comprehensive spending review with demonstrations and disruption. Yet Balls doesn't support the protests as the sum total of the left's opposition. In 1983, he points out, huge popular misgivings about Margaret Thatcher's plans didn't translate to electoral success for Labour - quite the opposite. Balls has learned the lessons of that period.

"If Labour is simply the party of protest, if the trade unions simply fly the flag of fairness, we won't win," he says. "There will be demonstrations and concerns. But you've also got to win the argument. What we've actually got to do is be the people who say, there is an alternative, it doesn't have to be this way. There are better choices which add up and make more sense."

This striking logic (no pun intended) appears to be gaining traction. A speech to Bloomberg in August got Balls' confident approach to opposition - continuing to make the case against cuts, rather than conceding a consensus on their necessity - noticed by commentators all along the political spectrum.

Early on he alludes to the importance of "more clarity about policy" and "more willingness to set out where we differ politically between our opponents". Initially these platitudes sounded like soundbites. In the context of the struggle over spending cuts they acquire a new strength, fired by Balls' conviction.

In part he's motivated by an expectation that the coalition will survive, fuelled not by genuine cooperation but instead surviving on an ongoing Lib Dem "existentialist crisis".

"I think we can really expose David Cameron and George Osborne for what they're doing if we are credible in our alternative view," he says, his eyes gleaming.

Balls continues: "There's a trap for Labour in this. David Cameron would love the Liberal Democrats to fall apart. And then to say, 'you always knew these Liberal Democrats were always unreliable anyway, vote for the real thing'.

"If we haven't won the argument with David Cameron and George Osborne at that point, a Liberal Democrat collapse could not help at all. I'd like to keep my focus on the economic and social strategy of Cameron and Osborne... and Labour's alternative - I think that's really where the political effort should come."

The biggest test may come from persuading party members that Balls is prepared to listen to them. His contract with the party embraces a sweeping agenda for reform, bringing back the membership's influence in a genuine attempt to restore their say. Yet the tension between a headstrong leader and a figurehead prepared to listen is hard to escape from.

"Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were very scarred by both the indulgent introspection of the early 1980s and then by the fights against militants," Balls insists. "I think we're in a different era now. Nobody wants to go back to the conferences of the 1980s. But they do want to be heard."

So Balls squares this circle by insisting he's never happier than standing up in front of a big party meeting and hearing people's opinions. "If I'm good at persuasion, and people think that makes sense..." he adds, enticingly. Success in this campaign may depend on party members' predictions about how that sentence finishes.


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