Prior to and during this year’s historic General Election my opinion of the then Schools Secretary Ed Balls was pretty low. In countless TV appearances his arrogant, aggressive demeanour failed to endear him to me, the general public or the voters in his constituency, which he nearly lost. One appearance on a Daily Politics education debate stands out in my mind. Balls had a strong argument backed with evidence, but his bullying behaviour of the unlikeable Tory Michael Gove alienated capable Lib Dem David Laws and I suspect the viewers at home. His intense, wide eyed robotic stare gave the impression of an obsessive madman, with whom it was pointless to try and reason. I always felt afraid for the children accosted to play with him for the cameras and prayed they would escape the education minister’s clutches, unscarred by those unblinking, shining orbs. Behind the insane eyes I suspected that Gordon Brown had long ago replaced Balls’ human brain with a Tory termination calculator, more suited to Labour’s attack dog.
The Conservatives had rightly singled him out as their Michael Portillo of 1997; an unpopular Labour big gun to be toppled to highlight the scale of the reversal, the sheer triumph of Cameron’s new blues. As it happened Balls clung to his seat and not enough red dominoes fell in the wake of the blue tide to give Cameron a majority. The fall of Balls did not materialise as the symbolic story of a Conservative return and was replaced by the drama of coalition negotiations. And with the resignation of his long term mentor Gordon Brown, Balls felt free to step out from his shadow (after a deal with his able, intelligent wife) and run for the party leadership.
Since this decision Balls has quietly transformed himself into the country’s most able Opposition politician. It’s now pretty much the generally accepted consensus that he has run the best campaign of all the Labour leadership contenders, one that focuses on the fatal flaws of the coalition and proposes serious counter policies, as opposed to sifting through the wreckage of New Labour and whining on about the party’s identity. When Brown took over from Blair the expectations were that Balls, Brown’s protégé, would eventually clash with Blair’s heir David Miliband. Due to the fact that Brown had just acquired the top job and Balls was expected to be made Chancellor, and the storm of the financial crisis was yet to break disastrously over Brown’s popularity, Balls was once favourite to become the next leader. If he retains any of the arrogant self confidence that was evident during the election campaign, he will no doubt be finding it hard to take that even the most gushing articles about him do not give him a hope in hell of success. His carefully targeted, policy driven push for the leadership has been undermined by the Miliband family feud and an image of a bullying suck-up that he can’t quite shake off.
Frankly it’s a damn shame Balls didn’t conduct himself with a little less brash brutality and a little more civility in his formative political years. If it were not for the lingering impression of a ruthless career politician, who shamelessly and tribally attached himself to one of New Labour’s rising stars, it would be far more difficult for Balls to be pinned down as a leftist candidate, with no credible chance of success. Of course it might be said that Balls would not have got where he is today by behaving differently, and that a degree of forcefulness is necessary for success in politics but his track record has nevertheless made it difficult for the party or the country to imagine him as leader. It also must be asked whether or not Balls’ transformation is genuine, as he cannot surely have shed all his unattractive qualities overnight, but the facts of his policy decisions seem to mark him out as Labour’s best hope for an alternative vision to the coalition right now.
Rightly Balls places himself in the progressive camp by backing AV and a graduate tax. He disagrees with the coalition’s package for AV, because of its various measures to redraw constituency boundaries but says he would back it in a modified form. He has called for higher taxes on the wealthy and set out a sensible argument for reducing the deficit through fair tax rises like a NI rise, that only hits those in employment, rather than the coalition’s planned VAT increase. He has been the only shadow minister to effectively challenge the new government in his area, successfully landing blows against new Schools Secretary Michael Gove, not just for his building programme cuts but on the wisdom of the free schools project. Crucially as well as setting out his own fresh, progressive policies, Balls has shown the leadership qualities and level-headedness to stick to positions Labour adopted whilst in government he still believes to be right, despite media hype swinging the other way. On the economy Balls insists that new stimulus packages are still needed to ensure jobs, housing and growth and that the pressing need for drastic deficit reduction is an ideological myth created by the Tories. Whilst the truth probably lies between the extremes of the coalition’s cuts and Balls delay and extra spending, it is refreshing to have a Labour leadership candidate point out the lunacy of the culture of fear surrounding the deficit. Balls also has the weight of past policy judgements he called right behind him, such as his opposition to the euro and creation of an independent Bank of England, but his reluctance to draw attention to his aggressive past has meant he cannot point these out in the leadership contest as enthusiastically as he would like. There is an undoubted logic and sense to Balls’ arguments, as economic growth has always been the best way to reduce the deficit through higher tax receipts.
Whilst Balls looks unlikely to become the next leader of the Labour party there are already rumours of a deal between him and David Miliband. Such a deal would probably see Balls finally have the long coveted Treasury in his sights. Before this leadership election I would have been sceptical about Balls as Chancellor and much preferred the steady hand of Alistair Darling in control of the nation’s finances. However Balls has refreshed his image sufficiently, or at least cleverly concealed his flaws, to present himself as a competent and radical member of a new look, progressive Labour front bench that could offer the country a genuine choice and avoid the gloom of prolonged Opposition.