It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.
At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.
Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.
Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.
I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.
Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.
There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.
However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.
Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.
Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.
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Two Eds are better than one? Well perhaps not as Labour’s new leader opted not to make his namesake Ed Balls shadow chancellor, despite the weight of expertise, a strong leadership campaign and many votes in the shadow cabinet elections behind him. His wife Yvette Cooper then, who topped the poll of Labour MPs, would surely get the chance to carve Labour a new, distinctive position on the deficit in response to the Con-Dem’s cuts? No. 60 year old Alan Johnson, the earliest backer of Ed’s elder brother, was chosen by young Ed as his right hand man. Despite David’s choice to bow out from frontline politics, his shadows hangs heavy over his brother’s first team selection.
Of all the shadow cabinet roles assigned it was obviously that of shadow chancellor that carried the most importance and also Johnson’s appointment to that role which was the biggest shock. Ed Miliband has been either slammed for his caution or praised for his unifying skills and his courage to make the right choices regardless of popularity. I happen to think that making Johnson shadow chancellor is a missed opportunity for Labour’s new generation but there are some well selected roles in Ed’s team. Andy Burnham is a good match for the education brief, given his reasonably strong leadership campaign, working class background and accessible, relevant character traits such as his love of football. His ordinary accent will contrast well with Michael Gove’s nasal snobbery in the Commons. Likewise Jim Murphy seems a good choice to shadow the MOD and Liam Fox, with his dour Scots accent he shall be able to pour scorn on government defence cuts whilst emphasising the needs of the ordinary soldier and citizen. There is also no reason why Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander and John Denham ought not to succeed in their new roles in International Development, Work and Pensions and Business respectively. Alexander and Denham in particular have their work cut out, with capable coalition opponents in Ian Duncan Smith and Vince Cable, but both are able ministers themselves.
However in my view Miliband has made a mistake in his handling of where exactly to place the popular and talented husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. Both are wasted at the Home and Foreign office. Those who support the leader’s decision say that it was unavoidable to maintain party unity and to avoid the mistakes of the Blair-Brown years. An economic policy handed to Balls, they say, would have conceded this ground to him permanently as Blair did for Brown, dividing the party again and sowing the seeds of future turmoil. My response to the argument of unity is that by appointing Balls Shadow Home Secretary Miliband has not necessarily pacified him. Balls will be gutted as it is to have missed out on his shot at the Treasury yet again; he made no secret of his desire for the job. To be so bluntly snubbed and given what many regard as the jinxed ministerial brief will not endear him to the younger Miliband. Besides there was no reason for Balls and Miliband to be enemies as Blair and Brown were, especially if Miliband had trusted Balls and rewarded with a job he had long coveted. If Miliband was uncomfortable handing his most important role to the volatile Balls though, he should have given it to his wife Cooper. Cooper won the shadow cabinet elections, and therefore had democratic legitimacy as well as the additional merits of youth (only 40 years old and part of the new generation), expertise (she was previously Work and Pensions secretary, a closely related role), intelligence (Harvard educated, a journalist at the Independent) and the fact that she is female. Appointing her to his top job would have sent exactly the right sort of modern, fair message but instead Miliband played it safe. Whilst being Foreign Secretary is an important, prestigious position, shadowing the area is less glamorous and less crucial to the argument defining British politics at the moment; how best to respond to the deficit.
With Johnson’s appointment Miliband signalled that he is planning to stick largely to Alistair Darling’s failed election pledge to halve the deficit in four years. This is disappointing as frankly Labour need a new idea to be championed by their new generation. Ed Miliband needs his equivalent of David Cameron’s “Big Society” and he has an enormous opportunity if he can find his big idea, because voters refuse to buy into the Prime Minister’s. Appointing Johnson though is unlikely to lead to a distinctive, radical or inspiring position on the deficit with credible, imaginative solutions. Yes Johnson is a capable minister, having held high profile jobs as Home Secretary and Health Secretary amongst others, but he has always taken a back seat and kept a low profile. He has shown the capacity to be popular with ordinary voters; with his working class charm often talked about, but lacked the desire or courage to use it. In the past he has passed up opportunities for advancement and you wonder if he is genuinely enthused by the task set him by his new leader and the opportunities to make a real difference to fairness he has, or whether he is merely grimly descending to his task for the sake of previously mentioned, holy party unity.
Forging a successful, coherent and credible economic policy that is also electable is THE challenge facing Labour. The coalition is struggling over issues like universal benefit, tuition fees and the spending reviews. Tension is set to rise, with the NUS leading students to the streets on the 10th November to highlight the backtracking of Lib Dems. The shadow chancellor should be the spearhead of Labour’s new generation, with new ideas gradually forming a fresh vision, one more accessible than Cameron’s “Big Society” and fairer too. He should be prepared to examine ideas like the Robin Hood tax, mansion tax and graduate tax, whilst also backing the more sensible reforms of the coalition, such as a standard benefit payment and lifting the income tax threshold, as long as they are carried out properly. Labour needs to propose ideas for a new sustainable economy that can support essential and modern public services, whilst always striving for growth. It should look at green taxes, green jobs and green industries and offer a new deal with concrete investment. It should be prepared to ring fence areas of spending the Conservatives are set to cripple, whilst being ready to remain credible and a force in the argument by suggesting alternative means of revenue. Labour has to offer the opportunities a modern day, liberal British society craves in a way that can be paid for and delivered on; not the idealistic, vague promises of Cameron’s individualistic rhetoric, which merely serves as a cover for a smaller state, no matter how well intentioned.
Unfortunately I fear that Miliband’s selections for his shadow cabinet and his chancellor in particular, will lead to half baked, over cautious policies that lack the passion for real change. Indeed an incoherent policy on the deficit will lead to policy clashes throughout the party that might give Labour’s new generation an identity crisis. Balls as shadow chancellor would have relished the chance to set out a genuine alternative to the coalition and Miliband would have had to rein him in at times when he was wrong. But ultimately I feel the dynamism glimpsed in the Labour leadership campaign would have been better channelled towards George Osborne than given a bitter, limited home in opposition to Theresa May. Balls is likely to propose tough, populist positions on crime, driven by his resentment at missing out, policies that could undermine his new leader’s courtship of liberal Britain. Cooper too could have been a far more effective weapon against Osborne than Johnson and shall be wasted in her standoff with Hague, on issues like Afghanistan where there is no real disagreement. She also could have been a far better symbol of the new party Miliband is trying to create. Ultimately I can only assume Miliband feared she would be the puppet of her husband and his appointment of an ensemble of women to less important ministerial positions shows that he may not be as pro-women as he likes to make out. His appointment of an unknown to his previous brief as Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary also shows a disappointing lack of regard for an issue he led supporters to believe was vital to him, but now may well have proved to be a mere rung on his career ladder. A high profile appointment to this area in his shadow cabinet could have been a signal of intent. Despite my criticisms though it’s possible that the team Ed has chosen, with its mix of his and his brother’s supporters, will offer a unified and passionate opposition. It is wrong to judge before they have set to work, after all the road to the election is a marathon not a sprint, it just might have been possible to set out at a faster pace.
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