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.