Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.
Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.
Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.
Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.
So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.
The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.
A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.
Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.
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You can rely on Disney’s well known Pirate franchise for one of the universal laws of cinema. As sure as night follows day and the tide washes in and out, each successive film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series will be worse than the last. Like a basket of juicy fruit left to rot on a sunny beach, the individual ingredients that made the first film so fun gradually lose their enjoyment. You can also bet your house that in increasingly more desperate attempts to recapture the magic of the Black Pearl’s virgin voyage, the plots will acquire more baffling layers with each new instalment. And this film’s ending proves once again that there will always be room for yet another adventure.
However this film does break some new ground. For example for the first time ever, the title is as confusing and vague as the many competing strands of the story. The tides are certainly no more or less important than before and there is nothing strange about the film; within Captain Jack’s world at least mermaids and myths are pretty standard fare.
Things get off to a familiar but promising start. Our beloved scallywag Jack Sparrow is in London to rescue sidekick Mr Gibbs from a trial, which would be swiftly followed by a hanging if the bloodthirsty crowd had their way. After some costumed shenanigans and typically camp stalking about, Jack and Gibbs find themselves at the King’s palace. The crown wish to find the fountain of youth before the crafty Catholics in Spain and they’ve heard Sparrow knows the way.
Jack gets an audience with the King in a sumptuous room and Depp gets ample opportunity to showcase the physical comedy and wordplay audiences have come to love. The King is played by Richard Griffiths in a delightful cameo. Needless to say Jack manages an escape. Later in the film Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa takes the time to mentally plan an escape route, presuming that’s what Depp’s madcap Sparrow does, only for Jack to reply that he sometimes “improvises”. The running and jumping through an impressive CGI London in the film’s opening segment, is ad hoc Jack Sparrow action at its best.
Sadly the film simply cannot maintain the entertainment levels as chase follows chase and sword fight follows sword fight. Most of the action is surprisingly inventive, especially since we’ve had three films already but at times even Jack’s luck over judgment leaps of faith enter ridiculous territory. The stunts become monotonous by the end because of the film’s relentless opening barrage, tarnishing the drama of the finale. There are no explosive cannon battles for those who love their ships and nautical duels. Instead of boarding we get an awful lot of trekking through the jungle.
Having said this, two standout scenes are exciting and engaging. I’ve already mentioned Captain Jack prancing his way around London but the first mermaid attack scene is also terrific. Only the Pirates franchise could deliver such a scene. It’s got frights and bites, fangs and bangs. The mermaids are less interesting by the end, but here they are introduced in a lengthy scene as seductive and dangerous. The attack comes as a real shock and well managed change in pace after they are lured in to enchant some pirates left as bait.
The mermaid battle is an epic, long scene and the film is so long that it loses much of its epic feel. Sub plots like a half formed romance between a mermaid and clergy man could have been slimmed considerably or dropped altogether .The runtime is literally bladder bursting, as a friend of mine dashed from the room as soon as the credits rolled. I was content to sit and watch the names of the cast fly at me in 3D however, because of Hans Zimmer’s magnificent music, which remains the best thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean. There are some nice variations and new additions to the main theme in this instalment but I can’t help feeling it’s time he focused his talents on new projects, rather than continually recycling one stunning track.
Hang on though; surely this is still worth seeing just for another outing from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow? Isn’t he the single most important pillar upon which the blockbusters are based? I always assumed, like many critics, that the romantic pairing of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the previous films was holding back Depp’s brilliance. But having seen On Stranger Tides, in which Depp must mostly steer proceedings alone, his performance is somehow less effective without them.
He is at his best in this film when dancing around other characters, making light of them. Penelope Cruz is suitably sassy and sexy as a pirate, albeit with an unrealistically attractive cleavage for a hardened sailor, and she and Depp have some fun exchanges, but putting Sparrow at the heart of a love story doesn’t work. Even the filmmakers realise this by backing out of it somewhat at the end. Captain Jack Sparrow is not the emotional type. And what made him so attractive to audiences, was the way he mocked the clichéd relationship between Bloom and Knightley. Making him part of the conventional storyline robs his performance of some of its power.
Depp is still fantastic fun at points though, rising above an overcomplicated script with a bizarre fascination for throwing in random and rubbish rhymes. This film may just go through the motions and it may be far too long, but it’s undeniably grand and fairly pleasing despite the odd yawn.
Rather than fork out for its occasional 3D gimmicks of a sword jutting out of the screen though, I would recommend ditching the high seas for inner city London and Joe Cornish’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, Attack the Block. I saw this just hours before Pirates 4 and without adding anything new to the chorus of praise around it, I will just say go and see it. It is funnier and more thrilling than Rob Marshall’s blockbuster and doesn’t deserve to sink.
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The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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It surely can’t be the same season and yet it is. Chelsea began this campaign steamrolling the opposition and notching up impossible scores. Drogba and Anelka and co were unstoppable. But this weekend Chelsea crashed out of the FA Cup, the one trophy their fans must have been counting on their team to comfortably retain. The coming week is make or break for the blues as they take on Copenhagen in the Champions League. After letting slip the Premiership to a way below par Manchester United side and an Arsenal team still in development, Chelsea’s only hope for silverware this term is in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti started this season as if he could do no wrong after reclaiming the title for the London side after a 3 year stay in Manchester, but it would seem he has to win the trophy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has always coveted and never won to keep his job.
Indeed it feels as if Abramovich’s tenure as Chelsea owner has reached a sort of tipping point. The unspoken fear around Stamford Bridge has always been what if the big Russian tires of his English plaything and leaves the club. It was the one consoling thought for many football fans as they watched Chelsea steadily ascend to the heights of world football; that the situation was unstable and one day Chelsea would crash and burn. It’s been said again since unfathomable amounts of oil money were ploughed into Manchester City. But so far Roman’s defied the expectations and hopes of the doubters, and continually funded his club. He’s proved the role model and catalyst for countless other investors to take the leap into English football. And thanks to Roman’s success and commitment, fans have even started welcoming benefactors in lots of cases.
Since the departure of the Special One however, Abramovich’s record with managers has been poor, with Ancelotti the only real success, besides Hiddink who was a temporary measure. And the chopping and changing of managers has disguised the relentless decline of the club’s squad. Once unbeatable and prized assets like Drogba, Lampard and Terry are ageing and no longer capable of consistent greatness. Once again Roman dipped into his vast wealth to try and resurrect his empire during the transfer window. Fans might have been reassured by this continued investment and the arrival of Torres and Luiz. But the Spaniard from Liverpool is yet to ignite and is not a long term solution. David Luiz displayed commanding defensive ability and sublime passing on his full debut against Fulham, alongside experienced Terry at centre back. It will take a whole clutch of young signings like Luiz to rejuvenate a Chelsea squad that has been neglected and has become predictable.
Ancelotti is coming under considerable fire of late for his tactical decisions. There’s no doubting that he is playing far too narrow through the midfield and into the hands of opponents that no longer see Chelsea’s defence as invincible. He’s certainly trying too hard to accommodate Torres without thinking first of the need for results and team chemistry. But in many ways Ancelotti is limited by his squad, a group of players he had little hand in selecting. There are an abundance of central midfield players in the Chelsea team, all of them quality players, and Ancelotti is trying to play to his strengths.
The danger is that Abramovich will simply sack another top class coach and there will once again be a period of upheaval. There’s an unquestionable need for change and fresh legs at Chelsea, but this will be best managed through continuity as well. It’s a real shame that the pressures of modern football and the heavy egos of club owner’s mean that managers no longer get time to shape a side to their vision. If Roman Abramovich is truly serious about winning the Champions League, and establishing Chelsea as a long term force at the top of football, he’ll keep faith in a manager who’s already proven himself and back him with the resources he needs. Top coaches deliver with time as Alex Ferguson proves. Take a reactionary axe to his management team as well as his squad and Roman might see his football empire crumble into mediocrity.
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Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.
But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.
The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.
And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.
What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.
For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.
Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.
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In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.
Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.
Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.
What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.
As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?
Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.
By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.
Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.
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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.
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The Labour leadership contest has a long way left to run but two candidates in particular showed the enthusiasm and dynamism required to lead the Opposition this week, in the wake of the coalition’s “austerity” budget.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have responded to the Emergency Budget delivered by George Osborne with just the right mix of indignation, outrage and vision for Labour voters and indeed the public in general. Balls claimed that he had urged Gordon Brown to rule out a VAT rise in the election campaign, pointed to David Cameron’s own comments that it was a regressive tax striking the poor hardest and insisted that if he was calling the shots he would slash the deficit with more taxes on the wealthy. The younger Miliband also, with more reluctance, said he would not have sanctioned a VAT rise and launched an ambitious, progressive call for a graduate tax to replace tuition fees. He was united with Balls in condemning the coalition cuts as ideological, reaching far beyond the measures recommended by financial bodies and Labour’s own pledge to halve the deficit in four years. Both men were also silent on how Labour would have achieved such a reduction but the benefits of opposition allow for constant criticism without a great deal of scrutiny, and one landmark policy announcement each from both men was surely enough for one week.
By contrast the long term frontrunner to succeed Gordon Brown, David Miliband, has struggled with the transition from minister to shadow cabinet, from government to party. His response to a Budget hailed as the worst in generations has been far less visible than his younger sibling’s in the press. In an article in the Guardian David said the cuts would lead to a lost generation of young people, only to see his brother Ed’s policy announcement of a graduate tax snatch this platform from him. In TV appearances since announcing his candidacy the former Foreign Secretary has been hampered by his close connections to both the Brown and Blair administrations, spending his time defending New Labour’s record rather than announcing his own plans for the future. This is odd given that his brother was responsible for penning New Labour manifestos and was himself a cabinet minister under Brown, but nevertheless something David has been unable to shake off. In the Commons he has slipped up when debating with Foreign Secretary William Hague, referring to his Conservative opponent as the Shadow minister still. All in all, especially given his past reluctance to challenge for the leadership, David Miliband appears uncomfortable running for leader and only willing to do so as a vehicle to returning to power. His proposed initiatives so far as a leadership candidate are limited to fluffy talk about community action and lack the potency of the two Ed’s efforts, who have embraced the opportunities of opposition.
And yet the elder Miliband’s weaknesses are also a source of strength. David is the safe bet for Labour party members, the continuity candidate who will not abandon the centrist appeal of New Labour but will also provide a suitably fresh face for the electorate. There are concerns about his lack of people skills, the common touch, the political “X-Factor” but these are balanced by an impressive intellect and competent government experience. His rivals for the Labour leadership may be making short term waves, but these are media attacks primarily aimed at the Liberal Democrats that many within the Labour party will know Conservative advisers are happy about. Ed Miliband’s policy move on tuition fees for example, whilst positive and progressive in a sense is also an opportunistic swipe at the Lib Dems whilst they are down, all because they “betrayed” progressive politics with the coalition. I have warned previously on this blog that Labour leadership candidates will be tempted to score cheap points and target the Lib Dem vote and that a more sensible approach, one that promotes fairness in British politics as well as the long term interests of the Labour party, would be to avoid a realignment of the political system that leaves Labour isolated.
Sadly this is the trend of the campaign so far and David Cameron will be gleefully eyeing a second term without Lib Dem restraint if a Labour party emerges that continues to drive Nick Clegg and others into Conservative arms. Ed Miliband is not wrong to seek a replacement to tuition fees and in many ways it is good that he has done so as the Lib Dems withdraw their support for such a policy. However he has made the Lib Dems the enemy unnecessarily and I can only hope that his brother starts proposing popular, progressive policy free of emotional attacks on the Lib Dems . David must up his game to set out his own vision with passion, not just for his party but for potential voters. If he does not do so he may just watch his brother preside over a realignment that sees his party significantly weakened and content with enthusiastic opposition, isolated on the Left, a long way from the ministerial cars he grew so used to.
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Tagged 2010, Balls, Britain, Budget, Climate, coaltion, Conseravtive, David Miliband, Democrat, Ed, Energy, Foreign, Labour, leader, leadership, Liam Trim, Liberal, Miliband, Politics, race, rise, Schools, Secretary, VAT