Tag Archives: Treasury

Two Eds really are better than one


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.

New Balls please…Does Ed’s reinvention answer Labour’s call for a genuine alternative?


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.

Public vs Private? A Lib Dem Dilemma


All hospitals look and feel essentially the same. They are the same mass of endless corridors, stretching on and on, filled with nurses and clipboards and trolleys but still somehow feeling like big, empty tubes brimming with nothing but still, sterile, clinical air that gnaws and chews at the nerves and wellbeing of patients before spitting them out from some unidentifiable artery drenched in anxiety. They have the same mockingly soft carpet, the same peeling paint from the same cold metal chairs, the same trundling squeaks from the laundry cart or doom laden whines of consultant’s doors. They are littered with the same old people riddled with ailments, the same proud photos of ill people remarkably overcoming their unlucky genetic hand, the same criss-crossing, numberless signage with countless departments. They are staffed by the same kindly but ordinary people, who for whatever reason work in the service of other people’s health and are without fail exposed, despite the reassuring professionalism or caring compassion behind the smiles, by the thick scent of disinfectant hanging in the air as the messengers of pain, discomfort and humiliation.

This hospital though was rather more particular than others. The walls had been whitewashed in an attempt to impose the familiar order but the age of the building meant that the corridors were endless but twisting and unpredictable, the windows suddenly large, the carpet non-existent, pipes peppering the wall like the workings of a rusty cruise liner. The floor abruptly sloped at times and the rooms were inconsistent in size. The reception area was a modern pod inserted into the post-war whole, plastered with the usual abundance of signage but beyond this all was quiet, free of clutter and business. My chest x-ray took all of thirty seconds and was carried out by a single nurse, the only member of staff in the entire corridor, who had rehearsed her lines perfectly from years of service. There was no whiff of doom in the air, merely the cold tinge of the metal plate and a slight chill from the corridor as I put my shirt back on. The results would filter through the NHS bureaucracy to my GP in a week, she said.

A relatively comfortable routine test then, that despite a handful of distinctive features at this hospital, ought to be as simple and painless across the country. In the run-up to the election David Cameron was desperate to make his party the party of the NHS, an institution he and others clearly now see as a fundamentally British ideal, not simply a Labour one. Since coming to power Cameron and his government have reaffirmed their commitment to “ring-fence” NHS spending and protect it from the comprehensive spending reviews due to steamroll through the budgets of other departments in the autumn. Presumably this is because Cameron, and it would seem the entire political class, rightly believe that healthcare should meet the same standards nationally and be available to all for free and that to provide such a service is a key indicator of a modern, civilized nation. Despite Cameron’s championing of the “Big Society” when it comes to health he has adopted a position he has often dubbed as “big government”.

Cameron’s emphasis on the “Big Society” and the masses of waste that inevitably stem from the contrary “big government” spending approach, mean that a dangerous debate is emerging that is set to compromise efficiency and fairness in the race to slash the budget deficit. Cameron has wrongly insisted that spending must be conducted in either a reckless way involving “big government” control or a devolved, fair, effective “Big Society” way. The reality is that government has an enormous role to play, often with taxes and spending injections but also that it must occasionally extend freedom to the private sector for jobs it would do better. The NHS is easily the biggest strain on government spending and Cameron has sought to impose his “Big Society” rhetoric on it in a way by encouraging local control and a purge of absurd bureaucracy. This purge would aim to increase efficiency and effectiveness by doing away with ludicrous regulations that prohibit nurses from giving injections but allow them to carry out blood tests for example, as well as cutting wasteful spending. Any attempt at streamlining efficiency is always welcome but ultimately as hollow as the Conservatives’ promises of “efficiency savings” during the election to deal with the deficit. The problem goes much deeper. If Cameron was serious and sensible about tackling “big government” spending he would address NHS spending as it accounts for such a large chunk of the state’s expenditure. He would prioritise treatment for those truly ill and scale back other projects such as IVF and cosmetic surgery currently available via the NHS. He would ease the tax burden on private hospitals and encourage those who could afford private treatment to use it, whilst increasing taxes on anything that adds to the NHS workload, for example alcohol, tobacco, particularly harmful fats and additives in food. To take these sensible steps that would lead to a higher quality NHS for those ill and injured through no fault of their own, genuinely deserving of treatment, Cameron’s government would have to make unpopular choices and introduce tax rises and it is far simpler to be hailed as moral crusaders for preserving the inalienable right of free health care above all other areas that are trivial in comparison.

By writing a blank cheque to the NHS Cameron makes the axe fall harder elsewhere in Whitehall departments. This is foolish given that certain things only the government can do and others government ought to do more with. For example the MOD is set to face massive cuts which could be even more devastating if the Chancellor wins his ministerial battle with Liam Fox, the defence secretary, to ensure the Trident replacement is paid for out of the MOD budget, not the Treasury’s. “Defence of the realm” Cameron insisted this week, “should always remain any government’s first priority”. And yet somewhere Britain’s capabilities shall suffer irreversibly, be it through the loss of a fleet of helicopters destined to safely ferry troops tasked with an ambitious withdrawal target around Afghan provinces or through the loss of jets, or troops or aircraft carriers. A Strategic Defence Review might lead to a much needed rethink in the direction of defence strategy but it will also herald the scaling back of Britain’s global influence, it is simply a question of how much prestige we shall concede.

In my opinion defence is not the only area that can only effectively be administered by government being hit hard by the proposed cuts. The energy department’s budget is under threat and Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has already stressed that the bulk of his budget is consumed by the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Britain could be well placed to avoid the worse of energy crisis and turmoil in the future if proper investment is given to renewable sources, particularly wind as we have 40% of the potential wind energy in Europe within our territory. However the coalition government’s ideological spending decisions mean that their only efforts will be the “encouragement” of private investment in these industries, at a time where swift and direct action must be taken to kick start a long term, essential process of diversification and development. Private investment is in any case bound to be slow as we emerge from recession and the industries are yet to be regarded as ripe for profit. This is all ignoring the fact that a country surely ought to have a great deal of direct control over its energy production for reasons of security, independence and stability in the long term and yet we are happy to surrender the keys to our daily lives to vulnerable, private, foreign companies?

Staying with climate change a “big government” solution to transport emissions and efficiency would also be preferable, but unthinkable without a major redistribution of government spending. At the moment government expenditure helps maintain the railways and yet private companies control prices and provide largely unattractive services. Government control would allow a fresher, greener, cheaper and more widely used transport network and would inevitably have to be offset by tax rises on the motorist. All of this talk of nationalisation style policy and tax rises is far too left wing for the coalition government, but the Liberal Democrats called for such revolutionary transport policy in their manifesto, to invigorate the economy and lead the way on emissions cuts. Instead the Lib Dems are being sucked into an alliance of slashing not just in spending but in government influence. It might be liberal to rein in the police and even to make sure benefits are only paid to those genuinely in need, but it can also be liberal for government to make transport cheap and appealing to all, ensure a consistent, cheap energy supply and take direct charge of basic education in schools. This divide between big state and small state liberals has long been a feature of the Liberal Democrats and may continue to be an issue.

Several contributors to DemoCritic have warned that the Lib Dems must be careful in coalition and I have urged them and us, the voters, repeatedly on my blog to ensure the Conservatives do not have unlimited use of orange and yellow human shields in Parliament. When it comes to Cameron’s “Big Society” agenda Nick Clegg has promised that it upholds liberal values. But during the election he dismissed the slogan as a gimmick designed to disguise rushed, ideological deficit reduction that threatens not only the economy but the efficiency and fairness of our state. Clegg and those in his party must endeavour to ensure what’s good about the “Big Society” goes ahead and the Labour party and the electorate must continue to call for what Cameron labels “big government” solutions when they are right and suitable.