Overrated: Ed Balls

The former Labour minister played a key role in creating the poisonous atmosphere prevalent in British politics

Overrated
(Illustration by Michael Daley)

When Vince Cable was acting leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2007 he said of Gordon Brown in an exchange during Prime Minister’s Question Time, “The House has noticed in the last few week’s the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean.”  If the early appearances of Ed Balls on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing are anything to go by the comment might even more appropriately have been made of Brown’s former consigliere

In his time at the heart of Labour politics — from joining Brown’s shadow chancellor team in 1994, through his election to parliament in 2005 and then ministerial career from 2006 to his Labour leadership run after his party’s defeat in 2010 and his own term as shadow chancellor from 2011 to 2015 — Balls has had two malign influences on politics and one achievement for which we should all be thankful.

That achievement was the significant part he played in keeping Britain out of the euro. In 1997 Gordon Brown, by then Chancellor, announced his five economic tests which had to be met before a Labour government would support joining the single currency. Only if the government felt they had been met would a referendum be held and a Yes vote recommended. It is now known that the five tests were dreamt up by Brown and Balls with the specific aim of delaying any decision indefinitely. Balls had never been a supporter of the euro; indeed he had warned of the dangers of the single currency while he was a leader writer at the Financial Times. While others can share some of the credit, Balls is arguably the single most important figure in keeping the UK out. He must take a substantial share of the blame for the economic mess Britain was in by 2010 — but it could have been much worse without him.

But on the debit side, Balls is one of the main culprits in creating a vicious, poisonous atmosphere within the Labour Party and then in British politics more generally since the 1990s. He describes in Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics (Hutchinson, £20), published last month, how during the coalition years he would relish putting Osborne and Cameron off their stride during PMQs: “The microphones pick up only a fraction of what is going on [in the Commons chamber], as do the journalists up in the press gallery. It was perfectly possible, and common, for George Osborne and me to have a whispered chat throughout the PMQs exchanges . . . Of course, Cameron could also hear what I was saying, and would become gradually more and more irate.” Such sledging may be common on the sports field, but is it really appropriate for parliament? It certainly does not seem to be something to boast about in one’s memoirs. Such conduct explains why Balls’s 2015 defeat in his Yorkshire constituency of Morley and Outwood was so warmly greeted by many of his parliamentary colleagues, not all of whom were on the Tory side.

Earlier, Balls was one of the main partisans for Brown in his struggle to wrest the Labour leadership from Blair. He was part of a team, including Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride, notorious for the nastiness of their attacks on anyone who stood in Brown’s way. While Ed Miliband, another member of the Brown team, was described as “the ambassador from Planet Fucker” by Blairites for his diplomacy and relative benignness in his dealings with them, Balls was a fully-paid-up Planet Fuckerian. 

The culture did not improve once Brown was installed as Prime Minister. In Speaking Out, Balls acknowledges that at times “the atmosphere inside Number Ten was poisonous” and that frequently “Gordon was lashing out”. Members of the Brown entourage briefed against each other constantly — although Balls claims he himself was innocent of this. The culture of abuse which now pervades Labour, with the ad hominem attacks on moderate MPs by Corbynistas, has its origins in an era in which Corbyn was just a quaint, isolated backbencher.

Balls can also be blamed for reintroducing the language of class hatred into the Labour lexicon. Blair and Peter Mandelson had done their very best to expunge such attitudes — indeed, Mandelson had famously stated that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Balls believed that making an issue out of Cameron and Osborne being out-of-touch posh boys would have great resonance with the electorate. Balls himself is not from a working-class background — his father is a prominent academic and he and his siblings were educated at fee-paying schools. He seems to have miscalculated here in that the differences between his own background and that of Cameron and Osborne are abundantly clear to himself but may well be lost on much of the electorate, for whom they are all an alien species.

Balls’s attacks, however, laid the foundations for what has followed. He may have no sympathy for what the Corbynistas are doing, but his own rhetoric helped to create a fertile environment in which they could flourish — and which is now helping to tear Labour apart.