Why the Labour Left should support Ed Balls feat. the elephant in the room
(Update: at comment #4 has a rejoinder to my ‘elephant in the room argument which needs to be read in conjunction with this post.)
There comes a time in electoral politics when you draw a line in the sand. Today is one such day.
This reflects a general trend in healthy party politics. Argue it out as much as you want, but when it comes to it, be clear about whom you support, and why.
Anyone mad enough to go back through my old posts in 2009-May 2010 will see that trend – a move from a critique of New Labour and its ways towards unswerving support for Labour in the general election. Some people will see that as hypocrisy; I see it as priorities.
It’s the same with my local politics. Sure, I have problems with the group of councillors I lead, and I’m quite happy to argue the toss with them about loads of stuff – but when election time comes (as it has come byelection-wise in West Lancashire), it’s us against the class enemy.
So here’s my now unequivocal support for Ed Balls.
The political in the economic
I don’t agree with Ed Balls on everything, but he’s by far the best leader of the Labour party we’ve got on offer. He’s also, importantly for the general readership of this blog, by far the best leader the Labour party has got to offer its more leftwing membership.
This is a bold claim, I recognise. Certainly, it’s not one I expected to be making when the campaign started in June, and it needs justification.
First and foremost, Ed Balls is an economist by training and trade, and understands better than any of the other candidates that at the heart of proper leftwing politics lies the question of the reordering of economic relations between the those with money, and those without.
2010, when Ed Balls seeks the leadership, is not 1994, when Tony Blair sought and won it.
In 1994, the economy was nearing its best point in the capitalist economic business cycle, and over the next few years new Labour had the luxury of, effectively, not having to worry about the economy as I went about its business.
Thus, we ended up with a Prime Minister who simply didn’t understand economics, and whose basic instruction to his new chancellor Gordon Brown was not to start tinkering with the current economic relationships between capital and labour, but just pass the readies over when they were needed.
Under Blair, income inequality and poverty became technical issues, not political issues. The establishment of the Social Exclusion Unit in 1997, with its 17 different ‘Policy Action Teams’ made up of a host of experts on housing, drugs, education etc., reflected this move to a technocracy operating within and never questioning the economic basics.
2010 is not 1994. Now there is a huge threat to the working class, but there is also an opportunity to put the economic relations between capital and labour back at the very heart of the Labour party.
To do this, we need to be clear right now about deficit spending, in the way that Ed Balls has become increasingly clear in recent weeks, culminating in this statement in the my interview with him:
I’m not sure that a deficit goal is the right goal. I think that maintaining confidence for servicing debt makes much more sense. The right way to do that is to have a strong and growing economy. That’s why I don’t think there’s a problem with deficit financing at this stage in the economic cycle.
We need to be even clearer.
Deficit spending is a supremely political act of democracy, because it shows that it is the democratically elected body of the state which directs – through its judicious manipulation of the money supply – the overall use of resources.
In taking this role away from capital – who have managed it so badly to date – there is a clear statement of who is in control. The economic becomes the political.
Of all the candidates, only Ed Balls understands this relation between the political and the economic (although I suspect he is still grappling with the consequences). It is only Ed Balls, therefore, who can be an effective opposition leader in the terms the Left wants opposition to happen – a serious challenge to the existing economic status quo.
And just as Brown was powerless to change the economic status quo (even had he wanted to) under the fundamentally conservative instructions of his political master Blair, so will Balls be powerless under the same kind of politics-without-the-basics leadership of either of the Milibands.
2010 is not 1994, and in some ways we are better for that, because the choice is clearer: we need someone who understands the politics of economics in the top job, not acting as a lackey to someone who doesn’t.
The Elephant in the room
This is my main contention as to why Ed Balls should become leader. I have covered other reasons in my previous support post – his strength to date in taking on the opposition in particular – and I won’t repeat that here.
But there remains the elephant in the room for the Left when it comes to Ed Balls, and it would be remiss of me not to deal with it directly.
For many on the Left that I have spoken to or read, Ed Balls has impressed in opposition, and in his articulation of a different political economy.
Yet they won’t vote for him because of his ‘abhorrent’ views on immigration.
This antipathy goes back to an Observer piece on 6th June, in which Ed Balls said, in the context of a long article:
Europe’s leaders need to revisit the Free Movement Directive, not to undermine the union, but to make it economically and politically sustainable. That means re-examining the relationship between domestic laws and European rules which allow unaccompanied migrants to send child benefit and tax credits back to families at home.
This assault on the free movement of labour within the EU in particular, alongside the acknowledgment that he understood where people like Gillian Duffy were coming from - was taken as evidence that Ed Ball’s views on immigration were beyond the pale for the Left, and this became a self-reinforcing concept as time went on; it became accepted wisdom that Ed Balls was good on the economy, but unacceptable on immigration and by extension on social policy in general.
Hence Phil at AVPS, for example:
For example, whereas Ed Balls combines a Keynesian orientation to the economy with a near-Powellite view on immigration, Ed Miliband eloquently argued that immigration was a lightning rod for discontent.
Now, while I think the ‘near-Powellite’ description goes a bit far, I agree that on 6th June Ed Balls did not do himself a good turn in the eyes of the Left, and I too was somewhat horrified.
However, what also needs to be recognised is that he hasn’t – as far as I’ aware – repeated the offence, and there is a good deal of evidence that he’s thought through what he said and moved towards Ed Miliband’s ‘lighting rod for discontent’ explanation.
That is why, when I went to hear Ed Balls speak in Warrington last week, I asked him this question:
Can you tell us two things about political organisation or policy over which you have developed your views through communication with members and supporters since the leadership campaign began.
His response on political organisations (about how hard it is to become an MP if you’re not in the in-crowd) need not detain us, but his second answer was the reassurance I had been looking for that his views had matured appropriately.
He again went back to the Gillian Duffy incident – understandable enough in an audience with a folk memory of the election – and said he understood these sentiments. However, he was careful now to say that such issues were best resolved by meeting the needs of working class people – he noted housing in particular. The Woolas-strand reference to the need to tighten immigration was gone. Now of course he’s not stupid.
Taken together, my view is that while the Left was quite justified in taking him to task on the 6th June interview, the fact that he has not repeated that kind of statement and that he now finds a different way of answering the question – talking of provision, not restriction – is enough for me to keep ed Balls at number one on my voting list, and I hope others on the Left will see it the same way.
I’m surprised, three months on, to find myself voting for Ed Balls. If you’d asked me in late May, he’d have been at No.4 or no.5.
But then, wasn’t the time to change your mind what the long leadership campaign was supposed to be about?