Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Ed Balls dilemma

The most talked about Sunday newspaper story about the Labour leadership race will certainly be the Sunday Telegraph's report that Ed Balls is considering quitting the race, though very few people can know whether it heralds a major development, or is simply campaign gossip. (Paul Waugh rather more tentatively blogged on Friday about a Westminster rumour that Balls could drop out and back David Miliband, though suggesting it sounded ridiculous).

Putting it on a news page shows that The Sunday Telegraph has more confidence in its story than that. However, it reports no sources for its claim, which remains in essence hypothetical speculation about what might happen over the next week. We should note that the report does report a denial of its central premise, albeit not a very vigorous one.

"Mr Balls's camp was insisting he would fight on in the wake of the Unite result, which was particularly disappointing for him because his close ally, Charlie Whelan, is the union's political director".

One thing the report does reflect is that - objectively - the position of the Balls campaign looks tough, especially in terms of working out a strategy to win the leadership. Ed Balls has consistently been third favourite throughout with the bookmakers, but the biggest challenge is how to smash open and overturn the assumption that the leadership will come down to a Miliband v Miliband battle.

The main piece of hard information we have is that Balls will start well behind both Milibands in the Parliamentary third of the electoral college on the first round. Most, though not all, MPs first preferences are public. Left Foot Forward have estimated that Balls trails with 13.4% of this section behind David (38.9%) and Ed Miliband (27.9%).

A winning Balls strategy would surely need to offet that deficit by topping the affiliated section, and doing so with a commanding double digit lead over at least one and preferably both Milibands there. That becomes more difficult without any of the big three union endorsements, even if how much these will help Ed Miliband is open to debate. The logic of the Parliamentary position is that Balls did not just need to top the poll in this section, but to win big, to get into a position where there is everything to play for among party members.

We know next to nothing about party members' voting intentions in this race. But both Milibands are running a long way ahead in logging CLP nominations. At time of writing, LabourList has details of 13 CLP nominations for Balls so far.


There are a couple of more circumstantial reasons for wondering if the story is likely to develop further over the next week.

Ed Balls was on twitter some time after the story broke, simply to retweet an announcement of Telford CLP's nomination for him, while politely thanking them. One should not over-interpret a slience, but one might have anticipated an immediate vigorous challenge to the story and statements about fighting on to win, to shoot it down. (That was how the Andy Burnham camp immediately reacted to similar stories).

Former New Statesman political editor Martin Bright noted that Sunday Tel political editor Patrick Hennessy had often in the past run stories which suggested good links with Balls, the Treasury and political allies like Charlie Whelan as sources of news reports. (Martin Bright and Charlie Whelan are not close friends).

Despite the speculation, the Ed Balls leadership campaign may well continue, seeking to turn Balls' post-election performances into votes. What may frustrate the candidate and campaign is that Balls could not have run a more energetic or hyperactive campaign. In causing significant damage to Michael Gove in the Building Schools for the Future row, he has a good claim to have been more effective than any other Labour frontbench spokesman since the election. Balls' combative political persona is often regarded as both a weakness and a strength, but there is little doubt his taking on the Coalition has been popular with party members. Balls is also widely thought - including by rival candidates - to have put in strong performances in the hustings, exceeding expecations for some.

But can that be turned into votes? In a number of ways, Balls faces the risk of being most squeezed by the shape of the five-candidate race, particularly in the first round. With Balls often placed to the "left" of the four ex-ministerial candidates (though that can be contested), Diane Abbott's presence in the race could lose him some first preferences. On issues such as redistribution and inequality, Ed Miliband is appealing to a similar section of party opinion, while Andy Burnham joins Balls in stressing the non-metropolitan nature of their campaigns.

And I do think that media talk of "deals" between candidates will be overblown. Of course, were any of the five candidates were to depart the race, their endorsement would be newsworthy and high-profile, and capable of carrying some influence.

But that is a very different proposition to claiming that any of them could "deliver" their supporters to another candidate. MPs are not tradeable in this way; that is all the more true if party members and supporters for a ballot which has not begun. (Particularly doomed are alliances which appear to be primarily tactical rather than principled: John Redwood's pact with Ken Clarke to try to stop the evidently more eurosceptic candidate William Hague in 1997 being the classic, jaw-dropping and wholly unsuccessful example).

I would also be very sceptical about media speculation that Balls could support a candidate who promised to make him Shadow Chancellor, not least because any candidate may find they have more to lose than gain from anything that looks like horse-trading for jobs.

If Ed Balls does not win the leadership, his performance as Shadow Schools Secretary has shown why he should be an important asset for the Opposition frontbench, particularly in major frontline roles like education, health, home affairs or the economy. Shadow Chancellor could certainly be one of those roles.

But I am sure that Balls would be the first to acknowledge that any Labour leader would also have a formidable alternative candidate in Yvette Cooper.


UPDATE: Ed Balls blogged on Sunday lunchtime about why he is fighting on to win the leadership.

I’ve never been a front runner in this campaign, I did not have the early organisation of some other candidates and I am behind on formal CLP and union endorsements.

But the votes which count won’t be cast until September. The Labour Leadership will be decided by millions of individual members of the party, the unions and socialist societies all making their own decisions – many of whom have not yet made up their minds


From the beginning I was fearful that the Labour leadership election would be a time when our party turn inwards, talked to ourselves, and only debated competing visions, principles and personalities.

But I believe it’s vital too that we show that Labour can take the argument to the coalition on values and policy and win the argument that there is an alternative to what they are proposing.

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