Sunday 23 January 2011

On Ed Balls as Hillary Clinton

As Ed Balls takes up the key role of Shadow Chancellor for the Labour Opposition, in many ways the politician he most resembles is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Here are five parallels between the two.

1. Scenes from a political marriage: Both Balls and Clinton have faced the challenge of establishing their own political identities having first exercised influence as unelected players in a powerful political partnership. Hillary spent eight years in the White House as First Lady, while the Brown-Balls era from 1997 to 2004 was the closest thing to a political marriage the Treasury is likely to see.

2. Champions of the tribe: Both Clinton and Balls both have public reputations as polarising politicians, not afraid of political combat. Clinton controversially hit back at a "vast right-wing conspiracy". Balls has been the Labour figure keenest to take on the Conservatives. On the major political clashes of the day - the 'culture wars' in the US; the deficit argument in Britain - they have been the figures most associated with their partisan position by both supporters and opponents. (Given Balls' key role in shaping New Labour's macroeconomic strategy, it is a relatively novel experience for him to be so vociferously championed by the party's Keynesian left).

3. The incumbency disadvantage: Both Clinton and Balls were unsuccessful in their bids to lead their parties - in the 2008 Democratic primaries and the 2010 Labour leadership race - because of a perception of incumbency. That they were perceived to offer continuity rather than change, enabling internal opponents to mobilise new cohorts of activists and members in particular. (Though Balls was never the frontrunner, unlike Clinton, and so Ed Miliband campaign's riff on a 'movement versus the machine' theme with younger party members was aimed primarily at framing David Miliband as the candidate of the party establishment).

4. The value of expertise: Balls and Clinton also share a reputation for experience and expertise. Clinton's global profile and network has assisted her diplomacy as Secretary of State. Balls is acknowledged by friend and foe to be Labour's most formidable economist (with even his sometime adversary Tony Blair paying tribute to Balls as "really able" in his memoir).

5. The team of rivals: Ed Miliband has, by both personal inclination and political circumstance, followed a similar "team of rivals" approach to that of Obama, (channelling Lincoln). The close leadership result saw Miliband place emphasis initially on the supporters of his brother.

However, the successful Obama-Clinton partnership in the current US administration would perhaps provide a closer analogy to a David Miliband-Ed Balls alliance than this one between the two Eds. There is something of a contradiction between those fretting about a repeat of Blair-Brown tensions between the two Eds and another group worrying about a so-called Brownite takeover. The first group worries that the two Eds won't see eye-to-eye and the second group that they are too similar.

Indeed, a "team of rivals" approach to pluralism at Labour's top table would be strengthened if Ed Miliband were to succeed in bringing both David Miliband and Jon Cruddas back to the political frontline as the next election looms.


To polarise or unite?

The question mark against Hillary Clinton during the US primaries was whether she was too polarising a figure to be her party's standard-bearer for the Presidency. As Secretary of State, her approval ratings have been high - at 68% this month, outstripping those of every other national US politician, though First Lady Michelle Obama is more popular. (For comparison, Clinton's Gallup approval ratings over the last 17 years can be seen here).

Balls is an able political strategist, and could well find some useful lessons in this. He is certainly unlikely to act to the caricature his opponents paint. (The only politician who seems to revel in doing that is Sarah Palin, who has continued to polarise opinion as a result). Like Clinton, he is capable of forging some cross-cutting alliances. He was, for example, a key influence in the decision not to join the euro.

Of course, the parallels between Hillary Clinton and Ed Balls are not exact. It is impossible to discuss public perceptions of Hillary Clinton without talking about US attitudes towards gender. And the role of Secretary of State in government naturally lends itself to a bipartisan pitch. Ed Balls' role as Shadow Chancellor is to contest the economic strategy of the government. His challenge is to do so in a way that continues to shift public opinion against government claims that the current approach is both necessary and fair.

However, perhaps the biggest difference is that Ed Balls, though one of the big beasts of the Westminster jungle, remains much less well known to the general British public than Clinton was in the US after her husband's presidency.

YouGov found an 86 point spread between Balls net + 43 rating among Labour supporters and net -40 among Conservatives, when asking if he is an asset or liability to his party just before Christmas.

However, it would be an exaggeration to claim that this makes Ed Balls a uniquely polarising politician. The YouGov data on other current frontbench politicians demonstrates that this isn't true. (PDF). Indeed, that 86 point gap places Balls back in the pack as only the fifth most polarising politican out of twelve leading frontbenchers. Labour and Tory opinion is further apart on the merits of David Cameron (115 points), Ed Miliband (109) George Osborne (101) and William Hague (98). Balls is not as unpopular with Conservatives (-46) as Harriet Harman (-54) but has a higher two-party polarisation score because Labour supporters are more divided about Harman (+20) than Balls (+43). Only Ken Clarke (19) and Alan Johnson (36) have a lower than 50 point gap between Labour and Tory voters. Balls also has a -9 rating with current LibDem supporters (though 49% don't know) and he has a mildly positive (+4) net rating among the larger group who voted LibDem last May.

Overall, Balls is seen as a net asset by 28 per cent and a net liability by 32 per cent (-4 net) and 40% don't know. As Anthony Wells noted on Friday, Balls begins the Shadow role with a slight advantage over George Osborne, who has higher net disapproval (-11), seen as an asset by 27% and a liability by 38%, again with a high number (35%) of don't knows.

The commentariat perhaps tends to underestimate how much of the public have yet to take a firm view on the key questions which Osborne and Balls will contest. (This is also reflected in a new YouGov poll for today's Sunday Times, which shows Balls and Osborne begin neck-and-neck as best Chancellor).

Those who do not follow politics closely have only a sketchy view of most of this emerging Labour generation, in contrast to Blair, Brown and Mandelson, whose profiles at times seemed to overshadow this summer's leadership race. That is an important challenge - which Balls shares with Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander - but it also potentially offers opportunities to this emerging generation of Labour leaders if they can set out a new pitch for themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is it coincidence that Ed Balls looks like the main character in "The Invention of Lying": ?