Peter Hoskin

Balls fails to soothe Labour’s tensions

Balls fails to soothe Labour's tensions
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What do you do when you've just taken a by-election battering?  Erm, wheel out Ed Balls to rally the faithful in an interview with the Telegraph.  It's a strange read - mainly because Balls seems to force a more caring, understanding tone, before slipping all too easily back into dividing line politics - and I've pulled out some of the key passages, with my own comments, below:

The Milburn report.  The government have been tight-lipped about Alan Milburn's damning report on social mobility this week; a report that they commissioned themselves.  And Balls' comments on it here show why.  He struggles to come up with anything like a convincing line; at first conceding that Milburn is "right," before claiming that, "I actually think it's an astonishing achievement that we've arrested that rise in inequality."   He lists figures on schools reaching GCSE benchmarks, but there are plenty of counter-statistics that can be deployed to show the appallingly inadequate state of schooling in this country: not least that the performance gap between state and private schools in the UK remains among the worst in the entire world, despite years of "investment".

Taking "some" responsibility for Haringey.  Balls accepts "some responsibilty" for not listening enough to social workers, but in the line above that he claims social workers "must speak up".  As we've seen from the Sats marking fiasco, Balls is a master at only accepting responsibility up to a point.

The Chancellorship.  Hm.  Balls is more ambiguous than you'd expect over his abortive move to the Treasury.  Gordon Brown has categorically denied that he wanted to replace Darling with Balls in the last reshuffle, but the best Balls can manage is to say he "wasn't pressing or looking for a move" (ha!), but that he "would have done what [he] was asked to do".  I don't think anyone in Wesminster believes that Balls wasn't offered No.11 - especially in view of stories like this.  

James Purnell.  The Purnell situation is something that Balls shouldn't want to enflame and, at first, it looks like he's being sensible about it: "I never had a cross word with him, but I can't comment on his decision-making."  But he soon throws petrol onto the fire, by suggesting, laughably, that Purnell's resignation was something of a "midlife crisis," and giving other newspapers a negative story to key into.  This is damaging for Labour, as it keeps the theme of infighting running.  And it's damaging for Balls, as it associates him even more closely with McBride-style character assassination techniques.

Ditching Brown.  As you'd expect, Balls dismisses all talk of getting rid of Gordon.  The Dear Leader is, apparently, the "right person" to lead Labour into the election, and his interests coincide with those of, ahem, "the party and the country."  The most noteworthy point comes when Balls says that  David Cameron "hopes desperately" that Labour ditches Brown.  Thing is, the opposite is more likely true.  One of the things Tories fear most is the uncertainty that would be injected into the political equation by Labour appointing, say, Alan Johnson as their leader.  As it is, they're happy enough with Brown leading his party to oblivion.  

Spending cuts.
  No more "investment vs cuts" bravado from Balls - the line that he and Brown were pushing only a few weeks ago.  He's now come round to the refined "good cuts vs bad cuts" version, as when he says: "We are going to have to be smarter, defter, shift some resources and make some efficiency savings."  This is a victory for Darling and Mandelson, who fought for the saner approach.