Peter Hoskin

Ed Balls says the same stuff, differently

Ed Balls says the same stuff, differently
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The road to Damascus has nothing on this.  Ed Balls – in interview with the FT – has condemned the class war strategy, called for an end to Labour figures briefing against each other, and suggested that the government should be more "upfront" about spending cuts.  Hallelujah!  What a difference an attempted coup makes!  And so on and so on.

But wait a minute.  What does the Schools Secretary actually say?  Worth looking at, that – because Balls hasn't so much changed his arguments as changed the way he makes them.  Take, for instance, what he says about class war:

"'I’m totally against a class war strategy,' he says. But he describes Mr Brown’s Commons remark that Mr Cameron made policy 'on the playing fields of Eton' as a 'really good joke'. Alastair Campbell is widely thought to have been the author of the quip.

He argues that his 'many not the few' rhetoric is not Old Labour but is in the DNA of New Labour. The language was used in Tony Blair’s new Labour constitution: he says the phrase was actually the invention of Lord Mandelson, his supposed ideological foe. 'I’m pretty sure it was Peter who wrote it.'


He says New Labour has always been a synthesis of fairness and efficiency. 'If I write a piece that says we should be for the many not the few, does that mean I’m romantic, old fashioned and Old Labour? For God’s sake, what a load of nonsense.'" So the Eton stuff has gone.  Fair enough – that's progress.  But, crucially, the "many not the few" dividing line remains.  This was always at the core of the class war strategy: the idea that Tory policy – specifically their inheritance tax proposal – caters for the rich "few" rather than the "hard-working many".  This is also a shameless caricature.  Not only does the Tory policy have a wider scope than Balls would have you believe, but they have also suggested that it is not an immediate priority should they get into government.  Some people might describe Balls's tactic here as class war, and I wouldn't disagree with them.   

Likewise, Balls's stronger rhetoric on cuts rings hollow.  He admits that the spending round for schools will be "really hard" – but that rather jars with the "investment vs cuts" line he deployed in his Independent on Sunday article yesterday:

"People on the doorstep remain deeply unconvinced by a Tory party which talks about a decade of austerity and threatens to freeze their pay and cut their local schools and hospitals."

Spot the trick?  Yep, this isn't strictly Ed Balls saying this, but "people on the doorstep".  Convenient, that.

To my mind, this will be one of the most eyecatching dynamics of the election campaign: how many of the old dividing lines Balls and Brown manage to smuggle past their Cabinet colleagues and into frontline debate.  They'll certainly try.  And I imagine they'll do so safe in the knowledge that there aren't likely to be many consequences.  Apart from in the polls, that is...