For the love of god, go
Ed Balls urges the right not to split - but Paul Demarty wonders if they have a choice
When an unlamented ex-politician starts gobbing off about the current state of their party, we know that at least one of three things is true: they have an axe to grind, old friends to help out or a book to sell. Ed Balls seems to have hit the hat-trick.
It is a rare success in a career which is, on the whole, hardly illustrious. His memoir, which he is touting around the media circuit and will be rotting in a remainder bin near you by Christmas, will no doubt be padded with uninteresting anecdotes to fill out the decade or more of apolitical wonkery before his entry into parliament in 2005; since then the fortunes of the Labour Party have hardly been rosy, and Balls’ own fortune has made a decent bellwether.
Having lost the 2010 leadership election handsomely, having failed to convince, so far as the press and its Blairite agents in the Labour Party were concerned, as shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband, he faced the indignity of losing his seat in 2015. (In truth, boundary changes had turned the Labour rotten borough he was gifted by Tony Blair into a red-blue swing constituency - but the good people of Morley and Outwood plainly did not swing in the direction of Balls.)
As Miliband’s most senior colleague, Balls was once the other ‘Red Ed’ (seems an awful long time ago now ... ), but the chicken-coup crisis has had the very obvious effect of massively polarising the Labour Party, and even people who had been quietly tacking left have found common cause, in a bloc of the ‘moderates’, with the most hidebound Blairite extremists. Among these, we may even number Miliband himself, who has found time to sound more or less the same notes on income inequality as John McDonnell’s cabal of Keynesian advisors,1 while ultimately taking sides with the right.
Thus Balls’ present intervention, in the main - the axe he grinds is for the decapitation of one Jeremy Corbyn, of course. Balls is scathing about the idea, common on the Labour left, that recent electoral misfortunes might have been avoided had the party leadership tacked left (and this is no new theme, for his 2010 leadership pitch was partly a matter of his willingness to talk more aggressively on the immigration issue). There is, in the end, little to separate him from his partner, Yvette Cooper, who inherited his third-place spot last year, politically speaking: the talk is the usual New Labour drivel about ‘looking outwards’ and avoiding ‘comfort zones’ (the electorate, of course, will refuse to vote for anyone in their ‘comfort zone’: that is, anyone who does not lie systematically and exhibit visible self-hatred because of it).
We attach more interest to another aspect of Balls’ current interventions - his burgeoning ballroom dance career. Not really! Rather his urging of ‘responsibility’ on the right, as against the constant split talk:
You’ve got to stay and prove that you can make the change and I think at the moment people would think it was crazy for people to walk away from Labour’s history, its values and its traditions. I say, stay in and continue to fight.2
Such are the pearls of wisdom to be expected from an individual with nothing to lose; his time as an honourable gentleman is well and truly over. Yet there is not a little interest in the matter. For what he is saying is that we (the right) can win. We will, eventually. Keep calm; carry on.
His invocation of the great likelihood of a snap general election adds additional spice to the matter. For what is he actually saying here? Let us recap: Corbyn is unelectable, and his politics are a “leftist utopian fantasy”; Corbyn is going to be leader of the Labour Party, barring death or other forms of ‘divine intervention’, at least until the next coup, whenever that is sprung.
Yet here is honest Ed, pleading the need to beat the Tories at the next election - an election that he, of all people, must know that the Labour Party is in no shape to win. Does he have secret doubts? Are these words croaking out of an imperfectly repressed ‘comfort zone’, an involuntary ejaculation of Red Ed’s id?
Of course not. We cannot know the man’s mind, of course, but let us advance a hypothesis: no longer at risk of ejection from the Commons, having already suffered that fate last year, Balls is looking forward to defeat. For the main point is to get rid of the present leadership and replace them with good, sensible persons, not unlike E Balls, and thus to prevent some interminable period of Tory rule, at the cost of ever really opposing anything the Tories actually do. And if there is one cast-iron certainty of modern politics, sure as eggs is eggs and the pope shits in the Vatican, it is that party leaders resign when they lose elections ... don’t they?
Then, the patient work of rebuilding (rebuilding the iron authority of Brewer’s Green and the leader’s pet wonks) can begin. And if Labour’s luck is in, the opportunity will coincide with the end of Theresa May’s honeymoon period, and - perhaps - a romping, Blairesque landslide in 2021 or 22 ...
We do not consider Balls’ recommendations stupid. Voters, in general, are unkind to splits; and this unkindness is amplified enormously by the undemocratic first-past-the-post system, which has lately enlivened the centuries-old two-party system only by imposing a one-party system on Scotland. At a time of general political polarisation, a realignment towards the centre looks like a loser (in fact, a rightwing Labour split might have better luck attacking the Tories from the other direction, given the fragility of Ukip, and Labour rightists’ sudden collective keenness to ‘address concerns’ over immigration). Why would they do it?
The difficulty is twofold.
First of all, dramatically losing an election will, indeed, probably embarrass Corbyn enough to stand down, and possibly nudge enough of his support in the direction of a sensible ‘unity’ candidate to triumph over any would-be left successor. Even if all this comes to pass, however, it must do so by definition at the cost of a goodly number of seats in parliament. Who must be sacrificed to ‘save’ the party?
It is an easy enough situation for Ed Balls, of course, since he has already been defenestrated. Yet there simply must be a good old pile of ambitious young Labour MPs in seats which are either already swing constituencies or may conceivably become so under sufficient historical pressure. Who will have to pay the price? Already, a breakaway looks more attractive to those who suspect that, like Ed Balls, they may have nothing to lose.
Far more threatening, however, is the consummation of David Cameron’s long-standing plan to redraw the constituency boundaries so as to reduce the size of the commons to 600 MPs. These plans notoriously favour the Conservative Party; but pertinent to our current concern is that they will entail the abolition of whole swathes of constituencies and their reorganisation as new ones - which means a reselection bonanza! The last thing the serried ranks of the parliamentary Labour Party’s majority traitor faction want, as they face down their second humiliation in a poll of members (under new rules they foisted on us!), is to face those same members and argue for their jobs.
The long and the short of it is this: yes, Ed Balls is right that a split is “crazy”. The question is: is it crazier than the other available options; and does it appear so to those facing the decision? Time will tell.
From a leftwing perspective - or at least, a leftwing perspective worth a damn, a leftwing perspective for victory in this battle - Balls’ favoured outcome is by far the worst option. There must be a split. A house divided cannot stand. Either the traitors abscond or they must be hurled overboard, or they must win out, in the end - at which time they will embark on a purge far more extensive than is currently going on.
That is the danger - and the stupidity - of the official, platitudinous calls for “unity” coming from the leadership, and from the sort of idiotic ex-Trotskyist commentators who imagine themselves for some reason to be master political tacticians (Owen Jones, Paul Mason). If their strategy is for unity - if it at all involves stage directions for the right other than exeunt - then the result can only be capitulation.
1. ‘The inequality problem’, February 4. This, of course, says more about the advisors - and McDonnell - than it does about Miliband.