Greg Hands MP: How Ed Balls is silently steamrollering his opponents within the Labour Party
It is an imperfect, but accepted, part of democracy that after an election, the winner rewards his or her supporters with positions in the top team, or in the Party machine. This happens in the United Kingdom in a relatively muted way, particularly in government, thanks to our non-political civil service. In Washington, a new administration brings a total clear-out, going quite far down into government. When David Cameron won the leadership of the Conservative Party in December 2005, he was careful to ensure key supporters were given a role, but that the front bench properly reflected all strands within the Party. After all, his closest rivals were given very important roles: David Davis was Shadow Home Secretary, Liam Fox Shadow Defence Secretary, and so on. As it happens, neither Davis and Fox is in that position today, but in neither case has David Cameron actively removed them.
The Labour leadership contest in 2010, and developments since, have been very different. We all know that David Miliband has refused to serve under his brother, and we should take at his word Ed’s assurance that a place is available for his older brother, should he want it. However, readers might not be aware that many other supporters of David Miliband, many of whom are talented and willing MPs, have not been offered places on the Labour front bench. Worse still, in little-noticed mini Labour reshuffles since then, many have been eased out. Who voted for whom in 2010 can be seen here and who serves on Labour’s front bench is here.
Further, in the various and little-noticed reshuffles since, supporters of David Miliband have been slowly eased out, generally in favour of more supporters of Ed Balls. To be fair, some MPs leave for the front bench for personal reasons, not related to who they supported in a leadership race. But the figures speak for themselves. Never before has someone coming third seen their supporters so richly rewarded as Ed Balls has. As Nick Watt comments in the Guardian piece, “the research by Hands highlights one characteristic of Balls which he shares with his mentor, Gordon Brown. The shadow chancellor, whose long standing ally David Watts was elected last year as chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, goes to great length to look after his supporters.”
Two things are happening here. First, the Blairites (and I use as a proxy for this, the supporters of David Miliband in 2010) are losing out, and apart from the odd intervention from Peter Mandelson and now from Jim Murphy, keep themselves to themselves, when it comes to the big issues of the day, particularly the economy. Second, within the Brownites, there is an increasing ascendancy of Ed Balls and his supporters at the expense of Ed Miliband’s. Ed Balls’s economics now dominate the Party, although it is worth remembering that in September 2010, only 12% of MPs voted for Ed Balls as their first preference for Leader, and for his unique brand of deficit denial and fiscal irresponsibility. Also increasingly dominant are his supporters, all the way up the Party machine and on the Labour front bench. I am told that every newly selected Labour Parliamentary Candidate gets a phone call from Ed Balls, as he expands his machine for the future. Tom Watson, a key Brown and Balls operative, is imbedded into the Labour Party machine at Brewer’s Green, as Ed Miliband’s people are tied to Parliament in the Norman Shaw South building.
The Norman Shaw South operation is one of the most interesting of all. Prior to 2003, the Leader of the Opposition was based in the main building of Parliament, with a large office opposite the Shadow Cabinet Room. The room is dark and a little old-fashioned, but with a nicely engraved sign in the wood, saying “Leader of the Opposition”. The last Opposition leader to occupy the room was IDS, in the years 2001 - 2003, and one of Michael Howard’s first reforms was to create a larger, open-plan, suite of offices for the Leader of the Opposition in the nearby Norman Shaw South building. David Cameron carried on with this reform, and extended it further, by bringing in Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s team of special advisers and researchers, integrating them all into one large room. This was done to help learn from the mistakes of Blair and Brown, who had housed themselves separately and held separate courts – ironically, not very different from Ed Balls and Ed Miliband today, but I jump ahead.
Ed Miliband wanted to carry on with this from September 2010. Indeed, the door in Norman Shaw South that used to have the name George Osborne on it prior to May 2010, had the name Ed Balls on it when he became Shadow Chancellor in January 2011. But Ed Balls isn’t often behind it. Instead, Ed Balls is mainly to be found, ironically, in the old Leader of the Opposition’s office, back opposite the Shadow Cabinet Room. This office officially belongs to the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Vernon Coaker, another key ally of Ed Balls (and one of the hard core of 12% of MPs who voted for Balls as Leader in 2010). Coaker is referred to by Balls himself as “Big Vern”, a name taken from the gangland boss figure in Viz Comic. Outside Big Vern’s office there is a piece of paper taped over the engraved “Leader of the Opposition” sign, which has both his name on it and that of “Rt Hon Ed Balls MP”. The sign appears rather temporary, and maybe it is just that.
It is this office – not the suite shared with Ed Miliband – where Ed Balls operates. It is here that he hosts his drinks parties for the media (presumably to keep the press and TV people away from Ed Miliband’s people). It is here that he prepares for his dispatch box confrontations with George Osborne, free from the prying eyes of other Ed’s advisers. It is here that he meets backbenchers for friendly chats. It is, to all intents and purposes, an alternative operation as Leader of the Opposition, housed, in the traditional office of the Leader of the Opposition, with immediate access to the Shadow Cabinet Room. Big Vern has become Ed Balls’ very own gatekeeper, and is a member of the Shadow Cabinet to boot!
These observations may sound like the concerns of a Westminster Village obsessive, but they are nonetheless important in understanding the Labour Party under the Two Eds. Office location – as Michael Howard and David Cameron learned in Opposition – is rather important. Little was more emblematic than in May 2010 the removal of the physical divide between Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, when the Coalition came to power.
There are policy differences between the two Eds, notably on whether to have an EU referendum. But these are, in my view, very much secondary, to the fact that Ed Balls thinks he is a more gifted and natural Leader than Ed Miliband. At Prime Minister’s Questions, it seems that Ed Balls has as much to say to David Cameron as Ed Miliband does! Meanwhile, it is clear from Ed Balls's lasagne parties and humanisation strategy in general , like crying at Antiques Roadshow, the Sounds of Music, and so on, that he retains his ambitions to run the Labour Party, whether elected or not.
In September 2010, 88% of Labour MPs said no to Ed Balls. Just half a parliament later, his quack economic views have become Labour Party orthodoxy, and his henchmen and women are embedded in every part of the Party, and at every level, to assist his ruthless ambition to take total control of the Labour Party.