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Sunday, 23 January 2011

Game on - Miliband finally gets some Balls

When there is only one opposition party, it is extremely important for that party to be effective. The responsibility of the Labour Party for the next four and a half years then is to hold the Coalition government in check, scrutinizing every decision they make. This is not a mandate for the lazy oppositionism that we have seen too often so far ('it is a coalition policy so I shall oppose it') but it is incumbent upon Ed Miliband to help make sure the necessary medicine this country needs to take is targetted fairly and its side effects justified rigorously by the Government. Given this is a Coalition, meaning their policies are those that have been agreed with each other rather than those in their manifestos, robust opposition is vital.

This is why the initial appointment of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor was not the right choice. Nice man though he is, popular though he is, 'normal' though he is, he does not understand economics, and seemed almost to revel in this fact. This always left me uncomfortable, and left George Osborne with a free-ride, given that Johnson was not capable of debating the economic merits of Coalition policies. I live four miles from Westminster and I could hear Osborne's sigh of relief when that announcement was made.

For the same reason, the new appointment of Ed Balls is exactly the right choice. Not the most popular man, in his own party and with the public at large, he is, however, a proper economist at a time when economics is possibly being re-written. His Bloomberg lecture in August, explaining his alternative to the current attempt to eradicate the deficit in 5 years, was a masterpiece of economic discourse. Whether it was right or not is not the point right now. It showcased Balls' one advantage over every other candidate for the Shadow Chancellor role, that he could talk and debate comfortably with every single figure in the financial world - be in journalist, businessperson or academic.

More importantly, for the state of politics in this country, will be the effect it will have on George Osborne. Now he will have to work much harder to justify his policies and ideas. Now he will have to have proper economic justifications for his actions. Now he will face the most effective political as well as economic operator in the Labour Party and he must expect to lose many battles, even if the war ends up being won.

Yes, the simple answer for the Coalition will be to point to Balls' record running the country. Gordon Brown may have been Chancellor, but Balls was the driving force behind him. When the Labour Cabinet wanted to cut spending, it was Balls who was in the way. He disagreed even with the election strategy of halving the deficit in four years, although he says he has changed his mind now because it seems that would be possible without causing the double dip recession he was so sure would be happening.

Certainly, the Government can try this strategy, but that doesn't mean it will work, because blowing rasberries at the track record of your opponents is one thing, justifying what you are doing about it is another, and if they think the public won't listen to Balls because of his past is naive. They will listen to him because he will be the most formidable bulwark against the widespread panic being spread over the cuts at the moment the Government could possibly face. He will probably become the focus for popular discontent, and might even be found joining in the protests.

I fear Ed Balls may go for the short-term solution of causing havoc instead of the long-term solution of actually coming up with an alternative solution to the trillion pounds of debt that his policies put this country into. If he does that, he will be successful in bloodying this government's nose, but he will not make Labour electable. If he plays the long-game, arguing as cogently as he is capable of for a proper alternative that actually makes economic sense, then 5 years from now he will be the country's Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So effective was he during the Labour leadership battle that I wouldn't bet against him being Prime Minister one day.

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