An old online friend (a correspondent for ages, a fellow admirer of Mr Alan Johnson), is aghast at me. Why am I cheerful at the accession of Ed Balls to the shadow chancellorship – and why did I say that Alan Johnson might have moved on before the next election anyway?
Fair enough. I shall explicate.
Like almost everyone in the Labour party (some in the LRC seem happy) I’m saddened by Alan’s premature departure. I had pictured him setting the foundation for Labour’s sensible deficit reduction, then once that was achieved, departing to plaudits and bouquets. Why departing?
Alan’s strength is his calm understanding of what really matters and his instinct and feel for the attitudes of those who are not always, by tradition or belief, Labour voters. That fundamental good sense was Labour’s first and greatest need in a shadow Chancellor – a realisation that whatever the debates about deficits, about keynesianism and QE, there was a need to ground what Labour proposed in the experiences and understanding of the voter.
So my first reason for a degree of optimism is that in his departure, Alan has revealed that in large part this work is done. The need to reduce the deficit, sensibly, carefully, but thoroughly, will not depart from our message. The focus on jobs and growth (which I’ve long been an advocate of) will continue with Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor. In other words, Alan already achieved the most essential task he had as Shadow Chancellor.
Second, once that broad policy thrust had been established, I always imagined that Alan would not really hunger to be Shadow Chancellor in the run up to the General Election. Maybe this is just me, but while he had a firm grasp of economics, he appear to want to present himself as a detail and data guy. Perhaps he felt it would be inauthentic. He’s an honest man.
Unfortunately, while it’s not quite true that the Leader of the Labour party must be a dessicated calculating machine, there’s certainly a lot of use in a Labour shadow chancellor resembling an ultra cooled super-computer that can process tetraflops of data while playing chess with a Grand master. Which is why, in the back of my mind, I pictured Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper or Douglas Alexander attending the daily press conference alongside the leader.
Since this unfortunately came to pass earlier than I expected, and the foundations Alan laid are being adhered to, I am optimistic.
But my third reason for optimism is Ed Balls himself.
Now, I might be a bit naive, but let me tell you my experience of Ed Balls and his team. During the leadership election I wrote a piece suggesting that, inter-alia, Ed Balls would not be elected as leader, and that he should probably turn down a shadow cabinet job and go off and make telly programmes about football or some such. As you can imagine, I had a little trepidation about how it would be recieved.
The response from team Balls was a friendly note from someone very close to Ed, saying they’d enjoyed the piece and asking if I fancied going on a campaign visit with them sometime. It was about as threatening and paranoid as a bouquet of posies.
On top of that, every encounter I’ve had with Ed (It’s not been many) he’s been intellectually rigorous yes, but also direct, engaging and funny.
Others appear to have more bruising encounters with him. I don’t doubt that he was single minded and even brutal in the service of his chief, and this has certainly damaged his reputation in the eyes of the media but since becoming his own man, my impression is that he’s more comfortable, less aggressive, more engaging and open. His first tweet after being chosen as Shadow chancellor? Agreeing with Gaby Hinsliff that people should not use such aggressive imagery in describing his appointment.
So I think Ed Balls knows it’s in both his and Labour’s interest to have a different political reputation to the one he enjoyed when Gordon Brown was his patron. It is in his interest to be, in the corny phrase, a uniter, not a divider. It is in his interest to be as close to the Leader of the party as he can be.
Of course, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, as a team, will be attacked by the Tories for their roles in our time in office. I’m not bothered by that. If anyone thought the best way to a Labour election victory was to hide from the last thirteen years, they’re deluded. We have to be frank about what we did, defend what was good and admit where we went wrong, as Alan and Ed did. Having Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in the top jobs might make that process easier, not harder.
An open, engaging, campaigning and yes, inclusive, Ed Balls is precisely what Labour needs. Labour actvists hunger for the political and campaigning drive and the economic calculating machine that got Labour tweeters so excited yesterday, but we also need to show that we’ve changed, that we’ve learned, that we’ve listened.
Alan Johnson did Labour a great service by ensuring Labour stuck closely to what voters thought about the deficit, jobs and growth.
Having established that consensus, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband together could well provide the campaigning and intellectual energy to make it an appealing prospect for voters.
We need rigour and the drive, but we also need humour, inclusiveness and openness. Both men need to show it, both men need to demonstrate how to make it work.
Crucially, I think Ed Balls and Ed Miliband know that too. Labour suceeds best when it is in touch with voters concerned, discplined on building prosperity, inclusive to those who are not “of Labour”, energetic, intellectually vibrant and passionate.
I think Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have the opportunity to be all that, and in large part, Alan Johnson can take the credit.