The Bank Holiday weekend was marked by a spate of stories about possible, potential, whispered, strictly on background, tensions between Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, possibly from someone who could reasonably be assumed to speak for Ed Miliband, or from someone who is in a position to sound like they speak for Ed Miliband, but is in fact speaking for themselves, and so on and so on to the Nth degree of complexity.
I put it as tortuously as that because although it’s clear that someone has been speaking to various journalists, (These conversations are helpfully collated by John Rentoul here and put into context by Jim Pickard here) discovering who the someone is (or are) leads you straight down the Cui Bono rabbit hole. I don’t for a minute think that Team EdM would think that the smart thing to do before Conference would be to brief a splits story, but hell, what do I know?
See, I can think of at least three separate and unknowable reasons why a politician or adviser might brief against a colleague, from a genuine and worthy desire to generate a policy debate to a Machiavellian hunger to demonstrate puissance to an utterly cynical attempt to put someone else in the frame for causing division. So even if you think you know the sources, knowing their motivation is next to impossible.
None of which matters, really, because who-ever is doing this, and whatever motivations they have, it simply reveals on important point.
On the subject at hand, which is the fact that the Shadow Chancellor’s desire to control policy commitments is perhaps frustrating his colleagues, Ed Balls is absolutely, utterly, completely, one hundred per cent right.
“What?” says the outraged Shadow Cabinet Political Adviser. “But why is the Treasury team trying to intervene on our totally cost free pledge?” Because sunshine, I know, you know, and the little green apples on the trees know that if you’re allowed to start making cost free policy announcements without signing them off first, we’ll discover in three years time that actually, oh no, what a terrible shock, they cost three billion a year and you’ll be back in the leader’s office saying there’s no way we can possibly backtrack on our promises so close to an election.
Oh, and as for that “Thinking aloud” you’ve been doing? See that chap in the loud shirt and red trousers you sit next to in the Portcullis Cafeteria? The one with the quiffy hair and the braying voice? His job is to tot up the costs of all that thinking aloud, and then drop them on you sometime around March 2015, in a ring binder titled Labour’s Tax Bombshell and an invitation to a helpful photo-shoot demonstrating how much of a typical weekly shop that’ll cost an average family.
A Labour Shadow Chancellor has one vital job in opposition. It is to stop his colleagues spending money they don’t have, even when they don’t know they’re spending money, swear blind they’re not spending money and have a note from their mum that says no money was spent in the making of their policy document, honest.*
That makes them the big bad, the horrible grump, the soul of misery for everyone else. They have to hover like a black cloud over every policy document, over every seminar session, over every speech, making life unpleasant.
Naturally, this can be exploited, and it ill behoves any admirer of Tony Blair to malign anyone who takes advantage of the misery a robust Shadow Chancellor must inflict in order to promote themselves a little.
Yet what can’t be done, what must never be done, is to stop this vital work of saying no. It must be irritating for shadow ministers to have to repeat the five point plan for jobs and growth as it were a magical incantation that alone would fix the economy, but realise this – whatever you think of the five point plan, it is costed. It is delimited, defined, and so is defensible.
It is tempting even for those much closer to my politics than to Ed Balls’ to be a bit sneaky about spending pledges by taking credit for accepting spending cuts, but actually making a bid for spending increases by only waving half a bloody shirt. To spell this out, if you face a £15 billion cuts programme, and you “accept” £5 billion of this, then congratulations, you just made a £10 billion spending pledge for the next election.
This is dirty pool, and Ed Balls is right to be annoying and stop it.
Now, admittedly, I come at this from an unusual angle.
I’m somewhat obsessive about what our fiscal stance for the 2015 parliament will be, and think that the best way we deliver change is to understand the financial limitations the next Labour government will be under and make our policy choices accordingly.
Others may wish to spend more than me, which is fine, but then they need to tax more, or borrow more, or cut more elsewhere, and everyone needs to understand the political and economic consequences of those choices.
So if I favour a state investment bank, and greater infrastucture spend, and a construction programme, and help for small businesses (as I do), it’s incumbent on me to realise I’m landing the Treasury with an enormous bill and set out how I would pay for it. If I want to oppose Welfare cuts, likewise. If I want to make a pledge to our Armed forces or to pensioners or train passengers, ditto.
It’s mighty uncomfortable for me to do any of that, because all those choices will intensely annoy someone. It’s much easier to blame the Shadow Chancellor for being annoying, when that annoyance is a vital pre-requisite for governing credibility.
So here’s a motto for the Labour party to take to heart.
If it isn’t Costed, it kills. Remember that, and know that Ed Balls, on this, is absolutely right.
*The same applies for anything with the potential to reduce Tax take, which is what, I’ll bet pounds for pennies, lies behind any alleged nervousness about rapid announcements on Banking reform.