Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’s sharp rightward shift on cuts in mid-January — endorsing a public sector pay freeze for indefinite years to come, and saying that all the Tory cuts would stay under a Labour government — was connected with factional manoeuvrings within Labour’s top ranks.
According to insiders, Balls’s statement was made without prior agreement with Labour leader Ed Miliband. It went further than Miliband wanted, but Miliband then, weakly, felt cornered, and backed Balls.
The background is manoeuvring by Balls and by diehard-Blairites to discredit and oust Ed Miliband, and to replace him as Labour leader by Balls’s wife Yvette Cooper.
John Rentoul, who describes himself as a “Blairite ultra” and wrote an admiring biography of Tony Blair (though in another era he wrote a useful demolition of Thatcherism, The Rich Get Richer ), puffed Cooper for leader in the Independent on 3 January.
Dan Hodges, a former Labour Party official who describes himself as “a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest”, has also been promoting Cooper, through the Daily Telegraph. “Yvette’s the next leader of the party”, said one shadow cabinet source. “The only question is whether it’s before the election or after”.
The other main voice in the “draft Cooper” campaign is, oddly, the very Tory Daily Mail. On 30 January, the Mail reported that at New Year “Mr Balls cooked lasagne for more than 30 of their [Balls’s and Cooper’s] closest political allies”, in an effort to cohere a faction.
The Mail speculates: “A bizarre Labour plot would see allies of Tony Blair backing Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper for leader if Ed Miliband is forced to step down...
“The conspirators are reportedly supporting Ms Cooper, not because they think she will win the next General Election, but because they are convinced Labour will lose. They are ready to use her in a bid to finish off Ed Miliband and pave the way for his brother David to take over if Ms Cooper loses to David Cameron in 2015” (7 January).
Through its 13 years in office, the New Labour leadership was famously divided into “Blairites” and “Brownites”. Cooper, like Balls, was a “Brownite”. Mostly it was impossible to see what separated the “Blairites” and “Brownites” beyond personal rivalries and competing networks of patronage. The one visible political difference — on British entry to the euro, which Blair favoured more than Brown did — was not a left-vs-right one.
A difference did open up in 2009-10, with “Brownites” like Cooper, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, adopting a “Keynesian” response to the economic crisis — “You can’t cut your way out of recession; you have to grow your way out of recession” — and diehard Blairites like Mandelson and Alistair Darling insisting on cuts.
That adds an odd dimension to the current shifts. On the “Keynesian” issue, Ed Balls was not only a “Brownite”, he was the “Brownite”. He not only recited the standard slogans, but (unusually for a politician, especially a New Labour politician) theorised about them, giving academic lectures that were well received by the minority but significant slice of bourgeois economic thought that dissents from the coalition government’s cuts strategy, for example the economic commentators of the Financial Times.
In the Labour leadership contest of 2010, Balls ran a stronger anti-cuts line (or a less weak one, anyway) than the other candidates.
Cooper is also a trained economist, with more academic background than Balls. Like all New Labour politicians, she affects a robotic, soundbite-structured, always-on-message public persona, but even New Labour politicians must sometimes, somewhere below their shiny surfaces, think. The probability must be that both Cooper and Balls know the issues on economic policy and care about them, believe the “Keynesian” line, and know that the coalition government’s poor economic record resoundingly vindicates their arguments of 2009-10 against big and fast cuts.
That makes Balls’s shift on cuts perplexing. It is normal for Labour politicians in opposition, and certainly when, as now, they are safely distant from having to deliver in office, to talk more “left” than they really think, but Balls is doing the opposite. The obvious speculation is that truth may be dear to him and Cooper, but career is dearer; and they have done a deal to get diehard-Blairite backing.
In general, Cooper is clearly right-wing by any traditional Labour Party standards. Currently shadow Home Secretary, she opened her speech to the 2011 Labour Party conference by praising herself for being the first Labour Home Secretary or shadow to invite a Police Federation representative to address Labour conference, lengthily praising the cops, and criticising the Tories for “cutting police powers”. When she attacked the Tories, it was not for being right-wing, but on the grounds that they were “just wrong” or “reckless” or “didn’t get it”.
She made the now-obligatory gesture of differentiating from Blairism, by saying that 90-day and 42-day detention had been wrong, but was careful to balance that criticism of the New Labour government “from the left” with one “from the right”, saying that New Labour should have taken up its option under EU law to delay free entry for Polish and other East European workers.
She is said to have fought, and won, a number of internal battles with shadow Justice minister Sadiq Khan, no leftist, over Khan’s push for a more liberal stance on sentencing.
Like many New Labour politicians, Cooper has no background in rank-and-file labour movement activity. Her father was a trade union official, but for (successively) IPCS, EMA and Prospect, all conservative unions mainly for managers and engineers.
She went to a comprehensive school in Hampshire, and then to Oxford University, Harvard, and LSE. She was in the student Labour Club at Oxford, but on her own account inactive.
She went from university straight into the top ranks of politics, working as a backroom person for, successively, John Smith (then Shadow Chancellor), Bill Clinton, and Harriet Harman (when a Treasury minister). She was out of work for a year with ME; had a brief spell as economics correspondent for the Independent; got a safe Labour seat for the 1997 general election, and was a minister by 1999. She married Ed Balls (whose background is similar) in 1998.
The manoeuvres are opaque. One thing is clear, though: despite Ed Miliband’s statement to the 2011 Labour conference that he “is not Tony Blair”, and the conference’s enthusiastic applause for it, the diehard Blairites have great clout in Labour’s top circles.
They have it in large part because the unions and the left have mounted so little counter-pressure. The job of activists is to mobilise the unions and the left to create that counter-pressure.
One first step would be to start rallying support for a left-winger — the obvious choice is John McDonnell MP — as the prospective successor to Ed Miliband as leader.