So, apparently the relationship at the top of the Labour Party between leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is breaking down. This supposed friction between Labour’s top two was reported last week in the media and even if, as has been argued, the account of Miliband snapping at Balls at a shadow cabinet meeting for tapping on his Blackberry is indeed a mere repeat of an event that actually happened and surfaced in the media almost two years ago, a potential rift between Balls and Miliband does not bode well for the Labour Party’s chances of regaining power at the next general election.
At a time when the economy was undoubtedly going to become the most important factor at the next election, Miliband, still not wholly accepted by the Labour Party, particularly those of a more central than left leaning, is in desperate need of a shadow chancellor who can not only expose the Tories mishandling of the economy but also work with him to produce a Labour party with policies that can convince the public that they are a government in waiting. Any rift between the two therefore could be catastrophic.
However, it seemed nigh on impossible that the rift would not occur at some time or other before the election. For starters, Ed Balls was still smarting at his rejection by the party at the leadership elections following Labour’s loss of power. Balls came in a distant third behind Ed and his brother David, and this was a rejection that must have hurt. Furthermore, Balls was then initially denied his second preference job, that of Shadow Chancellor, a position granted to Alan Johnson, only for Balls to be given the job when Johnson resigned a mere three and a half months after taking up the role. Balls was further aggrieved by the fact that he was Miliband’s second choice and it is likely that his leadership ambitions are far from evaporated.
It appears that Balls and Miliband are determined to follow in the route of Labour leaders and their (Shadow) Chancellors falling out and tearing the party apart, an eventuality that Miliband has already had to fight hard against as the party has an innate instinct to enter into a bitter civil war whenever it is removed from power. So far, Miliband has done a splendid job of balancing the needs of the trade unions, Blairites and other Labour factions all vying for control of policy.
The last thing that Miliband needs on top of this is a petulant Shadow Chancellor determined to undermine him. Miliband therefore has two options. The first is to continue with Ed Balls as shadow chancellor, concede ground to Balls and hope to maintain the current level of unity present in the Labour Party. This has the obvious advantages of avoiding disruption as well as being viewed as overseeing the constant removal and implementation of Shadow Chancellors, a sign of uncertainty, instability and potentially weakness.
The second option is to remove Balls and find a new shadow chancellor to take the fight to the coalition. The truth is that Balls isn’t all that likeable. I believe that the general public do not really see Balls as a future Chancellor. After all, this is the man that the Tories jeer delivered us an economic crisis that Labour has to try and distance itself from. So far, Tory insults concerning the origins of the financial downturn are sticking in the mind of the public and the closer they can associate Balls with the crisis the more the insults will stick. Also, Balls appears determined to disrupt the Labour Party, bitter at the loss of the leadership election. Furthermore, the truth is that not much of the Labour Party backed Balls in the leadership election, around 11% of first preference votes, and even fewer would now, knowing the damage it would cause and taking into consideration the promising start of Ed Miliband as Leader of the Opposition.
A problem created by removing Balls however is where Miliband would find his replacement. I believe that the best candidate would be Chuka Umunna, the current Shadow Business Secretary, who is eloquent, intelligent and a good economist. Furthermore, although inexperienced, this means that Umunna is distanced from the record of the pat Labour government. He is a likeable, attractive character and would impress the general public, as well as seeming part of a more approachable top team to the Lib Dems.
Miliband therefore is faced with a difficult decision, to risk splitting the Labour Party and taking the bold move of giving the job of Shadow Chancellor to a relatively inexperienced, yet bright, politician, or to attempt to maintain harmony but appear weak and leave the Labour Party open to Tory attacks. Certainly Miliband cannot allow Balls too much freedom to manoeuvre against him and act in a petulant and undermining manner. If Balls is determined to disrupt the Labour ship on its way back to power, now would be the time to depose him.