Nice Balls and a dull campaign


The leadership hopefuls (photo: J Lipman)

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what a difference a campaign can make.

Reading Anne McElvoy’s interview with Ed Balls in today’s Evening Standard, I had to pinch myself to remember that her subject was the same man who spent years as Labour’s comedy bully.

Ed Balls was the unreconstructed Labour man, the union champion, Brown’s enthusiastic and angry number two.

But lo, here he is after a summer seeking the leadership, and he appears articulate, thoughtful and even rather human. Anecdotes about novelty cake and his marriage abound from this “Newly Nice Ed”.

Shame, because he’s not going to win. A metamorphosis for nothing, though he’d probably be happy enough in the chancellor’s seat – and he’s certainly got the best economic credentials out of the gang of five vying for the top spot.

But it’s funny isn’t it. I went to a debate at the beginning of it all, the day Diane Abbott joined in. None of what was said was particularly remarkable; what I took out of the event most of all was the animosity between the Ed’s – patronising replies, furious glances across the podium. This would be a campaign of tension, anger, drama. With Balls around, surely somebody would get into a fight.

But it hasn’t and they haven’t – and any Labour friction has been entirely New in its making, courtesy of Mandy and Blair.

It’s been the campaign that wasn’t.

Sure we’ve had some sniping between the brothers, but beyond a few manufactured media stories that’s been pretty minimal. Diane Abbott has restricted herself to some low-level grumbling from the sidelines, and Andy Burnham – well, he was always going to be nice, wasn’t he.

Can it be that the New Labour drama really is over? If you can’t even rely on an election with five high-profile contenders, including Ed Balls, for a fuss, then maybe so. The party seems to have grown up.

Which, one the one hand is great for Labour’s political rehabilitation.

But on the other, well, it doesn’t exactly make for a nailbiting contest, does it?


Blackberries, bullying and Blair: Pickles weighs in

Just for Brown (picture: Hannah Roberts)


Eric Pickles would like to throw his mobile phone at Gordon Brown 

“A Blackberry would be the perfect parting gift for our dear Prime Minister. 

The Conservative Party chairman was speaking at a panel event near Westminster on Thursday evening. 

Responding to an audience question about the potential recipients of flying office stationary Pickles added: “In my own office I have a yellow rubber banana in tribute to Mr Miliband.” 

 Also on the panel at the Total Politics Question Time event were Harrow East Labour MP Tony McNulty and Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. The politicians were joined by  the Independent’s chief political commentator, Steve Richards, and Tory commentator Iain Dale as the chair. 

Dominating discussion was the subject of bullying in Downing Street, following the allegations made in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s new book. 

Pickles said it was ‘worrying’ that “because [Darling] says the bleeding obvious then the forces of hell are released on him.” 

“I can’t imagine Andrew Rawnsley has made those things up,” added the MP for Brentwood and Ongar. 

“We’ve all seen documentaries on neighbours from hell but never imagined it would be in Ten Downing Street.” 

Pickles said the test for a good boss was somebody who would help you out of a mess and who you could take bad news to. 

“I don’t think I’d like to see Gordon Brown with bad news,” he said. 

But McNulty, ever the loyal Labour man, dismissed the concerns, saying that when he had worked closely with Brown over he 42 days detention issue, Brown had not raised his voice at him. 

Men in black: (from left) Brake, Pickles, Dale and McNulty


“I raised my voice, but that’s another story for Andrew Rawnsley’s next book!” 

“People lose their temper in high octane situations – shock horror,” he said. “I’m sure it will be a very nice book but I don’t believe that it is gospel.”  

“You can’t have a convivial relationship between a prime minister and a chancellor all the time.” 


Meanwhile Brake admitted we had not learnt anything ‘in relation to what goes on behind closed doors’ but said he could not imagine Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg throwing anything at his staff. 

Richards said Rawnsley was a genius ‘for telling us something we already know’ although he hypothesised that some of the stories had been ’embroidered’. 

“I would also say, so what?” he admitted. 

“I tried to get worked up and excited and I really can’t. These things are always more complicated than we see when they are written about.” 

In fact, Richards said a calm leader was the exception and not the rule. 

Citing examples of Wilson and Thatcher’s staff finding them difficult to work with, he added: “For Major they had to hide the Evening Standard from him.” 

Richards said Tony Blair was unusual for his calmness in difficult situations. 

“Blair is an aberration, during crises he was extraordinarily calm.” 

Recalling that when Blair sacked Blunkett for the second time he had been scheduled to meet the then prime minister for coffee, Richards said he had been surprised the meeting had not been cancelled. 

“I was waiting for him to cancel but there was no cancellation,” he said. ” He had sacked a close friend for the second time and he says ‘hi, how are you, great to see you’ and spoke for an hour about public service reform. 

“There was this total meltdown but he was absolutely fine, and that was weird,” said Richards. 

“There’s an authenticity about Brown’s weirdness.” 

The panel also discussed all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats, accountability and predictions for the next election, with some time reserved to discuss the future of Peter Mandelson. 

For Brake, it was ‘anyones guess’ what the oft-referred to Prince of Darkness would do next. 

“He can turn his hand to anything,” he said. 

Richards said it would not be the last of him even if Labour were to lose the election. “He sees his role to try to keep the whole show on the road,” said Richards. 

“He’s utterly tribal and will be heavily involved in choosing Gordon Browns successor if Labour were to lose.” 

For Pickles, the answer was obvious. 

“I think he will be a chat show host.”

Revolutionary expectations

Article in TIME mag on Chinese politics looking at the country 60 years after the communist victory. The author, an academic named David Shambaugh, gave a wonderful phrase ‘the revolution of rising expectations’ to describe China’s progression towards economic liberalisation and modernity.

That China transformed itself when its people decided they wanted more is hardly a radical contention, but I’d argue that today expectation, rather than ideology, is what most revolutions are about.

Because especially in the UK, twenty first century political life, is rarely about major transition. The most left wing of Labour, the furthest to the right of the Conservatives, everyone is fighting for the same thing, more or less. Today in British politics, it’s not what one MP plans to do, but how much more he plans to do than his rival. Less Yes We Can, more Yes We Can Do Better.

China’s rising expectation of course led to some very real and very crucial change. But today in British politics, I wonder how beneficial our rising expectation really is and whether we expect to much.

We expect our public figures to be everything; celebrity, intellectual, adversarial power broker and consensus maker. They have to do everything for everyone, be all things to all people. The problem is that meeting all these expectations is time-consuming work and often a distraction from the real business of running the country.

Our government is castigated for making promises they cannot keep, but they make them because their electorate demands a solution ‘now’, even when ‘now’ isn’t really possible.

Meanwhile, to cater to rising expectations the opposition makes promises all across the board, never mind how patently contradictory they are, as the Lib Dems have demonstrated fabulously this week by calling for both spending cuts and the so-called ‘mansion tax’.

Wanting more materially has to be seen as one root of the credit crunch; likewise, wanting a quick fix cure to it has just created mass dissatisfaction. Everyone expects more of Brown and his government.

Our politicians should aim high and raise their own expectations. The electorate must be there to push them, to challenge them to better serve. But, especially when compared with China’s recent history, we have it pretty good with British politics. Things can be better, but they could also be a whole lot worse; Cameron could be in charge. Maybe we need to level our high expectations a tad.

After all, as my Nana would always point out, we can’t always get what we want.