Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

New balls please?

The most intriguing and careful political dance of Labour’s new year has been between Ed Balls and Ed Miliband

After Miliband declined to guarantee Balls the keys to No 11 Downing Street during an interview with the Mirror, Team Balls whispered in the ear of Kevin Maguire that their Ed would rather go to the backbenches than accept a demotion.

A few days later, Miliband smoothed ruffled feathers by telling James Landale he would keep Balls as chancellor right up to the general election, but carefully avoided a promise beyond that.

Your insider hears that from the leader’s perspective this was all just a question of phrasing. Miliband has been impressed by Balls’ strength since becoming shadow chancellor, but does not want to guarantee anyone a cabinet position. The leader certainly did not mean to stoke speculation about a switch.

Unfortunately, that does not relax those around Balls, sharply aware that there are often whispers from Miliband‘s soft left allies  that the shadow chancellor is insufficiently interested in talk of reconstructing the economy and suchlike.

Both men also know the job of shadow chancellor is going to get more difficult as spending choices press in on the party. Balls will need to have the unequivocal backing of the leadership when times get tougher, while Miliband knows he will need a sturdy ally when there is pressure to turn the spending taps on, so he cannot allow any sort of gap to appear between the two which could be exploited by opponents in and outside the party.

All of which meant that when Balls needed stronger reassurance from his leader, he got it.

Managing the brothers

Simon Fletcher, lately of Trotskyite groupuscule Socialist Action and chief of staff to Ken Livingstone, can today be found managing Miliband’s relations with the trade unions, an appointment which has caused a few eyebrows to be raised in Westminster.

The hire partly reflects Labour’s need to manage a more political, assertive and united union leadership. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey recently declared that a return to ‘Blairism’ would mean ‘Labour will be over for me.’ You probably do not respond to this by appointing a rightwinger.

Fletcher is also regarded, even by critics, as much the brightest and best of the old Socialist Action crowd, being more politically flexible than older ideologues, and much more discreet than some famous names.

As a result, many party organisers found him congenial during the mayoral election, and he made a point of working hard for Steve Reed in the Croydon North by-election, although Reed was very unlikely to be his first choice for that selection.

Miliband and Fletcher have one other thing in common – both are ‘teabags’, or Tony Benn Archive Graduates, as Benn dubs his former researchers.

This shared heritage is perhaps another sign that Miliband’s Labour party is intended to be a broad, all-inclusive sort of place, a party where former Bennite Lions and New Labour lambs can work together for the good of all.

But once the general secretary elections and the affiliation ballots are out of the way, union leaders will have to decide how much pressure to put on Labour to move leftwards. Fletcher’s job will be to reassure, soothe, and most of all, stop them pushing too hard in public.

The question some will ask is: what if he agrees with them?

No Ken do?

While an old ally is on the up, Livingstone himself becomes an increasingly marginalised figure, even on the left.

He may have topped the National Executive Committee election results, but Livingstone’s call for independent Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman to be readmitted to the party was laughed out of consideration at the recent meeting of the committee’s powerful organisation subcommittee, and his formerly close-knit team have found other homes, whether in Respect, like Lee Jasper, closer to the Labour mainstream, or working for major global giants of capitalism, like Mark Watts, Ken’s green adviser and Socialist Action alumnus.

At the same time, not one of the mooted candidates for London mayor is particularly close to Livingstone. Indeed, the early favourite, Sadiq Khan, now Labour’s London spokesman and thus in pole position for a 2016 mayoral bid, has been very careful not to associate himself with the identity politics Livingstone favours.

Despite having said he is done with politics, your insider suspects the former mayor’s ego will not allow him to go gentle into that good night. Watch out for an attempt to reassert himself as a Labour idol, whether on the left or in London.

Early bEUrds get the worm

As the rest of the nation was celebrating the new year, a select set of party activists were busy submitting their applications to be Labour MEPs. For those who missed it, the deadline to be a candidate was new year’s eve.

Did you miss the deadline? You are not alone. The MEP candidate recruitment process was not the most well publicised ever. Now the happy few candidates will go to regional selection boards to be winnowed down to the number of spaces on the ballot, before members vote to decide the order.

If we do as well as the polls currently suggest, we could see twice as many Labour MEPs as now. Those who top the new list in each region have a very good chance of being elected.

All of which has led to dark and totally unfair suggestions that the selections process is making those who have an interest in seeing safe, reliable people adopted as candidates very happy indeed.

Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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