Ed Balls’ Speaking Out will be regarded as one of best written and readable political autobiographies of his generation. It is not in the class of Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life, though there are some interesting parallels between Balls and Healey – serious intellectuals with brilliant minds, both bruisers in build and temperament, not afraid of making enemies, willing to ‘mix it’ to get their way, yet with a capacity to break through with the public as fun characters, grounded in their hinterlands and happy family lives. If Balls had not lost his Morley and Outwood seat, he could have risen as high as Healey – possibly higher.
Balls does not offer a standard historical account of his career, rather a series of reflections around themes, some humorous, often self-deprecating, occasionally revealing, but mixed in with serious ‘gobbets’ of analysis of politics and public policy. The reader finishes the book feeling warm towards the author, which I presume is intended. It is a clever, original format and it works.
Yet a chronological history of political life would enable a more rounded judgement to be made. Phase One was 1992-2001 when as the key economic adviser to Gordon Brown, Balls helped re-establish Labour’s economic credibility. This achievement was of immense historic significance as the foundation stone of New Labour’s electoral success and governing strength. Never let the credit be taken away from Brown: also his choice of economic adviser was brilliant.
Phase Two was the TB-GB struggles, at their most intense between 2001-7. Here Balls paints a thick coat of shiny gloss. There were genuine policy differences over public service reform. The troubles were not all a result of what Balls and his friends chose to interpret as a nascent leadership bid by Alan Milburn. The Treasury strongly advocated the principle that investment had to be accompanied by ‘reform’. But its idea of ‘reform’ – top-down ‘public service agreement s’ setting targets for departments – proved of limited effectiveness. There had to be structural reform as well – hence academies and foundation trusts – and a use of third-party providers in the NHS as well as university tuition fees. As prime minister, Brown made few changes to these reforms: in most respects he was as ‘New Labour’ as Tony Blair. But the Brownite, well-advertised reservations on these issues did long-term damage within the party. In addition there was the euro where the received wisdom is that Balls was right all along – on which I could write much, and will one day!
Phase Three is 2007-15, as education secretary and then shadow chancellor. In my view, Balls, now as a major political figure in his own right, got the policy right but the politics wrong. He was right in emboldening Brown to take decisive action in the banking crisis and opposing the Osborne austerity in 2010. He was wrong never to have offered a coherent account of what Labour had got right and what it had got wrong in its 13 years of economic management, allowing the Osborne myth of Labour incompetence to take root.
In politics, Balls could have achieved much more. It is a tragedy for Labour he is no longer around.
Roger Liddle is co-chair of Policy Network and a member of the House of Lords
Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics by Ed Balls
Hutchinson | 430pp | £20
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