Friday, 28 January 2011

Reflections on a brilliant (Shadow) Chancellor

He has always been seen as a heavyweight and a bruiser. He has experience of the Treasury at the highest level and was well-respected there. He is ferociously intelligent, one of the brightest of all his Oxford contemporaries who, famously, does not suffer fools gladly. And, despite failing in his bid to be elected leader, there is no doubt of his importance as de facto Number Two for the Labour Party, coming at a time of great turmoil for both the Party and the economy; a politician seen as a ballast of rigour against the madder and less thought-out ideas of some of his colleagues on the left.

But this is not yet another paean to Ed Balls: although it could be, in the future. Raise your glasses instead to 93 year-old Denis Healey, arguably the most celebrated Labour-leader-who-never-was of my lifetime. This article was written a week ago but, as chance would have it, we also have a couple of new insights thanks to John Rentoul’s coverage of Healey’s recent Mile End Group speech.

Of course, there are as many dissimilarities as similarities. Unlike Balls, he was not an academic economist, but a double-First Classicist who, despite his on-the-job training, learned his brief well and actually made it to be Chancellor. And, in other ways, he is more like the man who did Balls’ job until last week, Alan Johnson: not as driven as his colleagues for power and, indeed, a somewhat reluctant leader (he in fact rejected the job of Shadow Chancellor initially, saying he wanted to stay at Defence). Both men ran for Deputy Leader, although Johnson didn’t get it, by a whisker. Both men, famously, have had a significant life both before and outside politics.

Of course, we cannot fairly contrast Healey’s career with Balls’ because Balls is still in the middle of his. We genuinely don’t know yet whether he will go on to become a towering figure like Healey, a run-of-the-mill politician or even a political failure. He certainly seems to have the base material for greatness; but unkind politics is always full of that sort of uncertainty. The political graveyard is littered with “nearly” men and women.

And there is one more thing which stands out about Healey. Despite his brilliance, he is not always remembered as a great Chancellor. To be fair, it didn’t help that he had to deal with the fallout from two oil crises and a party which was slowly killing itself. But he is closely associated, along with Callaghan, with the disastrous Winter of Discontent, which immediately preceded Labour’s 18 unhappy years of wilderness-wandering (although, to be fair again, he also largely redeemed himself by wading in to save the Party from the Bennite left in the early 80s).

Now, 2011 is not 1978. There are innumerable ways in which these cases are not comparable. But it is useful to remember a few ways in which they are: firstly, unlike mathematics, in economics there is no universal truth. There are points of view, and endless debate. You may be brilliantly-versed in it, but that does not mean you are right. You must still be challenged. You must still be open to debate. You must still adapt to circumstances. And there is the politics to get right as well as the economics.

The second is this: we do not choose our moment in history to come to the fore. Both men probably would have preferred to choose other moments than their own for national prominence: in both cases, the happenstance of electoral defeat and economic crisis has surely made their lives very different than they might otherwise have been. Timing, luck and the state of your opponents also play their part.

And there is a simple third. We seem to be at a moment of inflection, where Labour could either gravitate back towards the discipline we had in government, or descend into the traditional internecine fighting which will keep us out of it. The only way to avoid this is to steer clear of the Blairite/Brownite wars and set an example at the top. Healey understood this: after all, he helped hold it together through the worst part of the previous generation’s conflict.

The question for the future: will Balls suffer the same fate as his predecessor and find himself the brilliant mind peaking at the wrong end of history, at the start of a wilderness period? It is too early to tell. I truly hope not. He is talented, has proved himself a doughty fighter and largely believes in the right things. Dammit, he must succeed, for all our sakes.

But if Denis, with all the years and the greatness, had something to pass on to Ed, perhaps he might just comment on some common ground. One, clever people do not always get things right, so listen. Two, remember not to bite your colleagues, as that will always come back to bite you.

And three: timing is everything, so you may or may not be screwed anyway, old son.

A version of this article first posted at Labour Uncut.

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