IT WAS one of the great pieces of political oratory. Many, many years ago, when the Tories were still in power, Michael Heseltine ridiculed a speech made by Gordon Brown in which the then shadow chancellor used the phrase “neoclassical endogenous growth theory”.
The speech had been written by Brown’s adviser at the time, Ed Balls. Mr Heseltine’s line that “it wasn’t Brown’s, it was Balls”, has gone down in political history.
Given that the Tories were soon out of power and that Mr Balls first joined Mr Brown as a senior political adviser in the Treasury and went on to serve as a Cabinet minister, it could be argued the joke was eventually on Lord Heseltine, as he became. The famously combative Mr Balls was at the heart of the Labour government for more than a decade and played a significant part in shaping the country’s destiny.
Yet what goes around comes around in politics and with Labour defeated under Mr Brown, Mr Balls is now in opposition in the role of shadow chancellor trying, as he did in a speech yesterday, to set out a credible political position to regain power. His problem is that the former prime minister still casts a long, dark, shadow over his protégé.
Some of the ideas Mr Balls set out were sensible. He spoke of cutting winter fuel payments for better-off older people. Though the saving would be small, this was a symbolic promise with echoes of the bold pledge by Labour’s leader in Scotland, Johann Lamont, to end the “something for nothing” benefits culture. More controversially, he suggested the welfare cap could higher in London but reduced in areas, like Scotland, where housing costs are lower.
Mr Balls also said that Labour would stick to the coalition’s spending plans for at least its first year in office if it wins power at Westminster and promised “iron discipline” as part of a “tough deficit reduction plan”. Again, sensible pledges which an electorate made sceptical of political promises – and scarred by the experience of the worst recession for many decades – will respond to.
There are, though, two immediate problems for Mr Balls. First, he was unable to spell out in detail his party’s approach to spending other than to indicate it might not be sympathetic to schools free from local authority control and police commissioners, two policies which apply only in England and, again, cost relatively little. He will have to give far more detail in the run up to the election.
However, there is a bigger problem for Mr Balls. He was at the centre of Labour’s management of the economy which led, eventually, from boom to bust and the massive bail-out of the banks we are all still paying for. It is impossible for the shadow chancellor to present himself as a fresh new political face, with fresh new plans to revive our ailing economy. There is only one conclusion. To paraphrase Lord Heseltine, the problem now for Labour isn’t Brown, it’s Balls.
Teachers well placed to guide debate
One of the most refreshing findings of the survey of opinions of 14 to 17-year-olds in Scotland, published yesterday, was that our young people are anxious to know more about the historic referendum on independence.
More than two-thirds said they would like more information on the constitutional debate before they finally make up their minds on how to vote, they will for the first time after the SNP government – rightly – lowered the voting age to 16.
Much of the responsibility for providing these admirably enthusiastic youngsters with that information will fall on the shoulders of Scotland’s teachers. We are sure, teachers will relish this opportunity to inform their pupils of the complexities of the independence debate. It will come as second nature to teachers, particularly those whose discipline is modern studies, to set out both sides of the argument in a fair and balanced way to allow their charges to come to their own conclusions.
However, given the sensitivity of this of all votes, it is a wise decision to send out guidance to schools on how this should be done. As we report today, one of the country’s largest education authorities has told staff they must “facilitate fair and balanced discussions”, but not express their own opinions. National guidance will follow from the Education Scotland quango, in consultation with heads of education and the Electoral Commission.
With passions running high on both sides, such guidelines, if applied proportionately and sensibly, will not only ensure pupils are objectively well informed but also give teachers and councils the reassurance that they are following agreed rules and avoid any suggestion of bias towards either the unionist or nationalist side.