Who is peddling fantasies? A riposte to Ed Balls

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LBC Radio called me this morning to discuss Ed Balls' suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn is peddling a left wing utopian fantasy. Because of family commitments I could not do the broadcast, but it left me thinking about the suggestion and what I might have said.

First, let me be clear, I may think Jeremy Corbyn is unable to lead Labour to an election victory but that's because he hasn't got the skills to organise his party or connect with much of society, and not because of his policies, where my criticism is that he has not gone far enough, or coherently enough.

Second, there really is not much in terms of policy to differentiate Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, whatever Momentum might like to claim. What is quite clear is that Momentum is to the left of both of them, and Corbyn and McDonnell most especially.

Third, the chance that Labour will elect a leader who does not subscribe to left wing opinion or some time to come seems very remote indeed: whenever Jeremy Corbyn ceases to be leader (and it will happen) the chance that the party will then decide that anyone with opinion remotely close to those of Ed Balls is very limited indeed. In that case it seems like Ed Balls will, if he continues to think himself to be part of Labour, will feel very remote from the party for a long time to come.

Alternatively this suggests his comments do instead indicate three things.  These are that he thinks that the party will split; then that the new party will back something other than a left wing utopian fantasy, which I suspect is other wise called neoliberalism; and, most importantly, this is what the public want. I have not read Balls' book, of course, and expect it is not this explicit, but I cannot really see what else might underpin his thinking. So the question then is, might be be right?

I do not think he is. Let me run through another list of reasons.

First, and most importantly, the people of this country did reject the Labour vision of Britain of which Balls was a key architect. That was not because it was too left wing but because it was wholly unclear what it actually was. It was a confusion that continued throughout the Miliband years. Small gestures (the most obvious being the one offered by Balls when he suggested that one of his five indeas for reviving the economy was little better than cutting the rate of VAT on replacement windows to 5%) were the order of the day. Only on rare moments did it really try to connect, for example on energy pricing, tackling the failure of markets (which was a theme that seemed to fade almost as soon as it arose) and on the domicile rule. And infighting was all too apparent: I well remember providing Ed Miliband's office with ideas on tackling tax havens and other tax issues in more than one January when they were desperate to put out a message to neutralise yet another Ed Balls attack on working people at a Fabian conference. Balls himself never once engaged with the tax abuse agenda in any way.

Second, although it was never said it was obvious Balls' Labour was neoliberal. That meant he, and those like him, were what I called cowardly politicians in my book The Courageous State. When faced with any challenge Balls did, and no doubt still does, think the market can provide the solution. So he outsourced economic policy to a quasi-independent Bank of England. And he outsourced infrastructure investment to PFI. And schools continued to become academies whilst the NHS internal market was developed as the foundation for all that the Tories did in 2012. They even wanted to sell the Royal Mail. What people realised was that if there was an issue requiring a decision Labour would find someone else to take it. In which case to choose a party that was explicitly made up of those drawn from the business groupings that Labour then believed in - otherwise called the Conservatives - became a logical choice for any electorate to make.

Third, because what Blair Brown, Balls, Miliband and others did was hand the agenda to the Right and then exit from the Left stage. In the process they built a political vacuum whilst giving the Tories the chance to resoundingly ring fence it - as the boundary changes will prove. If any part of Labour continues to think that working in the middle right is an answer to their problems then they are seriously deluded.

The reason for this is that, fourthly, neoliberalism has failed. It was always built on a fantasy, which was that markets allocate resources efficiently: they don't, because the conditions required for them to do so cannot exist. And neoliberalism presumed that because markets were inherently more efficient than the state it followed that shrinking the state was always the right thing to do. This was not a fantasy, it was just dangerously wrong. As the state withdrew from its responsibilities the vulnerable were left exposed, and without the support they needed. Tax abuse rose. Inequality began to increase. The power of people in employment to secure a fair share of the rewards from their labour was undermined. And division in society became more apparent. It's a trend still growing. And it is not chance. It was the result of policy, including the policy Balls believed in that handed power to those who thought controlling inflation to protect those with wealth was more important than protecting those in need and total GDP growth was, in utilitarian fashion, more important than worrying about whether those in need saw any benefit from it.

The result of all of this is that in a country which is supposedly one of the richest in the world 1 million people use food banks. I do not dispute that the Tories made things worse from 2010, but Labour's failure to take them on - most critically in the early summer of 2015 when it so pursued policies on benefits of which Balls would have no doubt approved - showed just how bankrupt his view of Labour had become. Labour was participating in a fantasy that it could not afford those on benefits or meet their needs. But for those who suffered this was not about fantasies: this was about brutal realities.

It's not a left wing fantasy to say Labour has to care enough to ensure all can meet their basic needs.

And that it must house people.

Whilst  delivering them employment on a living wage, inclduing by ensuring that they have the right to be represented by a trade union.

It's not fantasy to say markets exploit, when they do. It's not utopian to say that this abuse, whether on zero hours, pensions, executive pay, the environment, PFI lending, marketisation and privatisation of the NHS,  the handing of school free holds to the private sector, student fees and so much more should be tackled.

And it's not utopian to say that beating tax abuse is a priority because unless it is big business will abuse small business and companies using tax havens will beat honest UK companies.

These things aren't even that left wing. They would leave a market in place. But a fairer, more honest, more effective and prosperous market (because that's what more honest markets are).

And it permits choice when choice is appropriate, but guarantees excellence when it is not possible.

But most of all it ensures there is a safety net that delivers the freedom from fear that lets people take the risk to innovate in all the ways we need if society is to develop to meet the real needs of the twenty first century.

The foundation of that is a Courageous State, which is the last thing Ed Balls believes in. He's still running away from such a notion when all the people of this country are asking for is a state that will step up to the mark and play the role that they know is demanded of it within a mixed economy in which all can prosper.

Ed Balls is right that Jeremy Corbyn cannot deliver this, which is a shame. But to think for one minute that what Corbyn, Smith or most of those now flocking to Labour want is some socialist utopia is not just daft, it's an insult to everything Labour once stood for. Ed Balls should hang his head in shame for suggesting such a thing. And it's he who needs to take his fantasies elsewhere, in which place they will remain as electorally unsuccessful as they were in 2010 and 2015.