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Friday, 21 January 2011

Johnson resigns; Balls steps up

I am personally saddened that Alan Johnson has resigned as shadow chancellor over issues with his private life.

I don't think appointing Johnson the economic portfolio was the best choice Ed Miliband could have made. Neither do I think his performance as shadow chancellor was strong; on the contrary, he often looked confused and out of his depth. And no - I am not sorry to see him go simply because he was ineffective in his current role.

Alan Johnson was the one of the more likable of the Labour shadow cabinet. He of course is not a liberal - his record on civil liberties, anti-terror legislation and ID cards is testament to that. But he was the kind of Labour MP who favoured closer working ties with the Liberal Democrats - a moderate who naturally favoured collaborative approaches to politics. A supporter not merely of the AV referendum but real PR he's not of the tribalist ilk - in 1995 he was the only senior union official to support scrapping Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution.

But the what Johnson really had going for him was that he was the most human of the Labour front bench. Not only that, he had a had the rare ability to easily identify with people; a "common touch" if you like that proved a considerable asset. Without him, the shadow cabinet have as much personality, charisma and humanity as a mannequin.

Johnson's time as shadow chancellor was characterised by gaffes. At times, he appeared to lack basic knowledge of his brief. But it would appear that his resignation has been genuinely prompted by unspecified personal issues rather than his performance. Channel 4 political editor Gary Gibbon blogged "it seems Alan Johnson's departure from frontline politics is to do with affairs of the heart not health and not politics."

Johnson's resignation statement read: "I have personal issues and not by decided to resign from the shadow cabinet for personal reasons to do with my family. I have found it difficult to cope with these personal issues in my private life whilst carrying out an important frontbench role. I am grateful to Ed Miliband for giving me the opportunity to serve as shadow chancellor of the exchequer. He is proving to be a formidable leader of the Labour party and has shown me nothing but support and kindness. My time in parliament will now be dedicated to serving my constituents and supporting the Labour Party. I will make no further comment about this matter."

There has been intense speculation regarding the nature of the "personal issues". I am not interested in the detail, but feel it a shame that they have fored him to cut short his political career. While he was undeniably a poor choice as shadow chancellor, he was an asset not only to Labour's front bench but to British politics more generally.

Ed Balls replaces Johnson; Yvette Cooper replaces Balls as shadow home secretary. On one level, this is positive for Labour. Balls undeniably has economic experience as well as the ability to more capably scrutinise the government's handling of the economy. He's clearly an able politician, who will want to take the economic debate to the government and will relish the battle with Osborne. Unlike Johnson, who recognised his limitations, Balls has a particularly high opinion of his own abilities. However, on another level, the decision is a strange one: not only does Balls lack popularity among the grassroots of his own party, he carries responsibility for the economic legacy of the Brown government. He's inextricably identified with the failed and discredited economic policy of the Labour administration and will struggle to shake off the association.

If Ed Miliband is serious about forging a new direction for Labour, it seems strange he should turn to Balls. Such a move suggests a continuity; that little has changed from the Brown era. As Lib Dem Stephen Williams observed, "the decision to appoint Ed Balls as shadow chancellor shows that the Labour Party is now determined to carry on with the Gordon Brown economic plan that caused so much trouble for this country. Ed Balls isn't just a deficit denier, he's a deficit enthusiast."

The loss of Johnson provided a test for Ed Miliband. Unfortunately, he's compromised his own position by appointing Balls. It's completely inconsistent and disingenuous of him to apologise for Labour's mistakes when he replaces his shadow chancellor with the man most associated with those mistakes.

Ironically, in spite of Johnson's inept performance as shadow chancellor and Balls' undoubted expertise, losing Johnson from the front bench could actually have a negative effect on Labour's credibility - especially among grassroots activists who shared an affinity with Johnson that the rest of the shadow cabinet, Burnham perhaps excepted, can not match.

I wish Alan Johnson the best for the future, especially in regards his personal life. His contributions to British politics were not always positive, but he was a rare human face among the Labour machinery of Westminster.

Balls will fancy himself as a skilful operator. I look forward to seeing him take on Osborne; I am sure the economic debate will now take on an increased intensity. However, it will be interesting to see where Labour now goes regarding economic policy - does it stay with its pre-election position or does it adjust to tackle the new realities? In short, does Labour draw up sensible policies to deal with the deficit and become an active part of the solution, or does it continue to simply opportunistically oppose whatever the government's current position happens to be?

Can a leopard change its spots? I for one can't wait to find out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Labour supporter I liked reading this and I am very heartened that a Liberal can say such positive things about Alan Johnson.You are right that he was a rare human face in politics.He had a common touch as you say that set him apart from most politicians.A shame he's had to resign,I feel so sorry for him with everything thats happened.Thanks for a well balanced opinion anyway.