Balls relishing scent of battle as Tories target his own backyard

ED Balls is not known for mincing his words.

Ed Balls
Ed Balls

“I think it was a ridiculous speech,” the Shadow Chancellor says, true to form, as he muses on David Cameron’s much-hyped proclamation on the future of Europe last month.

“What was its point and purpose?” He shakes his head dismissively. “Why would you do this now?”

We are speaking in a smart Westminster dining room, just hours before the Prime Minister is due to begin the latest round of talks on the EU budget in Brussels.

All eyes are once again on Europe – just as they were three weeks ago when, for many observers, Mr Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union left Labour on the back foot for the first time in months.

Mr Balls is having none of it.

“The opinion polls showed that for 24 hours there was a bit of a boost for Cameron... but then it’s back to where it was,” he says.

“Even among Ukip voters, Europe is not the biggest issue. For the population more widely, it’s a long way down the list of important things.”

The Shadow Chancellor is convinced that for the average voter, the EU barely registers when compared with concerns about the flat-lining economy, stagnant wages and the rising cost of living.

“David Cameron’s dilemma is that if Europe’s going to be the most important issue that puts Labour on the back foot, he’s got to get it from item 20 (on people’s priorities) to item one, two, three,” Mr Balls says. “But how does he do that?”

Describing himself as a “sensible, pragmatic, pro-European”, Mr Balls says he is “totally for a reformed Europe; not the status quo”.

Nonetheless, he must be concerned that, given Ed Miliband’s reluctance to match Mr Cameron’s referendum pledge, Labour is going to find itself going into the general election being accused of “not trusting the public”?

The Shadow Chancellor responds with a stern warning for his party.

“That slightly depends on how stupid we are, doesn’t it?” he says. “But it also depends on how this plays out.”

He goes on: “As long as we don’t allow ourselves to be caricatured as an anti-referendum party, which we’re not – we’ve absolutely not ruled out a referendum – I personally think that for now this is quite a good, quite a comfortable position for us.

“If we allow ourselves either to be the ‘status quo party’ on Europe, or the ‘anti-referendum party’ on Europe, then we’ve got a problem. But I think we would be pretty stupid to allow ourselves to get into either of those positions.”

Still only 45, it’s clear that with two decades’ experience under his belt at the top of the Labour Party Mr Balls feels he knows a thing or two about political strategy. He joined Gordon Brown’s team in the Shadow Treasury back in the early 1990s – alongside party leader Ed Miliband – before becoming an MP in his own right in West Yorkshire in 2005.

His safe seat at Normanton was abolished by the boundary commission the following year, however, and in 2010 he found himself fighting a rearguard action in the newly-created Morley and Outwood marginal.

Having clung on to his seat by little more than 1,000 votes last time, he knows the Tories are already targeting his seat again.

But this being Ed Balls, he relishes the prospect.

“Nothing is more galvanising for the Labour Party voters and supporters in Morley and Outwood than to read about these Tory targets,” he says. “It is incredibly helpful. It’s fabulous.”

Every year, he says, he cooks a meal for the volunteers who flock to deliver leaflets on his behalf. Every year, he says, there are more and more – and not just because his cooking is of a famously high standard.

“Last time we had spaghetti bolognaise,” he says. “We did a very nice Lyon chorizo stew; we did beef bourguignon one year.

“We got up to about 90 who came last time – cooking for 90 is not straight forward. But it’s substantially more than the Conservative Party have members in the entire constituency. And they can’t find a candidate.

“But the [canvassers] partly come because the Tories keep announcing it’s a target.”

The Conservatives have a different view. Indeed, many Tories see Mr Balls as a constant reminder to the voters of Labour’s past economic failures.

“Well that is exactly what the Tories are desperate to achieve,” Mr Balls says. “The reality is the Tories want to fight the election about the past, because they are very fearful now about an election about the present and the future.

“The reason why they’re having to ratchet up the decibels against Ed and me in the last six months is because the economy has gone back into double-dip recession.

“They’re so worried about the ‘now’, they’re trying to get back to the one thing which they can camp on – the past.”

Mr Balls seems confident voters will have changed their opinion of Labour by 2015.

“Their doubts about Labour will be about... Can you deliver? Can you change things? What’s the plan? Can we trust you?

“Not about the past.”