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As a Jew, I am always deeply grateful that when fleeing anti-semitism in Poland my late father found refuge in Britain. Like so many other Jews in Britain, I know in my heart, in my very bones, that had it not been for this country, my parents and grandparents would not have lived and I would not have been born. My father had a Hebrew phrase for Britain; he called it a malkhut shel chessed, a “kingdom of kindness”, and indeed that it what it has been.
I will never forget the words of one of the members of our community who was rescued from Nazi Germany in 1939 by the operation known as Kindertransport. Many decades later, by now in her eighties, she spoke at the Memorial erected to commemorate that operation, outside Liverpool Street Station where the children had arrived. She spoke of her surprise and joy at discovering that in Britain a policeman was a friend, not an enemy! That is the mark of a kingdom of kindness.
At first, life for my father and other immigrants was hard. Poor, concentrated in ghettoes, barely able to speak English, they were caricatured as alien elements in British life. Jews who remember those days can readily sympathise with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims today.
Yet what the Jewish experience taught was that whilst there were conflicts and a long struggle to define an identity that was both British and Jewish, these were pains of adjustment not permanent conditions. Today, our community thinks of itself as proudly British and Jewish. Integration and acceptance happened, but it did not happen overnight.
Today’s debate around immigration – is it a good thing, a bad thing or a good thing gone too far – is fraught and delicate. At its heart, however, should be a discussion beyond economic issues that addresses the fundamental questions of what defines British identity, what is loyalty to the nation, and what binds us in a bond of mutual responsibility as we work for the common good.
What previously held our society together and helped immigrants to integrate – a common language, a shared culture, a collective code of conduct – are now fragmented. The internet has added to the complexity, making it possible to physically live in one place but mentally somewhere else.
Recovering a sense of the common good requires steps from both sides. As a society, we need to have pride in our identity, our history and heritage and want newcomers to share it. On the other hand, those who come here from elsewhere would do well to heed the advice of the prophet Jeremiah to seek the “peace and prosperity” of the country. To be a blessing to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith is the best formula I know for creating a collective sense of identity and community.
Immigration will always be an important part of our political discourse, but we must remain vigilant in the way we frame the issues and the rhetoric we use to debate them. There is no place in the debate for prejudice, xenophobia, and the appeal to baser instincts of fear toward the stranger. The history of the twentieth century should remind us what can happen if we begin to blame this or that group for our misfortunes. Britain’s greatness is that it did not go down that road at a time when mainland Europe was rife with anti-semitism. Nations that are confident of their own identity have no need for the politics of fear, and we should avoid it at all costs now and in the future.
We are living through an age of immense change, and change creates insecurities that are easily translatable into suspicion and hate. That is why it is so important that Britain remains a “kingdom of kindness” to those who seek refuge in its shores. Britain gave much to those who came here, and they gave much in return. There is a genuine debate to be had about immigration, but it must be conducted with wisdom, generosity and restraint.
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth between 1991 and 2013
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Nick Boles strides through an unusually peaceful Portcullis House, his 6ft 6in frame making him a pretty difficult figure to miss. It’s 9.30am, a time you might expect to find the ground floor of PCH bustling with Westminster dwellers getting their morning fix of coffees, croissants and conspiracy. But this morning the attention of most of the political world is elsewhere, as David Cameron delivers what’s been billed for weeks as a game-changing – perhaps even premiership-saving – speech on immigration, which is just getting under way as we meet.
It’s a moment that Boles himself can claim some credit for helping to bring about. For several years he's been one of the loudest voices in Government calling for a tougher line on migration, using his proximity to the Prime Minister – the pair have known each other for over a decade, going back to their days together in the influential ‘Notting Hill set’ of modernising Tories – and his reputation on the liberal wing of his party to make the progressive case for reform. Concern over the impact of immigration, he’s long warned, must not be something which exercises only the right wing of British politics.
On more than one occasion his comments on migration have landed him in hot water, not least his recent apparent admission that Britain cannot control its borders while it remains in the European Union. But there’s no doubt that on this topic, among others, Nick Boles has the Prime Minister’s ear. Indeed, it was reportedly on his advice – in an email sent to Cameron’s inner circle in September – that No 10 decided to make reform of freedom of movement a red line in negotiations with Brussels, triggering today’s speech. And while other Conservative MPs are hanging on Cameron’s words, Boles has already read the speech “in quite some detail” before its delivery, he says – another indication perhaps of his status as a trusted consigliere to the PM. So what does he make of the final product?
“I must say, I couldn’t be happier. I think he’s striking exactly the right balance between something that will genuinely change the way freedom of movement works, but which isn’t striking at its fundamental principle, which is one of the key principles of the single market. This isn’t ripping up the freedom of movement principle. What it’s doing is reimposing proper controls, so the people who come here are people who actually have a job offer and actually have the means to support themselves without tax credits and housing benefit and the like.”
The chief criticism of the speech from the Tory right – and Ukip – is over the lack of a cap or mechanism to control numbers, and Boles admits the plan “won’t enable us to literally say 'we want 20,000 this year'”. “But what it does enable us to do,” he continues, “is say that anybody who’s moving here speculatively – without any job prospects, without money to support themselves – will not be able to do so, and will not be able to claim any in-work benefits. And that I think will actually lead to a substantial cut in the numbers of people moving here.”
He concedes that negotiations with the EU over freedom of movement “are not going to be a walk in the park”. “But negotiations never are; and if a negotiation is then you’re probably not asking for enough. So it’s a tough demand, but there’s no fundamental reason why the rest of the EU shouldn’t agree to it. And if they do agree to it, I think it will make it much more likely that the British people will vote to stay in the EU. I think it will end up becoming the litmus test for most British voters as to whether or not they are willing to support continued membership of the EU.”
The Prime Minister also used the speech to launch a thinly veiled attack on Ukip, warning of the need to “anchor the debate in fact, not prejudice” and hitting out at those he said were using immigration “to foment division”. It’s a sentiment echoed by Boles, who is careful to say he does “not blame anyone for trying to make a better life for themselves”, and to highlight the benefits immigration brings to constituencies like his in Lincolnshire, where many businesses “would just have to shut” if EU migration came to a halt.
But the Skills Minister goes one step further than the Prime Minister in the war of words with Nigel Farage’s party, accusing Ukip of favouring an “uncivilised” policy of repatriation. In a recent interview, Douglas Carswell hit out at the Conservative plan to clamp down on in-work benefits received by EU citizens, claiming that while the change would not allow the UK to actually control numbers, it was nonetheless “illiberal” and would create “a two-tier system” on a par with “a Gulf state”. Boles says he is “a big fan” of Carswell’s, but balks at the charge of illiberalism from the Clacton MP. “This is from a party that wants to repatriate, that wants leave the EU and tell everybody – no matter how long they’ve been living in my constituency, no matter how long their children have been studying in one of my primary schools – they want to tell them to go home. That’s what Ukip want to do. The idea that we are being illiberal! What Ukip is proposing is uncivilised and frankly inhumane. So I’m not going to take any lessons from Douglas Carswell on what is and is not a liberal policy."
The hope now is that Cameron’s speech can draw a line under immigration as an election issue, and allow the Conservatives to shift the debate onto terrain where they feel more comfortable taking on both Ukip and Labour – the economy and jobs. It’s another area where the Skills Minister, characteristically, is not short of a few ideas.
In the five months since he was promoted to the brief in the summer reshuffle, Boles has been reflecting on his biggest challenge: persuading more businesses to invest in an apprentice. While the popularity of “wildly oversubscribed” schemes at prestigious firms like Jaguar Land Rover suggests an increasing appetite among young people for on-the-job learning, the minister knows much more must be done to convince Britain's thousands of small and medium-sized firms to follow suit.
As we approach the election his team at BIS are putting the finishing touches to a new apprenticeship funding system – due to be unveiled “in the new year” – which would see government cash given directly to employers themselves rather than training providers, as happens under the current scheme. The idea is to put businesses in the driving seat, handing them the power to shop around among providers and “pick and choose” the services which suit them. "Some employers, or groups of employers, may then decide to set up their own in-house training, and that’s great. But others will want to link up with an FE college or a local training provider,” he explains. “What we’re trying to work out now is what’s the way of getting money to them that’s as bureaucratically simple as possible? Of course you have to have checks that they’re not buying flights to Rio with the taxpayers’ money. But I’m very keen to keep those checks as straightforward and simple as possible so that every employer thinks ‘actually, this isn’t off-putting, this could be great’.”
He adds: “At the moment we only have 10% of employers offering apprenticeships. Frankly, that is far too low. But what’s fascinating is I’ve been doing the job since July, and I’ve not yet met a single business leader who has said ‘I used to do apprenticeships but I stopped’. Once you get people over the line, they realise this isn’t just great for young people, it’s also fantastic for their business. You talk to any engineering business and they will tell you that their best engineers are 58, or 62. They’re going to lose them; in five years’ time they’ll all be gone. They realise that unless they start transferring those skills into a new generation, their business’s competitiveness is going to be dramatically affected.
“So the crucial challenge is making this as attractive and easy and straightforward as possible for a new employer who’s just thinking: ‘Can I be bothered? Can I be bothered to go and get involved with the Government, to go through an administrative process, to take on a young person who perhaps might need quite a lot of supervision?’ I’ve got to persuade them that ‘yes, you can be bothered, you’ve got to be bothered, and we’ll help you through it – but this is also ultimately going to bring you and your business a huge amount of value’.”
Young people and businesses may be increasingly receptive to the benefits of apprenticeships, but there’s a third strand to Boles’s charm offensive, too: parents. Particularly among middle-class families, he fears, there is still some way to go before on-the-job qualifications achieve genuine parity of esteem with the university route, with many parents – and even teachers – still retaining a traditional view that associates apprenticeships with the heavy industry which declined in the 1970s and 80s.
“People’s idea of the relevance of an apprenticeship was attached to those industries,” he explains. “The big challenge, unquestionably, is how do we ensure that aspirational middle-class parents recognise that an apprenticeship is as valid a route for their son or daughter to take through life as university?
"The reality is, it is as valid. You can get a degree through an apprenticeship. You can get into a senior management position in a company through an apprenticeship. You can earn as much or more as any graduate trainee, joining a big company or small company. Increasingly, young people are realising that the reality is an apprenticeship can take you just as far as university – it’s just a different route. It’s not a worse or better route; it isn’t a high road and a low road. That’s a reality that young people are increasingly understanding.
“But the groups who haven’t yet understood it are groups who have great influence on young people and their choices – parents and teachers. Changing that perception – that almost entirely misplaced perception – of parents and teachers is the absolute priority for us.”
BIS has launched an advertising campaign – “and as you know, this government has been very mean about spending money on marketing,” Boles adds – designed to showcase the benefits of apprenticeships to young people and their parents, featuring the stories of nine current apprentices at a range of big-name employers, including Deloitte, BAE Systems, Google and ASOS.
“These are great companies, incredibly aspirational jobs. And they’re working absolutely on an even keel and an equal level as graduates in these companies,” he says. “The aim of that campaign is to begin to shift these attitudes so that we no longer have people thinking an apprentice is just a young lad under the bonnet of a car. What we’ve now got to do is make sure that people – and again it’s not the young people, but the parents – understand that there is a whole new world of apprenticeships out there. There is a huge range of new engineering apprenticeships, but there are also apprenticeships in being an accountant, being a lawyer. It can be a whole range of things, it can go right up to degree level, and it can take you as far as you want to go. That’s the attitude we need to shift.”
It’s a sentiment that sums up Boles’s approach to politics: think one step ahead of the crowd, open up new terrain, then shift attitudes to bring others with you. Before becoming an MP he co-founded Policy Exchange, the centre-right thinktank established to forge a new ‘compassionate’ conservatism more at ease with 21st-century Britain. Some of his earlier blue-sky solutions have proved wide of the mark, not least his suggestion that only a perpetual pact with the Lib Dems could bring the Tory party’s modernisation project full circle – an idea he subsequently rejected in a self-flagellating speech last year. But others, including his appeal for the party to embrace same-sex marriage, have proved more consequential.
Alongside his skills brief, Boles was made responsible for the recent legislation to allow gay couples to convert their civil partnerships to marriages – a change which comes into effect next week. Boles – who is himself in a civil partnership – says the revision is an important piece of housekeeping which allows couples to convert their partnerships in a way that’s straightforward, but “also gives them the opportunity to have a ceremony if they want”.
The new plans have passed almost without comment, unlike the original same-sex marriage bill, which proved bitterly divisive in Boles’s party. At the time of its stormy passage through Parliament, local Tory chairmen accused the Prime Minister of ‘betrayal’ and even warned that the plans risked splitting the party and alienating its core vote at the next election. But recent polls have registered a sea change in opinion, with even a majority of Tory and Ukip supporters now said to be in favour.
Despite the initial apocalyptic warnings, Boles says same-sex marriage is simply no longer an issue among the party’s grassroots. “It isn’t. I think people to some extent have agreed to disagree,” he says. “It’s now the law, people are now getting married, and I don’t think there’s anybody out there whose lives have been made worse by this change.
“I have absolute respect for people who, whether for reasons of religious belief or whatever, take the view that we should have left marriage as something between a man and a woman. Nevertheless, a very large majority of the House of Commons and the House of Lords took a different view. And I think you’ll find that in a couple of years’ time, none of us will even be able to remember quite why it was such a big argument at the time.”
As for his own civil partnership, Boles says he will get round to converting it to a marriage “eventually”. “But we do have the little matter of an election in the next few months,” he adds. “So I think it will have to wait.”
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Jack Lawson
“I acquired the nickname ‘The Flying Potato’. I’m not sure that speaks that kindly of my prowess…”
Toby Perkins is a big man, but he’s not out of shape. The Shadow Small Business Minister moonlights as the goalkeeper for the Parliamentary Football Team and has a decent record to show for it. Only this past week, he saved a penalty against a BBC team, a repeat of a similar feat against the lobby’s footballers during the Labour conference. “I do tend to wait now and see which way they are shooting,” he confides.
Perkins has also been watching which way the Coalition has been shooting for some time. And from his recent Commons victory on pub companies regulation to his wider bid to back small firms, his tactics and training appear to be paying off.
After entering Parliament as one of the stars of the 2010 intake, the Chesterfield MP was rapidly promoted by Ed Miliband to his current post. Alongside Chuka Umunna, he’s worked hard to make sure Labour doesn’t pay a penalty for being seen as ‘anti-business’. In fact, as a former self-employed businessman himself, Perkins has toured the country to reassure firms that his party will encourage enterprise and risk-taking, while cutting red tape. With record numbers of people working for themselves (1.4m at last count) as a way out of the recession, he’s determined the political ground isn’t ceded to the Conservatives.
“The first thing is just to be absolutely clear that in an era where we are seeing ever-greater numbers of people self-employed, the Labour party sees it as a legitimate and positive development for our economy,” he says. “There is a real desire to position ourselves as the party that’s always been there to support the alternative to the vested interests, the people who provide a positive, competitive challenge to the established order.”
Perkins says Labour’s historic instinct has been to be “on the side of the little guy” and it should be no different in business. “It fits in exactly with what the Labour party was set up to do, with the founding principles of the party. We understand, encourage, welcome and want to be supportive of people who take that brave step to back themselves.”
As such, Labour is the party of ‘white van man’, he says, adding that the party leadership’s strong response to the recent Emily Thornberry Twitter incident underlined that such small businessmen and women were “people who should be central to a One Nation Labour government”.
Having left school to go into recruitment, sales and IT, Perkins has twice gone it alone himself: once running his own recruitment firm and once selling rugby kits. “The first time I was self-employed I had a nine-month-old son,” he explains. “And I remember very well a feeling, waking up and thinking ‘if I don’t do well today, no one gets paid, we don’t eat’ – it’s a pretty strong motivating force. Setting up a business or becoming self-employed, you do take your life in your hands a bit. It’s something that suits people who’ve got a real sense of confidence in their own abilities and capacity.”
His personal background has gone down well with the private sector. “It gives me a really useful perspective. It’s really welcomed by the business community. In terms of understanding the core motivations people have, the stresses people face and how they might view government interventions, it’s pretty powerful.”
Labour is looking at ensuring “the rules of the game are fair” for those who set up on their own, through the tax system, tightening up late payments and help in getting mortgages, he adds.
He also wants to make sure people are aware of the support Government can offer as they face the daunting range of roles involved in going it alone. “When you are self-employed you are instantly the buyer, the salesperson, the marketing manager, the accountant, the lawyer, the cleaner and a whole variety of other jobs,” he says. If people had more of an awareness of the support available, there would be a further boost for self-employment and a “virtuous circle” of fresh economic growth, he argues.
But Perkins adds that the party also needs to “protect genuine self-employment” by doing more to tackle “bogus self-employment” in sectors like the care services and construction industry. More widely, the Shadow Small Business Minister is keen to get the balance right between sensible regulation and needless red tape. As for industrial tribunals, he says there’s a danger when “businesses feel, as they often do, they acted legitimately but the cost of defending their actions is disproportionate to the value they get from that”.
“We should have a tribunal system that absolutely protects workers against exploitative or illegal practices and defends their right to seek redress, but also doesn’t leave businesses feeling that effectively they’ve been put in a position where they are unable to mount a defence that they consider to be legitimate because the reputational risks are too great.”
He adds that for business, “often by regulation what they mean is preventing litigation…the increasingly litigious society that we live in isn’t always positive.”
Perkins is also keen to get a fairer balance between vocational and academic training, and welcomes the cross-party push on apprenticeships. Does he feel that the snobbery that once affected non-graduates is decreasing?
“I’m one of the few MPs who didn’t go to university. I think that maybe to an extent it is. Apprenticeships are being seen – certainly more than they were a few years ago – as a legitimate option, not just for kids who couldn’t get to university but actually as an alternative to it. Alongside that, we’ve got to be really careful in bigging up the value of apprenticeships that we don’t start demeaning the value of university education.
“Because there’s no doubt that the future the Labour party sees for Britain’s economy is as a high-skilled [one] which really pays. And that does require a workforce that is educated to the best ability it can [be], that takes lifelong learning really seriously but also takes higher education really seriously.”
One area where Labour has made the weather is by championing a UK version of the US’s Small Business Saturday. 6 December marks the second such event, and Perkins says “it also shows that in straitened times, a Labour government can make a difference without spending money”.
Helping retailers is part of the party’s central mission, not least given the large number of people they employ. The Autumn Statement saw fresh support on business rates (Perkins points out that the UK has “the most expensive corporate property tax in the G20”). But Perkins says Labour is willing to think radically about reshaping the high street over the next couple of decades as online shopping soars.
“Too much high street policy has been dictated by ‘we’ve got some empty units and how do we fill it?’. More fundamental questions need to be asked in terms of what the shape of the high street is, how we get people living in our town centres. It’s not just about retail, it’s about retail, culture, leisure and residential coexisting.”
The party is due to publish before Christmas its latest policy review by Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of Iceland and Focus DIY. Perkins says higher-skilled retail jobs are on their way and the UK has a chance to be in the vanguard. “Bill’s clear that clothes shops in 10 or 15 years’ time will not have clothes in them. People are going to be going to a retail store, see a hologram of different items that they will be able to see themselves wearing, and they will be able to change the colours, change the fit.” Skills in IT will be at a greater premium in such jobs of the future, he adds.
Support for the high street has cross-party backing, but on the other key issues of Europe and company takeovers, Perkins says Labour is proving it pays to be distinctive from the Coalition. Big business’s biggest fear is the UK pulling out of the EU, he says. The Tory plan for a 2017 referendum is “a huge hostage to fortune” that firms may speak out about in the runup to the general election, Perkins suggests.
“The business community is increasingly realising that they can’t just sit quietly through a general election – and the Scottish referendum focused minds – and just expect that they can deal with it in 2017,” he says. Firms may “have the courage of their convictions to come out and say Europe is an issue in this election, it isn’t something that has been parked until 2017” because of the potential “instability” it would cause, he adds.
One area where Perkins has certainly made his mark this parliament has been the campaign to change the law on pub companies that tie landlords to rent and beer price deals. After three years of pressure, he recently scored the first Coalition Commons defeat on an item of government legislation. He says the way the government proposals changed “minute by minute” during the passage of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill was “shambolic”.
He’s hopeful that the Coalition won’t push the issue in the Lords. “It would be a foolhardy government that, having lost the argument over three years, and having lost the vote in the House, then try and undermine that.”
The second-tallest MP in Parliament (only Daniel Kawczynski is taller), Perkins has been hard to miss in the Commons since he first won Chesterfield back from the Lib Dems in 2010. For some Conservatives, he perhaps made too much of an impact in the 2013 Spending Round statement, when some of them thought he’d used his middle finger in a rude gesture at George Osborne. Asked why Tory MPs believed he’d misbehaved, he’s deadpan. “Really? I don’t recall. I can’t imagine that it’s the sort of thing I would have done. [The Chancellor] was encouraging us to put our hands up if we supported something. Maybe members opposite misread my supportive gesture.” The faintest hint of a smile plays across his lips.
Even before he became an MP, Perkins caught the eye as a PPC chosen to star at the 2009 Labour conference. He appeared alongside Lucy Powell and Rachel Reeves to interview Gordon Brown on the platform. An appearance on Sky News’ followed. “We were bowled over by all this publicity and we were in the bar of the Grand [Hotel] and Andrew Neil came up to me, he had his microphone and was about to start filming. I thought, ‘this is fantastic, I’ve been on Sky, I’ve been on stage to interview Gordon, and now Andrew Neil wants to talk to me’. And he said: ‘Excuse me, you’re in my shot, could you move off to the left a bit?’ It was a great leveller. He had no idea who I was.”
Perkins says he’s tried to learn his parliamentary trade from those who have gone before him, not least his Labour predecessor in Chesterfield, Tony Benn. “While I had a different analysis to Tony [he backed David Miliband for the party leadership], I was a big fan of Tony as a politician; he was a fabulous orator.”
And a sense of political and poetic tradition runs deep in the family bloodline. His maternal grandfather was John Pudney, an RAF intelligence officer and war poet who wrote the famous For Johnny poem popular in the Second World War. Pudney was also Labour PPC for Sevenoaks at the 1945 election. “I have dug out his election address, which speaks well of the support Labour will give the agricultural industry,” he says.
Perkins’ great-grandfather was AP Herbert, the last independent MP for Oxford University. A great humorist and reformer, Herbert pioneered divorce law changes to help women abandoned by their husbands.
“He had a house along the Thames at Hammersmith, and used to sail to Parliament every day. I don’t know if that’s something that will be repeated. I did kind of think when I got here I might try and copy him the first time. But actually when we got here it was so much overwhelmed by all the talk of who’s going to be in Government, those rather trivial matters got forgotten.”
Herbert also wrote a book, The Ayes Have It, about his time in Parliament – a work Perkins says is “very informative”. “One of the tips he gives is not to do your maiden speech too early. He did his the day after he arrived here and he describes himself as ‘an ass’ for doing so. But although I don’t think I performed quite as early as that, it was advice I broadly overlooked.”
Indeed, Perkins was straight out of the blocks in his first week as an MP, asking David Cameron a question in his first PMQs as Prime Minister. “I considered that was the baptism of fire,” he says.
Family tradition is being upheld in the shape of his own 16-year-old son, who has joined the Labour party – “he did his leaflet round this weekend”. But it wasn’t his son who gave him the superhero doll that sits on his office shelf. The mini figure of a tall, blond ‘Mr Incredible’, from the Pixar movie, was given to him by the children of neighbouring MP Natascha Engel. “Some people think there’s a similarity,” he says with wry self-deprecation.
As a big bloke on the side of the little guy, Toby Perkins hopes he can help rescue Labour’s reputation as a pro-business party. And as the election looms, his colleagues are hoping his safe pair of hands will win the day, both on the pitch and off it.
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Ed Balls is feeling the pressure. In just a few days, he faces yet another big test of his ability, with huge amounts at stake if he fails. But it’s not the Autumn Statement that appears to worry him most: it’s his Grade 4 piano exam. “I’ve been practicing hard. I’m doing a piece of Mozart, a Latvian folk dance and a piece by the blind jazz pianist Valerie Capers,” he explains. “So I’ve got the stress of the Autumn Statement, but far more stressful is the piano exam a day and half after.”
The Shadow Chancellor knows his Commons performance during last year’s set-piece event didn’t exactly win rave reviews from his critics. Yet with the election looming, he seems more confident than ever that he will win the argument on the Coalition’s economic record. Despite claims that Labour have been ‘deficit deniers’, he believes one of George Osborne’s biggest weakness is his failure to meet his own pledge on the issue. “If you remember, George Osborne in 2009 ridiculed Labour for an objective to halve the deficit in this parliament,” he says. “Balancing the current budget this parliament was a very difficult target from the outset. You could end up with an outcome this parliament which is much weaker, and with higher borrowing than the Darling plan in 2009/10.”
So far this year, the borrowing figures look bad for the Treasury. But Balls is experienced enough to know that “the two months which really matter for public finances are October and January”, and January is obviously unknown. He also suspects the Chancellor will find a way to avoid borrowing looking like it’s heading in the wrong direction.
“They will be looking for anything they can find in terms of spending or tax to try and avoid that trap and they will probably succeed. I guess borrowing will come down but nowhere near as much as he promised in 2010 and at the March Budget.”
Balls says Labour’s plan to have the national debt falling and the current budget back into surplus – “as soon as possible in the next parliament” – depends on a growing economy and a relentless focus on spending discipline. He and Chris Leslie have overseen their party’s ‘Zero-Based Review’ of spending in recent months, the first fruits of which are being seen in savings for frontline services and deficit reduction.
But the tight control won’t be going away, not least because the deficit is higher than predicted. “It would be so much easier if George Osborne had succeeded, but he hasn’t. So the level of deficit is going to be big. We are under no illusions about that,” he says.
“We can go so far in Opposition. When we get to Government, the Treasury and departments will have to go deeper into this. It’s only when you open the books that you can actually see the full detail. This is a big down payment but it’s not the end of the story. And the squeeze on Shadow Cabinet ministers when they become Cabinet ministers will tighten rather than release.
“When we go into Government, in the first few months they will have to justify from the bottom up every pound they currently spend. It’s not the culture of ‘here’s the quantum, let’s spend some more’ or ‘here’s the quantum, let’s get some cuts’; it’s ‘start from zero and justify every pound’. Obviously for the big departments, it’s going to be tough.”
His own talk of ‘tough choices’ centres on his decision to match the Coalition’s plans on 2015/16 spending, extending the 1% cap on public sector pay rises and axeing child benefit and winter fuel allowance for the better off.
“These have all been hard, but they are what we’ve got to do. In my job you can’t be popular. The distinction between us and the Tories is that we’ve shown we will do things in a fairer way.” He adds that from the mansion tax funding more NHS staff to a bank bonus tax funding his jobs guarantee, “there’s nothing uncosted and unpaid for”. “There’s nothing on tick in Labour’s plans,” he says.
Has there been blood on the carpet in the Shadow Cabinet though? “To be fair, when we’ve said no spending commitments when we can’t show how the money will be paid for, no commitments for spending paid for by borrowing, there has been a consensus across the Shadow Cabinet to support that. Even if at times on some issues it’s tough because people want to make announcements and we have to say ‘no, because there’s no money for that’.
Some unions have criticised Balls’s approach, with Len McCluskey even declaring he was in danger of becoming one of the “horsemen of the austerity apocalypse”. But the Shadow Chancellor says Labour’s National Policy Forum this year proved how united the party was, with far fewer amendments and less time spent wrangling than the Warwick equivalent before 2010. ”I think it’s quite deep now in Labour’s DNA that it’s about spending discipline, not about spending money.”
Given the pressure on the NHS and its huge staff costs, some have suggested local pay deals may be a way forward. But that’s one cut too far for Balls. “I think it’s potentially very expensive…I don’t say that the process of pay reform is finished in any part of the public sector. But I think we’ve shown that you can make more progress through the national framework and independent review bodies than you do through a free-for-all.”
Although Balls will hammer away at Osborne’s record on balancing the books and the cost of living, the fact remains that jobs and growth have been powering ahead in the UK, in stark contrast to the rest of Europe. What does he make of the revisions to GDP that suggest the recession hasn’t been as bad as was feared?
“There’s two things politicians can say if they want to be really out of touch. One is the financial crisis and the recession afterwards wasn’t as bad as we thought, because most people will say: ‘What?!’
“Or you can say ‘there was a bad financial crisis, but the economy is now fixed’ as Nick Clegg said last week and David Cameron says every week in Prime Minister’s Questions. I think people deal with that with the same incredulity. The reality is the financial crisis and its aftermath is still a reality for many people in this country who still get frustrated at seeing stories about banks and exchange rate scandals when they are still seeing their pay being squeezed.”
However, Balls says there are deeper roots to the current squeeze on incomes. “The financial crisis and its aftermath aren’t the only thing. You also had a sort of underlying squeeze on middle-income jobs and low-income jobs, which began before the financial crisis. You also had the impact of migration over the last 10 years which has also had impacts on terms and conditions. So those three things come together in a very powerful way. The reality is the global financial crisis was a huge event in all of our lifetimes that happened around the world. Even it hadn’t happened there would have been big pressures, but that made it much harder and we are still adjusting to that.”
He says when he was at the Financial Times and Harvard 20 years ago, he did a study on future job trends. Stripping out the effects for different labour markets, he expected technology to have a big role in removing low-skilled jobs. In fact, while low-paid jobs like cleaning and security are feeling the pinch, it’s middle-income jobs that have been really stripped out by technological change, he says. “The question is how do you as a society manage to shift more people to the next range of middle income jobs – that’s proved harder to do.”
All the parties are sharpening their policies on jobs and wages ahead of next May. Balls says “there’s no doubt” that the Coalition’s increases to the personal allowance, as well as a wages squeeze, have been more expensive for the Treasury than forecast. So is he tempted by National Insurance tax cuts instead, which some believe are a more progressive use of funds? He points out that when Labour was elected in 1997, one of the first things the Treasury did was commission the Martin Taylor review of the National Insurance system, which reduced taxes on NI for those on low incomes.
“I was having a meeting with the CBI a couple of days ago; their central argument was [focusing on] National Insurance rather than the personal allowance as a way of making work pay. I understand that argument; I think there’s merit in it,” he says.
“I want to cut tax for people in work and I’d like to start with the 10p [rate], but I also think that minimum wage, tax credits and National Insurance are worth looking at too. If I could cut tax more, I would.”
Taxes for those on higher incomes, however, would rise under Labour. And Balls believes there’s no point in not calling a spade a spade on the vexed topic of Labour’s ‘mansion tax’. Ed Miliband and Balls have themselves often instead used the phrase ‘a tax on properties worth more than £2m’, while Lord Adonis has said that it’s a shame the party is “lumbered with” the ‘mansion tax’ tag, given that so many homes affected aren’t ‘mansions’.
But the Shadow Chancellor is firm. “Every time David Cameron says it’s not the ‘bedroom tax’, it’s a ‘spare room subsidy’, the House of Commons laughs and people watching on television must groan and think: ‘What’s he on about?’ Margaret Thatcher persisted in calling the ‘poll tax’ the Community Charge, but then she had to resign.
“So I think you always have to be careful about these things. The phrase ‘mansion tax’ was never my phrase, it was the Liberal Democrat proposal in their last manifesto. I blame Vince Cable. [But] me now trying to say ‘look over there, it’s not called a mansion tax’ is never going to quite work.”
He points out that in essence his plan is to expand Osborne’s own tax on ‘enveloped dwellings’ worth over £2m, but to include British nationals as well as foreign owners. “Maybe I should change the name to the Non-Enveloped Property Tax – the NEPT?” he jokes. “Or we maybe will just have to keep calling it a mansion tax.”
Changing the name would mean “you’d be ridiculed”, he says. “When the legislation goes through to extend this, will we call it the mansion tax or will it have a Treasury-type name? It will probably have a Treasury-type name. But actually if it’s been called the mansion tax for four years, I don’t want to confuse. I’ve been absolutely out there explaining to people what this is about and why we are doing it. It’s for the NHS.”
Balls wants his party to be just as clear on immigration policy. In 2009, well before the Gillian Duffy ‘bigot’ incident, he wrote to all of his constituents in Morley and Outwood to ask them their concerns. In regular public meetings since, local people have outlined their worries about the impact on wages, housing and public services.
“It’s real; it’s not made up, it’s not a figment. It’s the most out-of-touch, intelligentsia nonsense to say these people have been brainwashed about something which isn’t real. It is absolutely real, in their lived experience in their workplace in the pressure they experience. But actually across all the meetings I’ve had, they say ‘we don’t want to leave Europe, we want it to change’.
“People don’t want to shut ourselves off. They are not voting for autarchy or Albania. What they want is controls which are in force at the borders and rules of the game which are tough and fair, and contribution is at the heart of it.”
So what was his reaction to Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photo of a Rochester house decked out in St George’s flags with a white van in the drive?
“I thought it was a bit ridiculous really. Most people I know would see that as being a totally normal part of the communities they live in,” he says. “My first reaction if I’d seen that house would have been to think ‘who are England playing this week?’.”
Balls says the wider move to reclaim the St George’s flag from extremists (Morley had the largest BNP membership in the country in 2008) “started with Euro 96” and pride in the England football team.
“In my constituency, every year the whole town comes out on St George’s Day, we have a huge parade, there are those flags everywhere. Because we have said we are proud of our town and our country, we are really patriotic and we are not letting anybody take our flag or any part of Englishness away from us.”
While Labour is fending off Ukip in some of its working-class seats, the party is of course facing a possibly more daunting challenge from the SNP next May. This week Balls’s former Shadow Cabinet colleague Jim Murphy came out firmly for devolution of 100% of income tax powers to Scotland. The move was a defiant response to warnings from Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, but it was also a form of UDI from Labour HQ in London. Refusing to give them any notice of his move, Murphy even said that Balls and Miliband “can read about it in the papers like everybody else”.
When asked what he thinks of the idea of the Murphy plan, the Shadow Chancellor adopts a steely tone. “There’s going to be a UK income tax system,” he says. “I’ve always had concerns that if we get this wrong it could be damaging to the Union and the future of all the constituent parts of the Union. And it’s important that people in Scotland voted to keep the Union; that’s what we’ve got to do.
“There is also a really strong desire in Scotland to have more powers for Scotland and to fulfil the vow the leaders made. People want a consensus about the way forward, but it’s really important that the way this works strengthens and doesn’t weaken the Union and the pooling and sharing of risks.”
He says “the devil is in the detail” yet to be worked out by the Smith Commission, “but I will do my bit to make it work”. So what level of income tax does he think could be devolved? “I think the test for Smith in the future is whether we can reserve the things we need to reserve in a way that is coherent and fair to all, but at the same time devolve where that makes sense. There’s no secret it’s my job to be concerned about these things.”
Murphy is, like Balls, a marathon man. Both have run the London race in recent years and the Shadow Chancellor has raised thousands for charities Whizz-Kidz and Action for Stammering Children. But Balls has an announcement to make. “I’m going to have to have a fallow year on the marathon,” he says.
“I’ve done it for the last three years. The London Marathon is ten days before the general election, and the view in my office is it would be remiss. The truth is, the training, it’s seven days a week.
“I thought that when I started this marathon thing that I’d lose weight. But actually I never lost any weight in all three years. I was basically a Labour marathon runner in that it was a redistribution: things moved, your legs become heavier, so though you thin out a little bit, your weight never went down.”
And the impact of his decision, taken this summer, was swiftly felt on his waistline. “So I didn’t do the training in August like I usually would. I came back the first week of September, probably heavier than I’ve been. And there was a diary story in the Telegraph the next morning after Treasury Questions, which said: ‘Have you noticed MPs are coming back looking more portly than when they went away?’ And the three they highlighted were Eric Pickles, Ken Clarke and me.
“I came back and said to Yvette [Cooper]: ‘I’ve got to go on a diet!’ I’ve now lost over a stone on the ‘Pickles diet’: reading that diary story every day. It motivates me to stick with it.”
So Balls has been cutting the carbs, though not quite as dramatically as George Osborne. But when it comes to the Chancellor’s milk-drinking habits, what does he think of Danny Alexander’s revelation that there is a padlock on the Treasury fridge?
“I only drink black coffee, so I didn’t have to go to the fridge,” he smiles, recalling his own years in the building. Yet he has another secret to reveal about Treasury thrift, courtesy of his office secretary. Julie, who now works for him in the Commons, was Balls’s secretary throughout the seven years he worked for Gordon Brown.
“On the day I was leaving in 2004 [to stand as an MP], she said to me: ‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you. It’s difficult, but I’m going to have to tell you this. You know for the last seven years you’ve had meetings in that office? And you know every day you’ve had a little tray on it which has got glasses and two bottles of Malvern water? Every morning I’d go down the corridor, fill the bottles up from the tap, screw the caps on and put them on the table. I had to tell you before you went.’”
“Tap water in a Malvern bottle!” he laughs. “If the question is ‘is saving money and efficiency core to the being of my office?’, the answer is ‘it starts with the bottled water’.”
With Christmas looming large, Balls is again set to do his turn as Santa for the Commons staff party. His own children are alive to his own present needs these days, not least in the form of box sets bought online.
He’s a big fan of the US adaptation of House of Cards. “I loved it enough to go back – on Sunday I saw the first part of the original. Actually, it’s very good, and compared to some things I’ve seen it really captures the House of Commons very well. You can smell the atmosphere.”
But his ‘box set of the year’ is The Walking Dead, the huge US hit drama about zombie killers. “The problem with it is it’s part of the norm that you have to basically continually kill zombies; it’s quite matter of fact. So I’m lying in bed or sitting on the sofa watching it on the iPad; Yvette will come in and I’m watching this. And you hear blood-curdling screams and she’ll say: ‘What are you watching?’ She’s now become immune to it. But it’s the most anti-social programme to watch.”
Not that the Shadow Chancellor is anti-social about his choice of Christmas TV adverts. Rather than the John Lewis or Sainsbury’s specials, he prefers the Boots ad which, naturally, has an NHS theme. “My favourite is Boots, the one where the nurse who’s a mum comes home on Boxing Day [after spending Christmas Day at work]; they are all waiting for her and they’ve all arrived from around the world. It brought a tear to my eye.”
Balls swiftly adds that he’s aware of just how teary he sounds. “People will think ‘God, he’s done One Man and his Dog, Antiques Roadshow, Sound of Music and now the Boots advert!’,” he laughs. “I cry a lot…[but] only at the right things.”
With the twin tests of the Autumn Statement and his piano exam days away, just who will have the last laugh – and who’ll be tearing up – remains to be seen.
BALLS ON… SPENDING DISCIPLINE
“It’s the nature of the times, as well as the learning we’ve had. We’ve been more disciplined on spending than any opposition party in the last 30, 40, 50 years.”
BALLS ON… HONOURING THE 1% NHS PAY RISE
“Independent pay review bodies have proved over decades to be a better way of controlling costs and delivering reform in a fair way than a sort of free-for-all.”
BALLS ON… IMMIGRATION
“The one thing that nobody will ever say to me in my constituency is ‘you won’t talk about immigration’. I don’t wait for them to come to me, I go to them.”
BALLS ON… THAT THORNBERRY TWEET
“To me, the idea that picture symbolised anything other than normal British life – that’s why it’s frustrating.”
BALLS ON… ERIC PICKLES AS A DIET INCENTIVE
“My view is Eric should write a book; it could just be a compendium of pictures with a caption underneath saying ‘stick with the programme’.”
BALLS ON… WATCHING I’M A CELEBRITY…
“We record it and watch it at 7.30 to 8.30 every morning before the kids go to school. So I’m watching it every morning over breakfast.”
BALLS ON… OSBORNE’S BORROWING
“Whatever happens, he’s going to be revising up his borrowing this year compared to his plans.”
Words: Tony Grew
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Matt Hancock’s Commons office is hard to locate. He is not on the ministerial corridor, but off in one of the Palace’s many rabbit warrens. A special key is needed to unlock the door to Hancock’s domain. It used to be John Prescott’s office when he ruled over a vast fiefdom in the days of Blair. Today, Hancock has a similarly wide brief. At 36, he is the youngest person to attend Cabinet. Hancock is Minister of State at BIS and DECC, Minister of State for Portsmouth, and last month he was given yet another role: government ‘anti-corruption champion’.
On his four roles, Hancock says: “I regard myself as having one job – to ensure that Britain is the best place in the world to start and grow a business.” In fact, like Michael Fallon before him, a key part of his role is keeping tabs on two departments headed by the junior partners in the Coalition. Isn’t his actual job to keep an eye on the Liberal Democrats? He laughs at that suggestion, but concedes: “I would say that that is part of doing the job.”
Hancock suffered a rare setback earlier this month when the Government lost a vote on its own legislation on pubs. The Financial Times reported that Hancock was seen “apologising” to the Prime Minister after the defeat. The Guardian claimed he was “reportedly seen grovelling to the PM”. Hancock, asked why he pushed ahead seeking a ‘no’ vote on a clearly popular amendment that gives pub landlords in ‘tied’ premises more freedom to buy their beer from other breweries, says the issue “was Jo Swinson’s area of policy”.
“It is an unusual area of policy as it has both a Lib Dem junior minister and a Lib Dem secretary of state, but given that a concession had been made, we hoped that would peel off more backbenchers than it did.” He adds that he was surprised at the defeat, but concedes: “We thought going into it that we might lose”.
Hancock denies that the Government’s stance was one of standing up for big business. “I don’t think that is true – for a start we have taken all those pub companies with fewer than 500 tied pubs out of the legislation altogether, and the question is how do you make sure that the future of pubs is safe and secure? I come from a position of wanting to support pubs, not least in their role in local communities. That was an important part of how we thought about it. Especially in rural communities, that the last pub in the village remains open is vitally important because the pub is the hub.
“They have more of an impact than just the direct business impact, they have a wider social and community impact. So I don’t want to see pub closures, and that weighed on my mind.”
Will the actions of the Lib Dem and Tory rebels mean more pubs will close? “Well, I hope not, and certainly some of the pub companies said they would not be able to sustain as many pubs if this went through. We have got to make sure that local communities are able to take those over and run them. If this isn’t unwound then we have got to make sure we support the local pub.”
Hancock is the sort of politician who can spot where a question is going almost before it is finished. When it is suggested that moving from his life in London as an adviser to George Osborne to a rural village of 200 people when he won selection for West Suffolk was a “change of pace”, he replies: “It was like returning home; very similar to the village I grew up in in rural Cheshire, where I went to the village school. Similar size, similarly 10 minutes from the nearest medium-sized town. In a sense it was returning to what I grew up with.”
And Thurlow, the Suffolk village in question, has a pub called The Cock, where Hancock is a regular. “I was there on Thursday night as it happens; after the Small Business Bill went through I went to Thurlow, where I was at the meeting to save the village hall. Then after we had saved the village hall we went to the pub for a drink – an absolute classic of village life.”
He also loves the urban life, he proclaims. When challenged that that is a politician’s answer, he replies: “But I do! But I will tell you what I like, I also like the variety, I like the change; one of the things in life I love is arriving at one of the big railway stations and the pure sense of energy and movement. Another thing I love almost as much is driving up the A11. So you come up the M11, you turn off at the A11 and then I turn right at Six Mile Bottom and go from a dual carriageway on to a very small rural road. You drive up through Brinkley and up towards Thurlow and over the boundary with Cambridgeshire, up in to Suffolk. I often open the window; the sense of release that you get and just that after a week down here in Westminster, high pressure and very fast pace, to be able to get just the space and the air. And the air is different and that is a great sense of release.”
Hancock’s wife Martha and three small children make the journey from town to country with him. His seat is safe, with the Lib Dems coming second in 2010 and Ukip a distant fourth, behind Labour. At his selection meeting for West Suffolk, he beat fellow Tory MP Charlie Elphicke’s wife Natalie in a closely fought contest. “And Sam Gyimah came third! We were all put in a squash court together for four hours, while one at a time the six people in the final went out to do their performance. We had our mobile phones taken away from us at the start of this process so we couldn’t contact anyone in the audience, so I spent four very pressurised hours with Sam and Natalie and three others and I got to know them pretty well.”
Hancock says the Lib Dems in his West Suffolk seat “won’t be coming second next time round”. “The Lib Dem vote in my constituency was largely a ‘none-of-the-above’ vote, and looking at local council results there is no prospect of the Lib Dems coming second next time; far from it. A lot of that vote has moved towards Ukip and what this shows you is the reality of the point that you should never be complacent.”
As for the Lib Dems in government, he straddles two departments run by the junior coalition partners, and admits to “a good working relationship” with Vince Cable – with the emphasis firmly on ‘working’.
Hancock denies his partners are getting ‘cold feet’ about fracking. “It has been a coalition project and we are doing it in a reasonable and straight way, making sure the regulations are straightforward and safe and robust,” he says. “That would be policy in a Conservative-only administration as well.”
He also rejects claims that neither he nor the Lib Dems is winning the PR war over fracking – Tory MPs have spoken out about concerns environmental and financial. “Firstly, on public perception, the latest reports show that public perceptions are about as much support as opposition. There is a large proportion of the population that is undecided. I think that is understandable, especially before the first gas flows, but I think that the potential and opportunities are very clear.
“Now, realising that potential is difficult and important, but there is increasing public engagement, especially close to the areas where the planning applications are in. One of my first decisions in this job was to increase the protections on national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, because I want to make sure that we take advantage of this national resource but we do it in a way that protects the natural environment.”
Hancock compares the potential benefits of fracking to North Sea oil 50 years ago, and cites energy security as a key reason for pressing ahead. The sceptics should “look at the science”. “We had the Royal Academy look at this in great detail, and the science is very clear that there is a potential here deep beneath the ground.”
But the minister demurs when asked for a personal assurance that there will be no water pollution or earthquakes. “What I am saying is that all of the science shows that properly regulated and carefully done, these concerns can be taken account of.”
He also declines to set a timescale on when the cash bonanza – whether for individual property owners or in some form of sovereign wealth fund – will start flowing. “It will take time. The first thing we have to do is see gas flow out of the ground from some of the exploratory wells; then we will be in a better position to say. “It is too early to say how fast; it is not going to be in the next year or two. I am not implying any date. I imagine we will see a gradual pick-up, so you can’t give a specific date. That would describe it inaccurately.”
On his newest appointment as anti-corruption champion, Hancock stops short of calling for a boycott of the Qatar World Cup after the revelations about questionable bidding practices by the host nation. “Fifa have clearly got questions to answer about how that review was conducted and the outcome that it came to, and we need to ask more questions before coming to a view about a boycott. There is still time for them to sort things out.”
A lack of corruption here at home is “one of the biggest benefits to business” and it will be his job to “spread that culture internationally”, he adds. “You don’t want legitimate businesses who conduct themselves with integrity undercut by those who don’t.”
Hancock got into a bit of Twitter trouble earlier this year when he retweeted a comment that the Labour party is “full of queers”, but he has little time for comparisons with the social media site’s latest Westminster scalp. “There is a difference – I was trying to be lighthearted and didn’t read the tweet I was retweeting properly. Emily Thornberry actively sneered at a vast proportion of the population. I think there is a difference in scale.”
So what does Matt Hancock think when he sees a white van man? “They are exactly the sort of people we have to make life easier for.”