Interview with Sky News’ Murnaghan programme

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now then, the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, used to be known as the Bruiser of British politics but these days it seems he is showing a more vulnerable side. He says his stammer was to blame for a slip-up in Parliament this week and last month he said even the Antiques Roadshow sometimes made him cry, so what’s happened to Ed Balls? There he is, he joins me now from his constituency in West Yorkshire, a very good morning to you Mr Balls. Let me ask you…

ED BALLS: It’s a very cold morning here.

DM: I can tell. Well in your response to the Autumn Statement on Wednesday you had that stammer, that stutter at the start, that slip up but the whole speech was poorly received. Did it put you off for the entirety of that response?

EB: The nature of politics, Dermot, is that the first minute or two really matters and I did have a stammer in the first minute, partly because the Chancellor had come up with a bit of a dodge on borrowing for this year but also in any speech I ever do, the first minute is always a bit like that. I’m always dealing with my stammer and it didn’t quite work out on Wednesday and in the House of Commons the mood then gets set, so that’s the nature of politics. People watch it on the TV and I think I had a different reaction but we are where we are and you carry on. I’ve got a big argument to make about the future of the economy and public services and I’m going to keep making the argument.

DM: We’ll get on to that in a moment or two but it’s the bear pit nature of the House of Commons, particularly at Prime Minister’s Questions, which of course preceded the Autumn Statement, and a lot of people point out that you’re one of the bears in the bear pit, you create, part create that atmosphere, you’ve been goading the Prime Minister for the last two and a bit years, you can dish it out but you can’t take it.

EB: Of course I can dish it out and of course I can take it, Dermot, that’s the nature of the House of Commons, there is always a bit of give and take from both sides and I put the Prime Minister under pressure because I don’t think he always is completely straight with people and sometimes he gets angry and that’s my job. But it’s important that I explain as well and look, I have a stammer and it’s often really misunderstood, stammering, because people think it is a verbal and external thing but for me, I have an internalised stammer, it’s a block. In this interview it will happen to me five or six times, it’s always the case and I deal with that but sometimes it gets the better of you. And that’s what people with stammers have, every now and then they have a moment like that and I don’t complain about Tories barracking me in the House of Commons, that’s their job but it is important that I explain that every now and then at the beginning of a speech it goes wrong for me and then I get it back on track and that’s how it’s been for me all my life and it’s how it will carry on. As I said on Thursday morning, it’s who I am, it’s absolutely part of me, I can’t apologise for that and there’ll always be some of my opponents in the press who will then write columns saying, oh Ed Balls, he’s lost confidence, he’s no good, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. What a load of nonsense that is. I know the arguments I’m making and I’m going to do so with great determination but every now and then I’ll get tripped up because I’ve got a stammer, as have thousands of people in the country. I spent years, to be honest Dermot, on your programme doing these interviews, never talking about it but I think it’s important for people like me to speak up and say, you can have a stammer and be at the top of politics and deal with it, but every now and then you have a bad day. I guess if you are a top footballer you have to know what it is to miss a penalty in order to know how important it is to score and how to score and every now and then in the House of Commons somebody like me will have a bad day. That’s life.

DM: And I suppose you are an example for many people who suffer from similar conditions but let’s get on to the substance then of your criticisms …

EB: Just on that point, Dermot, we were doing some work with children who stammer when I was the Education Secretary. I’ve been quiet about this for years and I was launching a DVD with Michael Palin for children and teachers and it was done by children and the title was ‘Wait, Wait, I’ve Not Finished Yet’, and it was saying to teachers, don’t interrupt children with a stammer, give them confidence. A parent came up to me afterwards and said ‘I can tell you’ve got a stammer and you never speak about it and you’re letting children down’, so I think it is really important for people like me when we have an opportunity to speak about it. And it’s not an excuse and there’s no denying I didn’t get the beginning of that statement right but if I can say to children and adults, speaking out is fine and you can still do a job where you are doing lots of public speaking like in the House of Commons, and I think doing a good job most of the time, then it’s a good thing for me to do.

DM: Yes, you made some very good points there. Make a point here about the substance of your objection to the Autumn Statement and it seems at the heart of this, and there is going to be a vote coming up on it, is the effective cut in working age benefits. Is that something that Labour has now decided it will oppose if it comes to a vote before Christmas in the House of Commons?

EB: Well look, Dermot, I’ve got three big objections to the Autumn Statement which I set out and that’s the third. On the first, George Osborne said he would make the economy grow and get the deficit down – our economy has flatlined and our debt and deficits are up compared to his plans, the national debt is rising, he has totally failed on his one objective and that is why we’re in this hole at the moment and he’s ploughing on. Secondly, where was the long-term reform? I didn’t see it there, we need reform of our banks and our economy but then thirdly, he’s come back and said, I’m really sorry, I’m coming back for more but who’s he hitting? This goes to the heart of the issue. He told the House of Commons on Wednesday he was hitting only the people who were out of work, he likes to call them feckless, work shy, in bed with the curtains drawn while others go to work – I have to say I think that’s pretty offensive to lots of people looking hard for a job at the moment but when you look at the facts, 60 per cent of the people who are hit by this benefit cut are people in work, working people, striving hard, doing their best, in work and they are going to lose, for a family with two kids on £20,000, over £250 – £279 a year. It’s really unfair that working people and people looking for a job are hit while the Chancellor goes ahead with the £3 billion tax cut only for the richest people, which Boris Johnson was defending just a moment ago on your programme. It’s not fair and it’s not right and it’s a product of his failure.

DM: But just on the parliamentary mechanics, judging from the strength of your opposition, you are confirming that Labour will vote against any Bill that contains that, that 1 per cent rise in benefits for the next three years, a real terms cut?

EB: Well George Osborne is playing a political game here because he wants us to commit to legislation he’s not even published while many of your voters still think he is being honest when he says it is only an assault on the feckless and the work shy. We need to change the debate and say to people, look at the truth about who is losing, lower and middle income families. We’ll wait for the legislation and the three tests we’re setting are: is this going to hit working people, is it going to lead to a rise in poverty, is it fair? I’ve not seen the legislation, I want George Osborne to change his mind. Maybe he’ll come forward and say look, I don’t need to go ahead with this but I’ll have to change the top rate tax cut as well. It won’t make Boris Johnson happy but I think it will be fairer. So we need to have the debate and I’m not going to say to you how we’ll vote until we see the legislation but what I am saying to you is it has got to be fair, including to striving working people who George Osborne is singling out in this statement because his plan has utterly failed on growth and the deficit. He said a year ago he wouldn’t come back for more, he’s had to come back for more he says and he’s hitting working families.

DM: Just the last question, Mr Balls, I mean you’ve said you’ll wait and see the legislation on that, well you have already seen the legislation on the cut in the top rate that Boris Johnson wants to push further, that was in the last budget so of course, as pointed out to you, the top rate under Labour was 40p, will you restore it to 50p though if you come back into power?

EB: Well it went up to 50p at a time when, after the financial crisis, there had to be tax rises and some spending cuts and it had to be done in a fair way and people saw their National Insurance go up, it was fair to [increase] the top rate of tax then. The commitment I’ll make to you, Dermot, is this – if there is an election called today and we had a manifesto tomorrow, for an election in three [weeks] time, we would reverse the top rate tax cut so we wouldn’t need to go ahead with this hit to pensioners and working families and we’re out now to kick start the recovery, get growth and jobs back which is the only way to get the deficit down. What I can’t do is say to you in two years’ time what we’ll do because it’s not responsible of me to start making promises on taxes or benefits and it all depends how bad George Osborne’s economic management is in the meantime.

DM: Okay, Mr Balls, very good to talk to you. Ed Balls there, the Shadow Chancellor.

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Posted December 9th, 2012 by Ed's team