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Putting the Balls in politics


Exeposé Editor Harrison Jones discussed dating, ‘Ed Balls Day’ and the fast-approaching general election with Labour’s Shadow Chancellor. 

It’s a freezing January morning and I’ve cycled to Exeter College, so the promise of coffee is more than welcome as I’m politely ushered to @34 Café.

We’re met by a bunch of clones: just four women sit amongst a posse of 20 plus elite ‘business leaders’ from the South West, the rest of whom are ageing, white, middle class males, questioning Ed Balls about uninteresting, self-serving crap.

Scrutinising the Shadow Chancellor’s sharp red tie, blue shirt, black suit combo, and sipping the lukewarm tea on offer – there was no coffee after all – I’m bored inside 30 seconds. Chefs busy themselves through the window to the adjacent room as the cream of the South West’s capitalist crop wax lyrical about how good their company is. This leads the session to overrun, leaving just eight minutes to interview Labour’s number two.

Riding home later, I’m annoyed that I didn’t get to ask Balls about a confusing ‘love square’ between himself, Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary and his wife) and Stephanie Flanders (former BBC Economics Editor). Conveniently, I bump into the 47-year-old on the way to his next appointment, walking alongside Exeter’s MP, Ben Bradshaw.

Steeling myself for a frosty reception, I venture: “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Ed?”
“Go on then,” he obliges.
“Was it Stephanie Flanders you dated in the 90s?”

At this, Bradshaw leaps to his colleague’s defence, interjecting jokingly – but with more than a hint of warning: “You can’t ask him a question like that!”

“The point is,” I continue, “Ed Miliband dated Flanders too, and she was the seminar partner of Yvette. That’s a crazy set of connections, isn’t it?”

Looking suitably uncomfortable, Balls just about manages to respond: “I met Yvette through Stephanie…”

Bradshaw is already veering down a side street, coaxing Labour’s economic strategist to wherever they are apparently headed now; but Balls, regaining his usual confidence, some – what mysteriously adds: “er, dating would be overstating it” – whatever that means – before sauntering off to the waiting Bradshaw.

Just a few minutes earlier, three interviewers – including myself – are surrounding the man hoping to run the treasury next May, recording devices in hand.

His ridiculous intellect is apparent very early on. After all, Balls was a teaching fellow at Harvard in his early 20s, having won a scholarship to the world’s best university thanks to the fourth highest first in his year at Oxford, where he studied – yep, you guessed it – PPE. The actual Chancellor, meanwhile, dropped PPE because – get this – economics was reportedly ‘too hard,’ but that’s another story.

Balls speaks on an array of topics in knowledgeable but understandable terminology. Given the time restraints, it’s mildly irritating that he elaborates not upon implementing faster broadband in the South West, but on who should be taking that decision.

Infamous Ed Balls day Image: togganet.co.uk
Infamous Ed Balls day
Image: togganet.co.uk

Conscious that no one normal gives a toss, I instead raise ‘Ed Balls Day,’ to provoke everyone out of their regional-business-bumph-stupor and certainly cause a stir. Balls smirks and lightens up, the nice bloke from the Express & Echo looks taken aback and suddenly the crowd of aides giggle their vague interest.

Smiling, he says playfully: “It’s a burden I will probably carry with me to my grave. I learnt a lot about social media through it and I think everybody is bonkers, but what can you do?”

The date in question, April 28 2011, is now infamous as the day when the Morley & Outwood MP tweeted his own name. Yep, just his own name. The response was classic internet: retweets aplenty, “t-shirts, hats and graphs,” but most importantly an anniversary when everyone tweets two words: “Ed Balls.”

Back on to the serious stuff, and the man considered Labour’s best at standing up to right wing rhetoric gives some fairly unsatisfactory answers on dealing with the Greens and what Labour offers young people. He’s also disappointing when it comes to clarifying his party’s main message. The Tories are clearly going to say three things: ‘Miliband’s a geek; don’t let Labour overspend again; let us finish the job.’ But Labour’s alternative is far from clear. So in a phrase just what is their message?

Balls replies: “We will say ‘we are going to make sure our economy works for everybody and not just a few people.’ And that every time the Tories say ‘our plan is working,’ I think most people in our country are saying ‘well, who’s it working for because it’s not working for me’ and, er, we have always been the party about international cooperation, about social justice and making sure that we make the world a better place. We are the optimists, not the pessimists, and we’ll leave the pessimism to David Cameron.” That’s all great, but – crucially – it’s not catchy, memorable, or indeed, a ‘sound bite.’ It’s six lines of anti-Tory vagueness, not pro-Labour specifics. Far more strikingly, the former minister provides a stringent defence of Ed Miliband, when asked if a supposedly weak leader is harming Labour. “People said exactly the same thing about Margaret Thatcher in 1978, Tony Blair in 1996,” he replies quickly – as if asked this before.

“Ed is a person of principle. He was the first to talk about the cost of living crisis, the first who said he was worried about a lost generation of young people and he was the guy who challenged News International to change their game, so I think he’s proved his mettle.”

Balls also leaps at the chance to praise the NHS, Labour’s subject of choice when it comes to what to talk about in the run up to the election.

With Nye Bevan, the man credited with the NHS’ creation, as his political idol, Balls says: “I think the NHS is the best system in the world. I don’t think it’s broken- it’s hugely efficient compared to America. Everybody gets healthcare when they need it, not based upon what they can afford.

“But you’ve got to keep reforming and changing, it’s got to be fit for purpose in today’s world. It needs more resources at the moment, we haven’t got any nurses or GPs and that’s why everyone’s waiting longer.”

It’s the economy which is the former Gordon Brown protégé’s main area of expertise, though. He rattles off a host of initiatives aimed at creating a “fairer, stronger economy,” whilst still cutting the defecit, notably increasing the top tax rate back to 50 per cent; taking the winter allowance away from the richest pensioners, freezing child benefit for another year and raising the minimum wage.

He contrasts such moves with George Osborne’s plans to bring public spending back “down to the levels we saw in the 1930s”- something Balls labels “a retreat into old style, backward-looking romanticism.”

As it stands, the odds on which plan will be implemented hang in the balance, though pollsters do make Balls the slight favourite to be Chancellor in three months’ time. He’s undoubtedly competent enough, but the question is what he would priorities and – if he does get there- whether, like Brown before him, he might go on to take higher office.

Harrison Jones, Editor

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