Sunday book review – Speaking Out by Ed Balls


Did you watch Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing last night? Yes, so did I.  If you want to learn more about the man behind The Mask, and the moves, then this is the book for you. But it’s also a book to read to understand that politicians are people not cut-out models, and they are certainly not all cut out of the same material.

I think the life of a politician is an incredibly difficult one, and many of the politicians I’ve met have impressed me with how well they manage it – and that includes Ed Balls to a large extent but also many other MPs from across the political spectrum.

I first encountered Mr Balls in the late 1990s when he was Gordon Brown’s special advisor in the Treasury. We environmental NGOs used to have meetings with Ed a couple of times a year when we would moan at him about the government and he would tell us we had it all wrong. Actually, they were very good meetings and I used to look forward to them.  They were a way of us feeding views into the government at a pretty high level and to take some messages away too.  I don’t think anything very similar happens these days – it should.

And they paid off too. I remember being in a much larger meeting when someone from industry criticised the Labour government for bringing in a range of sustainability indicators which they were going to use to measure progress. The question to Mr Balls was along the lines of ‘Why are you bothering with birdies?’ and so I was on the edge of my seat wondering how Ed Balls would answer. I’d have given him a job at the RSPB on the basis of his answer. He said that lots of people were interested in birds and other wildlife and that made the index valuable but also what sort of countryside is it that wipes out half the birds in it in a generation and shouldn’t all industries aim to do a lot better than that? Perfect – and rather better than most of us might have done. I was impressed.

I remember a meeting in Ed Balls’s Treasury office which must have been in 2001 or 2002 because it was about the Curry Commission’s work where a colleague and I had Mr Balls to ourselves. I asked him about the drawings of birds behind his desk and he told me that Yvette (Cooper MP, his wife) and he quite often took their young kids to the RSPB reserve of Fairburn Ings to feed the ducks .

In this book there is little about feeding the ducks, wildlife or the environment. There is a lot about politics, and quite a lot about football.   I recommend this book to you if you want to know more about politicians as people – not as perfect people, and not as wholly imperfect people – just as people.  We elect people to be politicians, and when they stop being politicians they are still people – and all the time in between too!

Read the first chapter of this book for an insight into what it is like to be defeated in a general election and suddenly not to have a job anymore.  Particularly if you didn’t really see it coming.  Many politicians appear to be at their best when they leave office, either through their choice or through that of the electorate and that takes some doing. Imagine making a gracious speech when you have just heard you have been rejected by the electorate and your chosen career has, at best paused, but perhaps ended. That’s quite a thing to be able to do but Ed Balls was one of those who carried it off.

Mr Balls is undoubtedly a clever man, and very sharp and incisive in his conversation, but his public speaking sometimes let him down in his political career. The chapter in this book called ‘Vulnerability’ is well worth reading if you hadn’t picked up the fact that Mr Balls has a stammer, an interiorised stammer, which sometimes catches him out and which he has had to work to master.  This chapter will help many to seek help I feel, as, like Mr Balls, they may not realise that there is a problem and that there is help at hand.

There is another chapter, ‘Emotion’, about following your head or your heart – or both?

And there is a lot of inside information about what happened inside government and who said what to whom. I enjoyed all of that.  The book is a good read and its subtitle, ‘Lessons in Life and Politics‘, is well chosen. It’s thoughtful, intelligent and not too partisan at all.

One of the reasons I read it was because Ed Balls is someone I have watched on TV, heard on the radio, spent a few hours in his company in meetings and a few minutes in his company one-to-one at various stages, so I was interested to see what he wrote.  But another reason that I wanted to read it was that I admire Mr Balls without in any way idolising him, and I am feeling increasingly disenchanted with the Labour Party and wanted a shot of enthusiasm. I got it – though I’m not sure how long it will last.  Mr Balls’s politics are rather more tribal than mine and he is more likely to start supporting Ipswich Town (it will never happen) than leave the Labour Party.

You may not have those reasons for reading this book, but if you watch Ed gyrate on Strictly and want to know more about him then this is a book for you, or if you want to be taken some way inside a senior politician’s head then that’s another reason.

At the age of 49 you wonder what is next for Ed Balls. Maybe taking Norwich City (second in the table today) back into the Premiership as their Chairman would give him as much pleasure as anything in politics? But maybe that won’t happen either?

Speaking out – lessons in life and politics by Ed Balls is published by Penguin.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.  Updated paperback edition now out.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson.

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6 Replies to “Sunday book review – Speaking Out by Ed Balls”

  1. There is a rather corrosive and widespread view that politicians are all venal idiots, in it only for themselves. Of course a large dose of self confidence and an ambitious nature are necessary to succeed in politics, perhaps more so than in almost any other career, but as the review suggests, they are not one dimensional power maniacs but people with mixtures of beliefs and loyalties, fears and insecurities, strengths and weaknesses - just like the rest of us. Most, I believe, go into politics because they want to change society for the better - they just have starkly varying views on what kind of society is 'better' and what is the best way to get there.
    To my mind the tribalism is one of the least appealing aspects of politics and I struggle to understand why the u-turn is seen as such a cardinal sin. Surely it is a good thing if a minister is prepared to change direction when presented with evidence that the present course is not working, yet when they do they are often derided by those who have been calling for the change.

  2. Thanks, Mark. An interesting review: this may be the first (auto)biog I read of any politician. Partly because you highlight the psychological aspects I'm always intrigued by, and partly because I think that on Strictly he shows that vulnerability he (and you) write about. I find his 'journey' (compulsory word) much more engaging to follow than Edwina Currie's, or Ann Widdecombe's, though do wonder if it will become another Sargeantgate. But to more pressing concerns...

    I'm not a party-political animal, so please excuse me if this is a silly question, but you say in your review that environmental NGOs used to have regular meetings with government advisors and that these meetings "were a way of us feeding views into the government at a pretty high level and to take some messages away too. I don’t think anything very similar happens these days – it should".

    If indeed it doesn't, then why not? Why on earth has such a vital exchange stopped? What information-exchanging meetings DO take place now between government and environmental NGOs? How ARE key issues and views fed in? The work of environmental NGOs is a constant: political colouring - and politicians - are not. If anyone has the answer to this, I'd like to hear it. I assume (please gods) that all sorts of informal arrangements exist, but more formally...?

    1. Daphne - thank you. There are, of course, still meetings between gren groups and government but the shutters came down with a bang in 2010 and have hardly lifted since then.

      What marked out the meetings with Ed Balls was that they were regular and not subject-specific. I think Michael Jacobs (then Fabian Society director, later a SpAd in Treasury himself) was a prime mover behind them. They were 'keeping in touch' meetings which sent the signal that Treasury, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls wanted to keep their finger on the pulse.

      Although it is a shocking generalisation: Labour governments are clueless about the environment so they ask lots of people, especially environmental charities, what they think (and then ignore lots of it); Tory governments know all the answers already and can't be bothered to talk to anyone except their mates and so make their own mistakes.

  3. A good review Mark, and I too would ask the question why aren't regular meetings with Government and environmental NGOs still taking place? To answer this I think it really comes down to the quality of the politicians holding office at the time. In other words to their lack of prejudices and self interests, to their degree of perspicacity (perception), their courage to stand against the Party line when it is necessary to do right, and to their intelligence. Unfortunately I have to say in my opinion most politicians do not score well under these headings, but certainly Ed Balls would score well above the average. Let's hope we see him back in Government before too long, we need people like him.

  4. One of the best books by a politician I've read is "Honourable Friends? Parliament and the fight for change" by Caroline Lucas which I think you've also reviewed.

    Then there's also Martin Bell's expose "An Accidental MP".

    Both shed light on the closed shop system operated in the palace of Westminster and as such the reader realises the need for change #for the many not just the few?

    PS No party political affiliations, staunchly independent agnostic;)

  5. There's me thinking the Beeb - in the absence of advertisement breaks - had thoughtfully continued the tradition of including a complete No-Hoper so that you could pop out to feed the dog or put some wood in the stove or turn the oven down or whatever without missing anything.

    But No! - there's a book out.


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