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