James Millar: Ed Balls could be Labour's Russell Crowe
Like Crowe's gladiator, Balls has realised that to achieve his goal he must win the crowd by doing something different.
Ed Balls looked like he was squirming around the dance floor as a mad scientist on Saturday’s Strictly Come Dancing. In fact, he has been concocting a recipe to save the Labour party.
The former shadow chancellor may not look much like Russell Crowe at first glance but there is a comparison to be made. In Gladiator the key to Crowe’s character Maximus’s success is not his skill or intelligence – it’s winning the crowd.
It’s rarely wise in politics to take advice from Oliver Reed but the words of Reed’s Proximo character have set Balls up for success. Proximo tells Russell Crowe’s gladiator that slaughtering the opposition is not enough. To achieve his goal he must “win the crowd”.
No-one doubts that Balls has the intellectual chops to butcher those sent out to face him in the political arena. Maximus’s time in slavery doesn’t detract from the years he spent leading the armies of the north just as the limp Miliband years should not overshadow Ball’s time at the heart of the Treasury operation that was key to New Labour’s success and vanquished all opposition. But Balls’ problem was always his public perception.
Those that met him and knew him were aware he’s pleasant, competent, intellectually keen and jolly company. But his face unfortunately just naturally looks a bit smug and the voting public found that jarring given the economic chaos left in Labour’s wake. (Though any sensible observer knows that how much of it was actually the fault of Brown, Balls et al is very much up for debate).
After the slave owner Proximo tells Russell Crowe’s gladiator that to achieve his goal he must not just slaughter the opposition but do it with style to “win the crowd” Maximus replies: “I will give them something they’ve never seen before”.
Well no-one’s ever seen an ex-shadow chancellor paint his face green, dress up as a lumberjack, and nearly drop a woman on her face before (last week). Or dress up as a mad scientist and hand his partner a dance potion before proceeding to wiggle and waggle his way around the floor (this week).
When Ed Balls lined up alongside the Miliband brothers, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott in 2010 in the race for the Labour leadership he was as well or as little known as the rest of them. Now he’s one of the most recognisable politicians in the land. And if the key to winning an election is persuading the Daily Mail reading denizens of middle England then a stint on Strictly is a wise move.
Faced with a ballot box choice between Theresa May – a woman – or Ed Balls – a fat man who can’t dance – might they be tempted by the latter option for the same reasons they buy the Daily Mail, that it features ‘people like them’?
Of course Balls would have to find a way back into parliament first and then on to the Labour leadership but he’s playing a long game. He’s surely aware he can’t trade in Claudia Winkleman for Jeremy Corbyn immediately.
But should a seat come available at the next general election – and any constituency party not captured by the hard left would gladly go for a bit of glitter – Balls would suddenly be well placed to step up following Corbyn’s inevitable defeat.
Politics is ultimately about winning votes. But particularly in this post-truth era of Trump a bit of celebrity is necessary too. Boris Johnson is the classic example. He had the personality, but went off to London’s City Hall for a bit to show the Tory party he’s a winner too.
Balls will emerge from his Strictly experience with a little more stardust but having also proved he has popularity with the public. That is a winning combination.
There’s plenty in Labour currently clinging to the Gladiator tagline for hope: A Hero Will Rise. In Ed Balls they may have found him.
The question is whether when Balls unleashes hell it will be, like Maximus, an organised and destructive force that overwhelms his opponents in political battle or whether it’ll just be a poorly executed cha cha cha that has viewers watching through their fingers.