Steve Richards: The transformation of Ed Balls speaks for our bleak political culture

Written by Steve Richards on 8 September 2016 in Opinion

Balls was viewed with disdain as he worked tirelessly in the Commons, but now he is hailed as he gyrates on TV.

In little over a year the former shadow chancellor Ed Balls leaps from being a defeated candidate at the general election to a national treasure.

He has only appeared on Strictly Come Dancing once so far and that was the preview show. The main course is still to come, but it is enough to make him a celebrity. Suddenly he is much more famous than when he toiled as a cabinet minister or was the dominant force with Gordon Brown in the Treasury for many years.

His wife Yvette Cooper noted at the launch of Balls’ new book that after his appearance on Strictly she is stopped more in the streets than when either he or she were candidates for the Labour leadership contest, arguably a matter of greater significance.

The leap is bigger for Balls than one from virtual anonymity to stardom. For some of his time in politics Balls was wrongly perceived and portrayed as a political bully. Sometimes it was hard for him to move beyond this hopelessly one-dimensional caricature.

Now no longer contaminated by politics he is humanised. Even some of the journalists who portrayed him as the bullying caricature or interviewed him on the assumption that there was no more to him than the one dimensional stereotype pay homage now he is a TV star.

I am pleased for Balls that he escapes some misperceptions of the recent past, but his transformed image also tells us much about our bleak political culture. Balls was viewed with disdain as he worked around the clock as an adviser to an elected politician or as an elected politician himself. Now he is hailed as he gyrates on the TV dance floor.

His experience is far from unique. Labour politicians tend to suffer more from being stereotyped disdainfully as the media consensus in the UK is on the right but the depressing pattern extends across the political spectrum.

When William Hague was leader of his party he was reviled and ridiculed. Soon after he resigned following the Conservatives’ electoral slaughter in 2001 and started appearing on Have I Got News For You he became hugely popular. I heard one phone-in on BBC Five Live soon after that election during which a caller urged Hague to be the next leader of his party. Hague reminded him that he had already been a leader of his party.

Through appearing on TV shows Hague became a former leader who might be a future leader. When he was leader he was seen as hopeless and few showed any interest in his speeches. When he left the leadership and was no longer contaminated by politics he could charge many thousands of pounds for an after dinner speech that people paid a fortune to attend.

There are other senior politicians, currently traumatised by setbacks who could take a similar course.  Senior figures at Have I Got News For You are contemplating asking Michael Gove, sacked from the cabinet, to present a show. Perhaps the request has been made. With a background in journalism maybe Gove will be the next celebrity. The former chancellor, George Osborne, would I suspect make a brilliant interviewer. He has a curiosity in politics and politicians from across the spectrum that is the essential quality of the good interviewer.

But this is getting silly, talented politicians in effect leaving politics before they are fifty. In his speech at the launch for his book Balls said he would give up his current glittering repertoire to do a big job. Even as he  makes his moves on the dance floor a part of him probably reflects that not so long ago he was setting fiscal rules and shaping the independence of the Bank of England while stopping Tony Blair from pursuing his fantasy that part of his historic mission was to lead the UK into the Euro.

With such experience of politics at its most intense Balls would have been a formidable chancellor. On the other side, by a wide margin Osborne and Gove were the two most interesting ministers in the last cabinet. Their party needs them more than Have I Got News For You. Politics is partly about big political figures and the UK discards them too early.

This is a minor worry compared with the bigger one. If the media and the voters view those that are elected with contempt the political stage will be filled with non elected outsiders promising to build walls between countries and claiming that if a country leaves the UK it will have more money to spend on the NHS.

It was the likes of Balls and a few others who worked tirelessly to ensure there was genuinely more money invested in the NHS, planning with meticulous care a tax rise that proved to be popular. He and others were widely dismissed then. They were engaged in the unavoidable battles of politics, internal and external scheming, framing arguments to ensure wider support for a policy, preparing budgets that facilitated the urgently needed investment.

No doubt there are some who disagreed with all that Balls did as a politician, as others despaired of Hague as a Tory leader and more recently of Osborne as a chancellor. That is fair enough. But to fail to recognise that these figures were human then as they are human now on a dance floor, complex characters facing multi-layered dilemmas, is a failure that threatens democratic politics.

Why did some voters support Brexit in the UK referendum when they will be victims of the outcome and when many elected politicians warned them that this would be the case? Part of the explanation arises from Balls’ leap from an elected politician who some voters and journalists viewed with disdain to an awkward dancer who voters and journalists now hail as an adorable celebrity.    



Steve Richards presents Rock N Roll Politics at Kings Place on Saturday and is writing a book, The Rise of the Outsiders.


Picture by: Ian West/PA Wire/Press Association Images



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