Ed Balls is the Shadow Chancellor and one half of Westminster’s best known political couples. Chris Bond met him in Leeds.
ANYONE who’s ever watched MasterChef will know that when it comes to cooking it doesn’t get much tougher than soufflés.
But Ed Balls disagrees. The secret to a consistently good soufflé, he says, is not to be intimidated and to “make sure your whites stiffen”.
The Shadow Chancellor and one of Labour’s so-called “big beasts” is talking on route to a Come Dine event in Leeds, where he’s cooking smoked haddock soufflé and a rhubarb crumble to a group of specially invited guests, to show you can cook a healthy meal on a tight family budget.
Even in opposition, a politician’s life is a hectic one and prior to showing off his culinary prowess he first pays a visit to the Leeds-based Stammering Support Centre, in Chapeltown, which he opened 18 months ago with the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow.
For Balls, the Morley and Outwood MP, stammering is an issue close to his heart. He struggled with public speaking ever since he was a teenager, but only went public about his own stammer after visiting a London primary school with Michael Palin a few years ago for the launch of a DVD featuring children with stammers talking about their experiences.
Afterwards, one of the parents berated him for not talking about his own battle. “He said I was letting the children down and that if I spoke about it then it would make a massive difference, so why was I being such a coward? And I walked out thinking, ‘maybe he’s right’.”
Since then, he has become patron of the British Stammering Association and campaigned to get the new centre opened in Leeds. “Talking about it actually helped me because it took some of the pressure away and if I can help others get support and show that people with stammers are just as talented, then it will have made all the years of stress and tension worthwhile.”
Balls has proved that having a stammer is no barrier to success having built up a formidable reputation since joining the House of Commons eight years ago. He’s the Labour politician most Tories love to hate, though you suspect this stems from a grudging respect for the Oxford and Harvard University graduate.
The big political debate over the past couple of years has revolved around the trade-off between austerity and growth, with Balls repeatedly accusing George Osborne of going “too fast, too soon” in cutting public spending. But the goalposts have been moved somewhat by the sudden emergence of Ukip.
Following the success of Nigel Farage’s party at the recent council elections, Ukip claim we now have four-party politics in this country. There’s no doubt they took votes from the Conservatives but the loss of the previously rock-solid Labour stronghold at Rawmarsh, in Rotherham, shows they’re also hitting Ed Miliband’s party where it hurts.
He agrees that Ukip can’t simply be ignored by the other main political parties any more. “I think most people in the public don’t really know what policies they stand for, but they’re voting Ukip because they feel other political parties aren’t listening. So it’s a challenge to all of us to raise our game and show that on the issues people are worried about we’ve got answers.”
Much of Ukip’s support comes from people’s concerns about the levels of immigration in Britain, an issue Labour has been criticised for being too soft on. “Most people say immigration is fine as long as it’s done in a controlled way so that people come here, work hard and pay their taxes,” he says.
“The problem for Labour is the perception, and there’s some truth in this perception, that the controls weren’t tough enough.”
He admits the influx of migrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries after 2004 was greater than had been expected. “When they joined the EU, we didn’t have the transitional controls and that was a mistake. Also, we didn’t do enough to enforce the minimum wage to make sure the agency workers coming from Eastern Europe couldn’t be brought in to do the same job, undercutting the wages of people in the same workplace. That caused us a big problem at the last election, there’s no doubt about that.”
Even so, he doesn’t believe Ukip’s policies stand up to scrutiny. “People think ‘well, who has the answers?’ But a vote for Ukip is not going to deliver more jobs, better immigration controls, or a tougher approach to energy companies,” he says. “We have to show we can have a tough approach to immigration and can properly enforce our borders, that we can have a compulsory jobs guarantee which gets people back to work and we have to show that we’re listening to people’s concerns and can deal with the view that says ‘politicians are all the same.’”
There’s also the small matter of an in/out referendum on the EU which has been causing such angst among Tory ranks. “Deciding now to hold a vote in four years’ time is economically very dangerous for our country because it leads to great instability and uncertainty,” says Balls.
“I don’t think we should set our face against a referendum and I certainly don’t think we can ever afford to give the impression that we know better than the voting public and that we’re going to carry on regardless. But I believe most people think at a time when the economy is weak, when unemployment is high and rising, that jobs, the NHS and energy bills are a bigger priority than spending the next three, or four years, simply debating whether or not to leave the European Union.”
Arguably the biggest question, and the one that will decide the next general election in 2015, is the economy. The problem for the Labour Party is that many people don’t feel Ed Miliband offers a credible alternative. “It’s always hard when you aren’t making the budget, when you’re not in a position to make the decisions to win that argument and it’s doubly hard for us because we were in government recently and people need more persuading.
“But our argument is that the Government has choked off the recovery and we need action now to build houses and get people back to work. I think that is supported by a clear majority of the British people and what we’ve got to do is persuade them that we’re the ones they can trust to deliver those policies.”
But do people trust them? “We haven’t won that argument yet, but both George Osborne and David Cameron have lost the argument and part of the reason why their opinion polling is so low is because they’ve lost trust on the economy and sorting out the deficit and getting living standards rising. But we need to have won that argument by 2015 and we’ve still got more work to do.”
Most MPs will tell you they got into politics to make a difference and in Balls’s case this passion was evident from early on. “I grew up in the early 1980s when unemployment went above three million. I was studying A-level economics and 25 per cent of young people were out of work for over a year and I wanted to do something about that, because I felt it didn’t have to be that way.”
After leaving university, he spent four years writing editorial columns on the economy for the Financial Times before entering the political fray. “What I really wanted to be was a do-er, rather to be a commentator.” He was chief economic adviser to the Treasury for seven years and a close ally of Gordon Brown’s before becoming an MP in 2005. Since then he’s been one half of Westminster’s most recognisable couple, his wife being Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.
You might assume, given the nature of their work, that they spend every waking hour talking “shop” and honing their debating skills. But with three children to look after he says there’s little time for political discussions at the dinner table. “We talk about how the kids’ schooling is going and negotiating who’s going to be where to make sure they get to school on time and where we’d like to go on holiday. I’d rather sit and watch The Killing than The Thick of It. I think in that programme there’s this political couple who spend a lot of time in their personal lives thinking about and talking about politics and that isn’t how we do it.”
Balls has come in for his fair share of stick over the years and has needed a thick skin to fend off the political slings and arrows hurled in his direction.
“The thing about politics, especially if you’ve been in it for a long time, is whatever its frustrations and however difficult it is – and you don’t get much privacy and sometimes people can be very unfair and it can be nasty – being able to support something like the stammering centre in Leeds that genuinely helps people makes the bad days worthwhile. Yvette always says if you ever think ‘do I really want to do this?’ you just have to consider who else might do it instead and then you think ‘well, maybe I better keep doing it’.”
So what about his future ambitions? He threw his hat into the ring for the Labour leadership election three years ago when Ed Miliband won, but would he still like to lead his party? “I’ve played an important role in making the Bank of England independent and the Every Child Matters agenda in education. I’ve done enough things which I know have made things better, or good, in our country to not feel as though the most important thing is what I do next in my career.”
It’s a fair point although it doesn’t exactly answer the question. “The danger for a politician is always that you worry that once you’ve gone your epitaph will say ‘hopes unfulfilled.’
“But I think mine would be ‘he did some good things and he did his best’. And that’s enough,” he says. “I would love to be part of Ed’s Labour government but what I do next for me is not an all-consuming passion. I’m more bothered, in a personal sense, about getting to grade 8 piano by the time I’m 50.”
Ed Balls: A political life
Ed Balls was born in Norwich in 1967.
When he was eight his family moved to Nottingham where he was a pupil at Nottingham High School.
He studied at Keble College, Oxford, and the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard.
Balls was chief economic adviser to the Treasury from 1997 to 2004.
He was MP for Normanton (2005-2010) and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (2007-2010) and Economic Secretary to the Treasury (2006-2007).
Balls is the Labour MP for Morley and Outwood and Shadow Chancellor.
He is married to fellow MP Yvette Cooper and they have three children – Ellie, Joe and Maddy. They live in Castleford.