“Very little actually. Surprisingly little. Except that was a pub. And there was a library there.”
That was the gist of the Shadow Chancellor’s response to me asking how much of Oxford had changed since his days as a PPE undergraduate at Keble, as we walked along fairly swiftly from the station into the centre of town and as I hastily jot down his words whilst trying to sort out the voice recording function on my phone. He seems to my eye, although he may just be good at pretending, to be pleased to be back in Oxford.
I quickly learn that the interview will be done whilst walking up towards Keble, and that I will have to compete for Balls’ time with a reporter from the Oxford Mail. The Shadow Chancellor is a busy man. But at least my phone is working
I decide I want to know about his background first and so start off by asking him about his roots as a politician. Was being an MP something he’d always wanted or something he stumbled into? The answer, it seems, is that he came into the world of politics as a result of intellectual curiosity.
He tells me, “I think I started studying economics when I was 16 at A-level and then here at university in Oxford. It was at a time when, under the Thatcher government, unemployment was high and rising and in which poverty was getting worse.”
He goes on to add, “At that time, although many of the big challenges we faced were economic challenges, the only solutions were going to be solutions that came through political correction.
“We’ve got to change our politics to make it more representative.”
“And so being involved in the economy [was a start], but being involved in politics was the obvious way to try and change our country and try and change our world for the better.”
That explains an interest in politics, I think – but why the Labour party? Before I can ask him though, he explains, “And as it happened my Dad was already in the Labour party.” He pauses then adds, “and chair of the local branch. So that’s why I joined.”So I ask if his interest in politics is a result of his surroundings as he was growing up? Yes, “it started as a product of my era, the late 1970s, early 1980s, which was a very tough time”.
Balls’ past, especially his time at Oxford, has long been an interest of the national media. The Daily Mail and other tabloids have run stories criticising him for the fact that he was a member of both the Oxford University Labour Club and the Oxford University Conservative Association whilst he was a student. How many other Oxford students past and present have committed this ‘crime’, I wonder.
Undoubtedly a talented economist, he went on to finish his Oxford degree in the late 1980s, taking a higher first than David Cameron, who was at the University at the same time – although the two did not know each other. He then went on to work as a teaching fellow in the Department of Economics at Harvard for a year, before returning to the UK to work for the Financial Times. Balls was a lead economic writer at the paper. A former acquaintance of Balls, who I was coincidentally put in touch with shortly after conducting this interview, explained that, “Ed Balls was very popular at the FT. He got on well with senior writers and editors and impressed everyone with his bright mind – and famously got popular song lyrics into FT editorials.”
“People will really focus on the election choice in the final months as we get closer to polling day.“
In 1994, however, he was offered a job by Gordon Brown, then Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. John Rentoul, in an article published in 2011, claims that Balls was advised against taking up the job by Martin Wolf, an Associate Editor at the FT at the time (and one of the most respected economic journalists in the UK), who thought Balls had a career at the paper to look forward to. But, the Economics Editor of The Observer, William Keegan, told him it would be a wise career move.
In the end, Balls did take up the job and was, by many accounts, a crucial component of the Brown political machine in the years that followed. Then in 2005, he was elected with over a 50% majority to the seat of Normanton, which was subsequently abolished in 2010. Following this he won election in the newly created Morley and Outwood seat in the last election. With this career path in mind, which never really deviated much outside the narrow worlds of academia, economics, or politics, I ask him about diversity in parliament.
I explain that I’m a white man from London studying at Oxford with an interest in politics, and so perhaps not in a position to ask without it being – at least on some level – slightly ironic, but does he think politics needs to be more diverse? Especially given that we have a political climate at the moment in which millions feel disaffected and unhappy with their current crop of representatives.
“I think that we need to [make parliament more diverse] and we’ve got to change our politics to make sure that it is more representative”, he responds assertively. He continues, “We need more people from public sectors as well as the private sectors, we need more trade unionists as well as lawyers, we need more people like me who come from the provinces as well as London. That’s a given.” I agree with him, and appreciate that at least he’s not from London, but what he says is indisputable.
It gets interesting though when he adds, “We do need to make our politics more representative but I think our party’s very committed to that and we’ve shown we can make change. On gender, things have been transformed; so let’s transform some other areas as well. We’ve got much more to do on ethnicity and some other areas as well.”
Do his ideas stack up, I wonder? A bit of research seems to show he’s talking some sense (there’s certainly more to do). Before 1987 women never made up more than 5% of MPs. Now they make up 22%, which is dramatically better but still poor. And he’s right when it comes to party divides – Labour’s (who operate all-women shortlist’s in many seats) percentage of women MPs is by some margin the highest of all the three main political parties. Labour leads the way in terms of ethnic minority members too they have the highest number of ethnic minority MPs and are the only party to have Muslim women represent them on the benches. But given that ethnic minorities still only make up 4% of MPs (yet 14% of the general population), we can only hope that Balls, who is aiming to play a major part in a future Labour government, will lead the transformation he’s calling for.
Balls’ household-name status is brought sharply to my attention as we walk past a group of people who I presume to be students and one of them goes, “Shit, that was Ed Balls”. Later on I see a tweet reading, “Just saw @edballsmp giving an interview walking down Lamb and Flag passage, talking about the economy where many before have chundered.”
My guess is that much of this fame is a result of his leadership challenge in 2010. Balls had the support of the union Unite, but lost out to Ed Miliband. He would nevertheless have been recognised in political circles beforehand, having previously also served as Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, meaning he has experience in ministerial positions. His current position, and indeed the one he will surely inherit if Labour get into a position of power following the next election, is the most influential role he has occupied. Being a Labour Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer must be an unforgiving job, especially given the narrative that ‘Labour broke the economy’ that the Tories fall back on when arguments run dry and that Labour has been unable to – in the eyes of the electorate anyway – prove wrong.
I think there’s a communication issue between Labour and the electorate, especially when you consider that polling suggests that Labour policy ideas are individually more popular than those of the Tories or the Lib Dems. I put this to Balls, and he responds with a comparison to the 1997 election, “I think that back in 1997 we didn’t actually come forward with our pledge-card or detailed policies until the final few months before the election and we’ve come out much earlier in this parliament, but you know there’s still a long way to go and people will really focus on the election choice in the final months as we get closer to polling day.”
He hasn’t finished, “So we’ve definitely got a challenge to get our message out there and to communicate”, he says, “but I think we’ve got a good message and good policies at a time when everybody feels that they’re under pressure and some people say that, well maybe nothing can change, nobody can make a difference. Our biggest challenge is to persuade people that not only have we got the policies but we can deliver real change.” Part of that challenge will be overcome by campaigning he adds. He points out how it’s important in places like Oxford, but also for him personally. He is has the second slimmest majority in the Shadow Cabinet.
Between meeting him at the station, accompanying him to Keble and hearing him respond to questions at a talk, I’ve come to notice that Balls has answers. When there’s no pre-determined line, he pauses and articulates his views carefully.
Except I realise there was one question at the talk he couldn’t give an answer to: what was his take on Ed Balls Day? “It’s bizarre,” he says laughing. “I don’t understand it.”