Politics

Ed Balls: "I was a studious beanpole"

Former Labour minster Ed Balls reflects on his greatest achievement in politics, advice from Sir Alex, and the day he'd like to relive

When I was 16 it was 1983, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and unemployment was more than three million. I thought Thatcherism was cruel and heartless and why should young people pay that price. My main preoccupations were Norwich City football club and trying to do well in my A-levels. I originally wanted to do medicine but it turned out I had a problem with blood; we went out sledging once and I cut my hand, passed out at the sight of blood and had to be carried home. So that was the end of my career as a doctor.

I was turned on to economics by a very good teacher, Peter Baker, who taught us about politics and economics. I had always been interested in politics but that year I realised all politics came down to finances. And I got the idea I’d like to be part of running an economy better than it was being run back then. So my professional life began in that class when I was 16.

I had a stammer at 16 but I didn’t know what it was. From the age of 13 there were two things I knew. If I was allocated a part in a play in English class, when it came time for me to read I found it really hard to get the words out. I really wanted to get involved in debating but when I got up to speak I often found it really hard to get going. But I just thought it was me not being experienced. I was aware that if I was worr-ied or under pressure it got worse but the idea that a stammer is caused by a psychological problem is nonsense. I was quite a confident teenager. It just made me frustrated, I told myself to try harder. But at school it wasn’t half as much of an issue as my surname.

I’d tell my younger self not to wear the Führer uniform for a fancy dress party at Oxford

I’d tell my younger self not to wear the Führer uniform for a fancy dress party at Oxford. When I was the junior common room president some students bought us all fancy dress and I wore that; it seemed a bit silly not to join. In retrospect that was the wrong thing to do. I definitely wouldn’t do that again. I didn’t have social media then but people still took photos which could show up on page two of the Daily Mail many years later. And you might look at that photo and think, oh my goodness, did that really happen?

The stammer didn’t really hit my confidence until I had to make political speeches. The first time I realised it was actually a problem was live on Newsnight, on the night I was selected to be an MP. I was standing outside a community hall in North Yorkshire and I went on with Gavin Esler in the middle of a car park. I thought it was okay, then afterwards my wife Yvette and a friend of mine both said I’d been quite halting, almost like I was cold and shivering. That’s when I realised there was something really not right. It took three years to discover it was called an interiorised stammer. So I actually got elected, I went on Question Time, Newsnight, spoke in the House of Commons, all before I knew I had a stammer.

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I’d tell my younger self, Alex Ferguson is a great leader and when he gives you advice you should take it. I used to play for a Saturday football team but it got harder to play when I got elected as an MP, due to all the travel. I was at a dinner next to Alex Ferguson once and he said to me, stay fit and keep exercising. If you stop it’ll be much harder to start again. I didn’t take his advice, then found out years later that he was completely right. I had to run the London Marathon to get back into shape. I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody.

I think the 16-year-old Ed would strike me as quite studious, a studious beanpole. He probably worked too hard. He was optimistic and ambitious, always looking to the future. But he’d never met a politician, hardly ever been to London, never met anyone famous – he’d probably have thought people like him didn’t get to be things like politicians or TV presenters. When you’re 16 or even 21, you keep thinking, one day when I grow up… The reality is, when you’re 35 or 45 you still feel like that 21-year-old, wondering what will happen when you really grow up. I’d tell my teenage self, it’s good to think about the future but you should try to enjoy the now too. If you spend your whole time thinking I’ll only be happy when I get that job, that’s really dangerous. What if you never get there? Or what if you get there and discover it’s not the key to happiness? I think it’s better to step back and realise, the people you spend time with, the friendships you make, those things are much more important than positions and titles.

My grandfather used to work on the turnstiles. My uncle was a season ticket holder for 50 years

If I really wanted to impress my 16-year-old self I’d tell him I became the chairman of Norwich City Football Club. The football club my family have supported for generations. My grandfather used to work on the turnstiles. My uncle was a season ticket holder for 50 years. The idea that I would one day be chairman, to my teenage self – oh, that would have been the impossible dream. More than becoming a cabinet minister.

In terms of what I’m most proud of in politics, the question is always, if you hadn’t been there, would it have been done, and has it lasted? Raising the National Insurance tax to save the NHS in the 2002 budget, giving it what it needed, getting operation waiting times down, was hugely important. If it hadn’t been for me, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, that might not have happened. That’s my biggest achievement.

If I could go back and relive any time in my life, it would be when our first daughter was born in 1999. We were on the edge of a new millennium. We were two years into being in the Treasury. But nothing else mattered that day. She’s now 17, it’s a long time ago. But it’s the most exciting day I can ever remember. Something amazing happened that you could never quite imagine happening. But it did. I just kept thinking, my God it’s a girl. My God I’m a dad. After she was born I was utterly exhausted and so was our newborn baby girl, so both of us fell asleep while Yvette [Cooper, Labour MP] had a cup of tea. It’s possible Yvette thought she should have been the one falling asleep. But it was me who did, along with our one-hour-old daughter.

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