Interview: Ed Balls

The education secretary is passionate about transforming schools and the lives of children in Britai

Ed Balls is worried about Christmas. It just isn't the way it was when he was a lad. He talks excitedly about the festive season in the Balls household three decades ago, heralded each year by the arrival of his grandmother, bearing a special treat. "You remember the big issue of the Radio Times, when it was the only source of TV listings? You only had four channels. What you chose was really exciting."

As one of the "Young Turks" around Gordon Brown, Balls is often represented as some sort of teenage tearaway, when he is in fact a 40-year-old father-of-three. He grew up in the 1970s, in the days before satellite television, before mobile phones, before the internet.

Woven into the fabric of his new Children's Plan is a recognition that the 21st century is a scary place for parents, many of whom are struggling to comprehend the rapid technological shifts affecting their children. So, to complement the changes to the curriculum, the increase in nursery places for two-year-olds, reform of primary school tests, comes a commitment to examining the effects of new cultural phenomena on children. Experts will examine the impact of violent computer games on boys, of the increasing sexualisation of women's bodies on young girls and other effects of commercialisation.

"Because there's so much more dedicated children's TV and advertising, you can see how the pester power of children is much greater than it was 30 years ago. That is something that, as a parent, you just try to deal with. As a parent, I worry about the way in which commercial pressure - TV, the internet, sexualisation - impacts on self-esteem. But I couldn't say I understand it." This is quite an admission from a man with a reputation for knowing everything about everything. Balls believes that our knowledge of how the media affect our behaviour is still limited, but he is convinced the effects are real.

The Children's Plan is a vastly ambitious document, nothing short of a blueprint for the next generation. "The driving vision is wanting to make Britain a better place for children to grow up, wanting every child to fulfil their talents, to make progress at school, but also to be healthy, be happy, to be able to play as well as learn," Balls says. He talks of schools being "an early-warning indicator of things which are becoming a problem outside", such as health, antisocial behaviour and poverty. At the heart of this mission is the need to "break down all the barriers to learning and progress for every child in and outside of school".

Intervention for troubled children does not come early enough, he says. "The first time they get extra help if they're going off the rails shouldn't be when they get into trouble with the criminal justice system."

He acknowledges that the rate of progress has been slower than it should have been. "Standards have been rising progressively in the past ten years but we're not yet world-class. Children from poor backgrounds have seen faster improvements in results in the past four or five years. But it is still the case that your educational chances are substantially affected by where you live, the occupation of your parents, the income of your family."

Early learning

We suggest that the plan marks a significant shift in philosophy from the early days of new Labour. The Balls concept of "personalised learning", for example, does not sound a million miles away from the concept of "child-centred learning", which was much derided by the likes of David Blunkett as a hangover from the progressive teaching practices of the 1960s and 1970s. "Well, it's certainly putting the needs of children and families first," says Balls.

He concedes that the government has struggled to resolve the intractable problem of dealing with the bottom 20 per cent of children who consistently fail to hit the level now expected of them at 11 (Level 4 at Key Stage 2, to use the official jargon). "An important reason why the pace [of improvement] has slowed is that as you increase the number of children who are getting to Level 4 at 11, as you get closer to the 80 per cent, getting above that means tackling a whole series of situations in children's lives which are not simply going to be solved by teaching a particular curriculum in the classroom."

For this reason Balls is convinced of the im portance of so-called "wrap-around services" for schools outside normal school hours - in particular, breakfast clubs. "Too often children, because of what's happened to them at the weekend, arrive at school unable to start learning. The breakfast club for the first hour of the day means that they eat, but they also stabilise, which means that they can learn through the rest of the day. If it weren't for that, we couldn't teach in the school. It's also a critical part of tackling the wider barriers to learning."

Underlying moves to change the way children are tested in the final year of primary is a view that the present system is too simplistic. Instead of tests on a single day, children will be assessed when teachers judge them ready. This will allow brighter children to move on to a more advanced curriculum and children who are less able, or younger, to work at their own pace.

"This is not a retreat from objective standardised information school by school, which allows parents and national and local government to assess progress," he says. "But it is a move away from inflexible, one-size-fits-all testing at 11. Instead, when children move up a level, the level at which they start and how far they can go depends on the child - and teachers and parents."

Has he been depressed by the difficulties La bour has encountered in tackling social mobility? He sighs. "It tells you that you don't turn round a century or more of attitudes and assumptions about what different groups in society can achieve in a few years. It's a big, long-term task."

In a previous interview with the NS before he became a minister (during the Blair era), Balls said he was not afraid to describe himself as a socialist. So we ask him again about equality. Now in the cabinet, he appears to be making similar claims for Labour under Brown.

"We're a progressive egalitarian government which wants to abolish child poverty, make sure opportunity is available for all and not just some, and to break out of an idea that excellence can only be for a few, and that you have a two-tier view of society in which the education and opportunities of people from low-income families or from particular communities are second-best." This, he says, goes far beyond the old mantras of equality of opportunity.

So why did the government give in to pressure from the Conservatives and the right-wing press to raise the threshold of inheritance tax, perhaps the clearest redistributive tax of them all?

"If you send a signal out which is that 'there's only so far you can rise in Britain', then people will go elsewhere. Having been a City minister for a year and seen the reality of that world, [I can tell you that] the high achievers are very, very mobile people. We don't want to send a signal that we are a society which doesn't welcome talent and expertise and doesn't want to see people being rewarded.

"I don't want to live in a society where inequality is rising and you have huge gaps between the haves and have-nots. That isn't the foundation for a strong society. But at the same time, I don't think in a global economy you can start by addressing the balance by capping rewards at the top without paying quite a big price in terms of your ability . . . to attract investment and talent and companies to come and create jobs in your country - and that is central to the progressive dilemma."

Spread the word

In the last issue of the NS, the left-wing deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas and his campaign manager Jon Trickett published the most trenchant critique yet of the Brown government's faults. We ask Balls for his view, expecting him to dismiss the article. Instead he argues that Cruddas and Trickett are knocking at an open door. "I think that we are, in education, child poverty, health, housing, setting out radical progressive policies with increasingly clear dividing lines between the parties," he says. Why then are so many on the left disillusioned? "We as a government need to have the confidence to talk and shout about those issues more."

When Balls was in internal opposition to the Blairites he was often thought to be working behind the scenes to undermine flagship policies such as tuition fees and trust schools. His Commons opposite number, Michael Gove, likes to quote Balls, also from the NS, expressing doubts about the controversial education bill of the time, which gave schools new freedoms from local authority control.

Balls admits he has changed his mind. "The thing about policymaking in the past ten years," he says - "and this includes policy I was involved with - this is the process: you start with a view, there's discussion, policy evolves, you reach a conclusion. The question is: Have you reached the right conclusion? Have you arrived at the right place? What started as a policy that some feared would set school against school and what some feared would lead to greater selection actually ended up delivering a stronger admissions code than we've ever had."

So Blair was right all along?

"As I said, it's the evolution of policy, and it shows the government, the Labour Party and parliament at its best. There were very influen-tial select committee reports and there were debates which went on and we ended up with a good outcome."

Jobs for the boys

Ed Balls has stood shoulder to shoulder with Gordon Brown since he became an adviser to him in opposition in 1994, when he really was young. In government he has been at his side at the Treasury, first as an adviser and then as a minister. His rise to a top cabinet post under a Brown premiership was inevitable. His analysis of the events of the past six months provides a fascinating insight from within the Brown bunker.

"The idea was that once the transition occurred, Gordon Brown would slump in the polls and fail. Therefore when the transition occurred, to be honest, everyone was rather taken aback by how well it went. So when you had quite a big swing in one direction . . . then maybe people suddenly sort of pinched themselves and said, 'Well, it can't be going this well.'"

We ask Balls if he thinks the Labour Party is off the bottom now. "There have been too many weeks in the past few weeks where you've thought, 'Nothing could come along and be as difficult as it was last week,' and then it did," he says. "But politics isn't about avoiding issues that are difficult to deal with. You win elections by having difficult issues which you deal with well."

One area where he admits bad mistakes were made is the cancelled election, a fiasco for which Balls and other "Young Turks" have been held responsible. He is frank in his analysis.

"It was badly handled in that . . . an interesting discussion which was a reflection of the fact that we were ahead in the polls . . . moved beyond the theoretical. And as Gordon himself has said, he should have moved more quickly to shut down the speculation if he wasn't going to go for the election."

So just how closely involved is he in the Downing Street machine? What about meetings with other members of the young clique? Balls insists he has seen the likes of Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander perhaps only three times over the past month, outside cabinet meetings. After all the recent problems, does Brown need to bring new people into his team? "That's a question you've got to ask Gordon. I'm the Secretary of State. I get on with my job." What about talk of a return for Alastair Campbell? "News to me."

Does Balls talk to Brown every day, for example - as some reports suggest? "No. Of course I don't," he retorts. "Do I do morning calls every day? No. Do I go and have a meeting with Gordon every day? No. Am I trying to run the government or run Downing Street? Of course I'm not. Is it bad enough trying to run a department of this scale and scope? Yes. Is it a time-consuming job doing that? Yes. If Gordon rings me do I talk to him? Of course. I'm not part of the strategic directive of Downing Street. But what's the point of me attempting to jump up and down every time a diary story or a sketch says that must be true? You just roll your eyes and carry on."

Ed Balls: the CV

1967 Born 25 February in Norwich. Educated at Nottingham High School and Oxford

1989-90 Fellow at Harvard

1990-94 Leader writer and columnist, Financial Times

1994-97 Economic adviser to Gordon Brown

1994 Coins the term "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory", leading Michael Heseltine to quip: "It's not Brown's, it's Balls"

1998 Marries Yvette Cooper MP (now minister for housing). They have three children

1999-2004 Chief economic adviser to the Treasury

May 2005 Elected MP for Normanton

May 2006 Becomes economic secretary to the Treasury

June 2007 Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Research by Alyssa McDonald

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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain