Two things can happen to you if you follow British politics closely in 2016. You can become a bitter, joyless husk of a human. Or you can coo over the Whitehall cats, guffaw at a vote resulting in Boaty McBoatface and bask in the bizarre delights of failed politicians making fools of themselves.
I am one of the former. I cannot crack a smile about Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing. I see the pictures. The clips play against my will on Facebook and Twitter as I scroll dead-eyed through my timelines of a weekend. I know he dressed up as The Mask (although I don’t really know why). And I know he did some sort of body roll. I also know that Michael Gove has “developed an infatuation” with him, and former Labour cabinet minister Geoff Hoon has urged Hillary Clinton to “get across” what Balls does each Saturday night.
But I just do not find it funny.
Full disclosure: I’m not a Strictly fan. I’ve never really watched it. I’m just vaguely aware of this thing with a catchy theme tune that is occasionally piped into Radio 4 political magazine programmes for the lighter segment at the end. But that says more about me than the show.
No, it’s not because I don’t follow it that I don’t like Ed Balls on Strictly. I don’t like Ed Balls on Strictly because it is the all-sashaying, all-sweating symbol of the monstrous clownification of politics. Something I don’t think we need to encourage any more in these horrifying times.
Balls has had a lot of important jobs in a number of powerful regimes. He was a special adviser in the Treasury under Gordon Brown. He has been Education Secretary. He’s held numerous senior shadow cabinet positions. He could even be Chancellor right now, if you screw up your imagination hard enough.
But the point is, he has been in pursuit of political power for most of his career. Like him or not – and he was one of our most divisive political figures on both sides of the House – he’s had to make compromises, he’s had to scheme, and he has had constantly to fight off the reputation of being a “bully”. There is just something a little odd about allowing ourselves to be so easily seduced by someone who has been known as a ruthless political fixer. And someone who so disastrously crashed out of the election, his constituents rejecting the usually attractive prospect of having such a heavyweight political representative.
We apparently hate “the establishment” these days, but not when it’s wearing spangly leggings.
The second reason I cannot giggle at Balls’ bewaistcoated shimmies is because of Yvette Cooper. Can you imagine if it were the other way round? If Cooper lost her seat in 2015, and while her husband carried on fighting the good fight from the backbenches for refugees and for rescuing a floundering party, she was bouncing on stage in sequins and smiles every Saturday? I just don’t think the nation would find it nearly as amusing. A woman would never get away with it.
But as it is, Balls is having a merry old time rehabilitating his reputation and getting all the attention, while Cooper is putting in all the tough, often thankless, work.
Yes, his family is clearly enjoying the hilarity, and yes, he comes across well on the show. But just because a politician is a good laugh doesn’t mean we should simply fall for their entertainment value. It’s the kind of thinking that lets figures like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get away with it.
But then my favourite reality TV show is The Apprentice, so you can’t trust me.