In the cause of his cuddly post-parliament persona, Ed Balls has been willing to do almost anything, at least on television: The Great Sport Relief Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Best Home Cook. But alas, he’s not finished yet. Balls still can’t quite grasp that no amount of lasagne recipes and Radio Times covers will necessarily lead to him being named a “national treasure” – that such an accolade, beyond the ken even of the pollsters, is awarded, not won – and thanks to this, he’s pressing gamely on. In his new series, wildly upping the stakes, the former Member for Morley and Outwood spends two weeks working in a residential home, a job that involves an early admission on his part that New Labour also failed to fix the care system. Truly, the mind boggles at the thought of what he might do next. An Axis of Evil travel series? A chat show with Peter Mandelson? My own format ideas, which border on the sadistic, hazily involve some combination of Philippa Perry, Ray Mears, Gavin Williamson and HMP Strangeways. (Note to Channel 4: my lawyers are watching.)
Anyway, I have a few reservations about this show, most of which have to do with the innocent residents of the family-run St Cecilia’s in Scarborough. Just imagine it. There you are, sitting quietly in an armchair minding your own business, when who should walk in with your supper? Ed bloody Balls, that’s who! How terrifying. Have we no respect for our elderly? Then again, there’s no one like a ninety-something Yorkshirewoman for putting a cocky politician in his place. “Oh, yeah…” says one, introduced to him. “I’ve heard of you,” says another, after some consideration. Not that this put Ed off. “Ha ha ha!” he laughs. It’s hard to fault his determination in this show. His training involves learning what it’s like to be spoon-fed, and all I can tell you is that he wears his bib with smiling fortitude. When he is lifted from a mattress in a hoist, for a few perilous moments there is only air between his backside and the floor, yet the rictus grin remains intact throughout. He might as well be enjoying a fairground ride.
What’s strange, though, is how little he matters, ultimately. If you make a wonky Victoria sponge, you can gurn for the camera; it’s hardly the end of the world. But no one’s going to laugh if you cock up the personal care of a frightened dementia patient. As a stage set, the home is a great leveller. Balls must try very hard: he has so much to learn. Meanwhile, thanks to the BBC crew, his new colleagues are given starring roles, fully heard for the first time in their working lives – and how magnificent they are, how kind and wise and stoic. At St Cecilia’s, ten residents died in 14 days during the pandemic. This is a painful and horrible thing in itself, but we also learn that Covid-19 has led to a further crisis for social care. Families are worried. New residents are thin on the ground. At St Cecilia’s, 11 beds remain empty, at a cost of up to £4,000 each a month to the home. In 2019, before the pandemic, 149,000 workers left the care sector; imagine the situation now. The (horrifying) thought occurs that on one level, Balls is actually useful: another badly needed pair of hands.
It’s uncomfortable that he wheels out his mother, Carolyn, who’s also in a home; we see their reunion after the long separation caused by Covid, which doesn’t feel right (she’s not in a position to have agreed to this, having vascular dementia). But it’s impossible not to feel slightly tearful when you see him washing the legs of 94-year-old Phyllis, as pale and brittle as bone. Though the camera panned, with utmost predictability, to the collection of photographs of her younger self on her dressing table, these pictures were not half so moving to me as her fingernails, painted a shell-like pink. Oh, that someone had taken the trouble to do this for her; that this small vanity gives her pleasure. I won’t lie. I think Balls’ motives in this series are at once psychologically complex and quite base; he’s hardly Barbara Ehrenreich (the ne plus ultra of leftist undercover journalists). But on the other hand, the question of how we fund social care is now so desperately pressing, perhaps even his “investigation” is better than nothing.
Inside the Care Crisis with Ed Balls is on BBC Two on Monday 8 November at 9pm
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks