The man who would be Chancellor is driving his blue Escort, precariously. Every few seconds the boot resounds with a thud. Ed Balls tells me not to worry – the canister in the back only contains helium. We arrive in the car park of the Co-op and before I know it he has blown up two dozen red Labour balloons, passing them to Mick, his assistant, who ties curly black ribbon around them.
This is not the view I used to have of the former chief economic adviser to the Treasury. Balls has decided to go public, to join the serried ranks of parliamentary candidates, even though everyone knows he is not like the rest of them. He has already overtaken many cabinet ministers with the number of election press conferences he has fronted. What price becoming the first new MP in modern times to walk straight into government? “I realise that you have only a limited shelf-life being unelected,” he says, as we tour his new fiefdom of Normanton, a conglomeration of eight towns and villages in West Yorkshire. It could soon disappear. Boundary changes in the next parliament suggest it could be split between three adjacent seats, including that of Balls’s wife, Yvette Cooper.
Whichever way it is divided up, this is safe territory. Some local folk already recognise Balls “from the telly” as being “something to do with Gordon Brown and the money”. Most people say they will probably vote Labour, but with a grumble or a grudge. The turnout was terrible last time: 52 per cent. It could get worse. No matter how many balloons are attached to kids’ buggies or stickers handed out, some people are in a hurry to be on their way. “Kissing babies is out of date,” Balls remarks. “You never know what the parents might think.” Balloons will have to do instead.
When conversation is engaged, it is as often fruity as fruitful. Two young men try to persuade Balls of the merits of their Christian organisation; one man says Tony Blair should be doing more to stop the opium trade in Afghanistan, while a man in his sixties with an outback hat and suspicious suntan demands: “Do I look like an arsehole? I’m certainly not going to vote for one.” He explains: “You were that Brown’s adviser when he stitched up the pensions.” Balls agrees that, yes, he was the adviser, but, no, that is not what happened. The man walks off, unconvinced. Balls is having to develop a thicker skin than he needed for the battles between Brown and Blair.
His literature advertises his close links with the Chancellor. Blair does not get a look-in. That does not make Balls unique. Far from it. Most Labour candidates have excised all mention of the PM. Now that the two rivals have agreed an election truce, Balls is respectful to a fault. He praises Blair for his Dover speech on immigration for setting out “values” alongside measures. He suggests that lessons should be learned from the campaign: “You’ve got to start establishing the philosophical differences from the Conservatives at the beginning of the parliament.”
Local dignitaries are preparing for the St George’s Day civic parade, together with brass band and purple-clad majorettes. The master of ceremonies orders them into line – lord mayor of this, lady mayoress of that, the chief inspector of the constabulary – then he commands the “member of parliament”. Balls pleads that this is not his title and the result has still to be determined by the voters, but they usher him into his place anyway, down the pecking order. Protocol is all, and he is careful not to offend.
He inherited a local party without an office or computer, but with no shortage of jovial volunteers. He has taken a six-month lease on what was a lingerie shop called Bare Essentials. The workers still find the odd undergarment buried beneath the boxes. We stand outside on the pedestrian mall. Balls is keen to hand out envelopes explaining Brown’s tax credits. He signs some leaflets for a group of schoolgirls and marches an elderly lady over to one of his volunteers for advice on a housing problem. Then he is confronted by a man who means trouble: he won’t be voting Labour, for allowing Muslims to outbreed the whites and for “doing nowt for the working class”. “That’s crap,” Balls replies. He’s getting into the swing of it.
A ghetto blaster plays a tape, voiced over by a constituency worker called Chris, that exhorts voters with the power of nightmares: “Sleaze, the poll tax, jobs at £1.50 an hour: surely you don’t want to go back to those days?” The tape is also a Blair-free zone. Still, Balls points to a new “sense of shared endeavour and commitment and co-operation”. But is it genuine?
“It feels genuine and not as cynics would like to say – that it has been constructed for short-term convenience.” And what of the handover? “The Prime Minister has made it clear he plans to stay for a full term. I’m sure the practicalities of all of that will be dealt with after the general election, and not before.” Ah, the practicalities . . .