Ed Balls on his childhood look: ‘A wonky bowl! What was Mum thinking?’

The former cabinet minister recreates a childhood photo and talks about his journey from political ‘bruiser’ to Strictly hero and beyond

Former cabinet minister Ed Balls was born in Norwich in 1967. After a stint as a journalist at the Financial Times, he was poached by then shadow chancellor Gordon Brown in 1994 and became a key figure in forging the New Labour identity. Since losing his parliamentary seat in 2015, he has rebranded as a TV personality, appearing on Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Best Home Cook, and presenting documentaries. He lives in Castleford and London with his wife, Yvette Cooper MP, and their three children. His second book, Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food, is out now.

My mum really upped the ante with this school photo. We didn’t have a uniform – so it’s an outfit from a set, with an elastic tie. And the hair – a wonky bowl! What was she thinking?

As a baby, I was huge. When I was three weeks old the doctor told my mum I was growing too fast, and that milk would not be enough. My dad went straight out and bought a Moulinex, a very trendy blender, so I could eat pulped roast beef and yorkshire pudding. And I’ve never looked back.

I was always quite stocky, a little bigger than the other kids. But in Norwich I totally fitted in. My memories of that time were all of smiling and playing football. Then, when I was seven, my dad’s job changed and we moved to Nottingham, to this much bigger primary school. It was a culture shock because we had funny accents. Everybody would say to us: “Ooh arr, ooh arr, cider drinkers,” as if we were from Somerset.

In the Norwich phone book there were three pages of people with our surname, but in Nottingham there were only two Balls. It meant we always got prank phone calls: you’d pick the phone up and they’d go: “BALLS! AHHH!”, burst out laughing and hang up. It was one thing when other children giggled at your name, but when you’re eight and the parents burst out laughing too, it is quite hard. It turned out to be a formative experience though. It instilled a defiant attitude in me.

When I was first in the House of Commons, I got a lot of barracking from the Tories for my stammer: if I paused, they would all start yelling at me. So during that period I did have a tendency to stick my chin out and think: go on then, have a go. It allowed me not to be knocked off course. Politics is so caricature-based – so the combination of me having that attitude, plus being heavy and having big shoulders, meant I got a bruiser reputation. When David Cameron was prime minister politics became more macho, because that’s very much how he was. I don’t think it was a good thing. I probably contributed to that atmosphere and regret that – but that’s just how it was.

The first time I saw Yvette was in 1994 on Hampstead Heath. She was with a mutual friend, so I stopped to say hello. She had a terrible bout of ME, and was basically immobilised for a year, and used to have people come and take her for walks so she would be able to get back home safely. A few months later, I moved from the Financial Times to work for Gordon Brown, and Yvette was working part-time for Harriet Harman, Brown’s deputy as shadow chief secretary. We shared a parliament building in Westminster, got together within a few months and that was that. To this day, I don’t know if Harriet was trying to spy on Gordon by pairing us together. I definitely know it had nothing to do with Gordon. He was never a matchmaker.

At first, people thought our relationship was weird, there was a lot of judgment: would we bring our kids up to be politicians? Do we only talk about politics at the dinner table? By 2007, we were both appointed to the cabinet and there was a huge step up in intensity. We had three children under eight, and we were always travelling between Westminster and Yorkshire, where we lived at the time. We learned how to adapt; to shape our new normality. When the children were little, if Mum wasn’t there for breakfast, we’d just turn on the TV and there she’d be – on the BBC sofa.

Part of me was relieved when I lost my Morley and Outwood seat in 2015. I found out my 13-year-old son had stayed up all night watching the election, and my dad was upset, too. Normally you hope you have a chance to plan a transition, but I had absolutely no ideas about what to do next. It was destabilising, but a good thing ultimately.

When Strictly Come Dancing called the next year, I thought it was a crazy idea, but Yvette was an enthusiast. I wouldn’t consider myself an extrovert but I realised during that process that if you work hard and are determined and smile, then people don’t laugh at you.

This article comes from Saturday, the new print magazine from the Guardian which combines the best features, culture, lifestyle and travel writing in one beautiful package. Available now in the UK and ROI.

Since then I’ve said no to all sorts of weird TV ideas. I don’t mind doing things that cross thresholds in terms of what former politicians normally do, but there has to be a point to it. It’s not simply for the stunts. I wore a leotard in a scene in my documentary Travels in Trumpland because it was about the way Trump used the trope of wrestling to defy his enemies. Similarly, I’ve been working on a show for the BBC about the crisis in social care. I’ve worked for weeks on my hands and knees doing the most intense work in a care home.

My mum, who has dementia, has been in a home for three years. It’s been a scary time during Covid: the thing about dementia is that doing a Zoom call doesn’t work; she needs touch and to hear properly. She was a Strictly fan, and sometimes watches videos of me on YouTube – apparently every now and then she turns to the care home person she’s with and rolls her eyes. Deep down she is both smiling and slightly appalled. But then this is the mother who put me in that orange shirt, so what can I say?

I never meant to send the Ed Balls tweet saying just “Ed Balls” in 2011; I was at Asda preparing for a royal wedding street party when I accidentally posted, and I didn’t know how to delete it. Everyone seemed to enjoy it though. The next year my office said I had to acknowledge it. So now I always do. I’ve made a cake. I’ve stood on Norwich City’s ground with a load of balls. For Ed Balls Day in lockdown, I was thinking about recreating the scene with Steve McQueen in The Great Escape sitting in a cell, throwing and catching a ball. I sat on our sofa and chucked the ball. Too hard. As a result, I marked Ed Balls day by making a massive dent in our house.

It’s been a wild five years politically. The country and politics are so divided. Mistakes have been made. I’ve been watching on with sympathy as well as suppressing my desire to shout at the TV. I don’t sit around thinking, what if? Although every now and then, when I’m doing karaoke with an Elvis impersonator in a care home, with the blinds down at three in the afternoon as the residents wave their arms along, I do think: what happened to my life? I wanted to be chancellor of the exchequer.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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