Friday, November 16, 2007

House Points: Ed Balls

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News. Congratulations to the editorial staff for the following headline...

What a Balls up

One route to a high reputation in politics is not to be seen in public. In the days when no one knew what Peter Mandelson’s voice sounded like, he was a feared, Mephistophelean figure. Journalists believed he might materialise in their editor’s office and finish their careers at any moment.

Then Mandelson got himself elected, became a minister and went on television. We discovered that he spoke like a 1950s newsreader. He became just another figure for Rory Bremner to mimic and no one was scared any more.

Ed Balls used to be an economic guru - the brains behind Gordon Brown. He was the man who grasped the importance of ‘neo-classical endogenous growth theory’. There were even unconfirmed reports that he could pronounce it.

Now Balls is Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. And he gives every impression of being out of his depth. Answering questions on Monday, he was bumbling and hesitant. He struggled even to read out his briefing notes.

At one point he began an answer "I have to say that I am very confused, Mr Speaker," then left a dangerously long pause. The cries of "hear, hear" were heartfelt.

Part of Balls’s problem is clear from his job title. Liberals have long argued that schools should be locally managed, not run from Whitehall. Now children and families have been added to his brief. When were they nationalised?

So on Monday, partly because of the new initiative allowing MPs to ask topical questions, Balls was quizzed across a dizzying range of subjects.

Would he congratulate GCSE students in Nottingham. Would the government abolish child poverty? What is he doing about truancy? What should the exact content of the school science syllabus be? Would he give more money to youth services in Ellesmere Port. Shouldn’t a "specialist sports college" have changing rooms?

This litany would have tested anyone. It threatened to test Balls to destruction.
Some have likened Balls to Alan B’stard's sidekick Piers Fletcher-Dervish. That is unfair. He reminds you more of Bertie Wooster’s friend the Rev. Harold "Stinker" Pinker, curate of Totleigh-in-the-World.

Stinker was a clumsy, well meaning but not very bright public school boy. Balls has yet to prove to the House that he is anything more.


Paul Linford said...

Well, to be fair, most people who know him would agree he's formidably bright. The problem is his total lack of charm and hectoring manner. I really do think Gordo is making a big mistake by having him as a frontline minister at this stage of his career. He should have had a much longer ministerial apprenticeship in order to acquire the political and personal skills he patently lacks.

Anonymous said...

agree with Paul. He lectured in economics at HArvard and in terms of microeconomic reform of Britain has written one of the most astute analyses of the barriers to productivity growth in the UK that any politician of any generation could have written. But I guess that's his problem he's still delivering those Harvard lectures.

dreamingspire said...

“Liberals have long argued that schools should be locally managed, not run from Whitehall.” Yes, and when they were locally managed some were very very good and others were not good. Some areas (e.g. north east Cheshire in the late 1950s) suffered from having the bright children siphoned off into the Direct Grant schools in Manchester or to Kings Macclesfield. Manchester City’s own schools were very very good, with a three tier organisation (grammar, technical, and secondary modern) – and also special schools integrated into the system; all pupils were re-appraised at 13 and those who would benefit from a change were moved to another type of school. Savvy parents chose where they lived because of the schools. The national policy of comprehensiveising ruined that, in the name of improving the poor schools. But also the Manchester area was changing, with heavy industry (that provided jobs for many of those coming out of the technical schools) running down, and so there had to be some change in the school structure.
‘Locally managed’ must be in a network that ensures quality of the management. The current fad for ‘local democracy’ without centrally carried responsibility doesn’t deliver that. LDs need to spell out a national structure for schools that supports local management and ensures its quality. It may only be deliverable at the moment in patches, but its time to have a go.