Great Balls of fire! Ed jives into UK’s heart

Disco Balls: The public rescued the former shadow chancellor from last night’s dance off. © PA

David Cameron once called Ed Balls the ‘most annoying’ man in politics. Now, after weeks of dad dancing in silly outfits, he’s a ‘national treasure’. Should politicians try to be more human?

It all could have been so different. Eighteen months ago, Ed Balls was on the brink of becoming one of the most powerful men in Britain. The polls gave Labour an even chance of winning the general election in May 2015. Balls would have finally secured his dream job: chancellor of the exchequer. But it was not to be. The Conservatives won instead — and Balls lost his seat in Parliament by just 422 votes. He was devastated.

Fast forward to Saturday night, and he is being lowered from the ceiling of Blackpool Tower Ballroom whilst playing a flaming piano live on television.

It was Week Nine of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, and the unlikely underdog Balls was performing a jive to Great Balls of Fire. There was rapturous applause. ‘You are strangely addictive,’ said judge Bruno Tonioli.

Despite consistently getting the lowest scores, Balls has been saved from from elimination every week by the public. Bookies have slashed his odds of winning. His fans include Alan Sugar, Jeremy Vine, and even his former rival George Osborne who texted him to say he was ‘crazily brave’. Somehow, Balls has transformed himself from one of Britain’s least popular politicians into one of its most beloved.

The reason is clear: he has found a way to make himself ‘likeable’. By subjecting himself to ridicule and exposing his vulnerabilities with good humour, he has delighted the show’s 10 million viewers.

‘Likeability’ is something that politicians have been chasing for decades: inviting journalists into their homes; appearing on friendly chat shows; kissing babies on campaign trails.

Cool, wisecracking Barack Obama has it down to an art. Awkward, choreographed Hillary Clinton always found it elusive.

Now, in Britain, Ed Balls could win Strictly. And some on the left are already calling for him to harness his newfound popularity, return to Westminster and ‘save British politics’.

Goodness gracious!

Is this what the world has come to? ask some. Democracy is in a dire state if opinions can so easily be swayed by middle-aged men performing Gangnam Style on a Saturday night. Surely what we want from our leaders is the ability to lead — not on a dancefloor, but in a time of crisis. Their knowledge of the paso doble is totally irrelevant.

Do not underestimate the power of connecting emotionally with ordinary people, respond others. Earning the public’s trust is the most important thing a politician can do and it is not always easy. Ed Balls has taken a surprising route. But in a year of bitter political divisions, finding some levity is a refreshing move. And if he is destined to lift that glitterball trophy above his head, at least no one can accuse him of not knowing how to win votes.

You Decide

  1. Could Ed Balls win Strictly Come Dancing?
  2. Does it matter if politicians are likeable or not?

Activities

  1. Choose another politician and discuss how far being ‘likeable’ has affected their career.
  2. Create a campaign video for a politician of your choice. Do you focus on their policies, or their personality?

Some People Say...

“Politics has become the world’s most exciting reality TV.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this all a bit frivolous?
Frivolous or not, how a politician is perceived by the public has become vitally important. Take Hillary Clinton for example. She was one of the least popular presidential candidates in America’s history, and part of that was a feeling that she was somehow ‘hiding something’. No matter what she did, the image stuck — and it cost her dearly.
Could Ed Balls become prime minister?
Not at the moment — he has not been elected as an MP since losing his seat last year, and constitutional convention in the UK requires the PM to be an MP: the prime minister must command the confidence of the House of Commons. But you never know. Politicians have come back from defeat before (most famously Winston Churchill). In the current political climate, anything seems possible.

Word Watch

Ed Balls
The 49-year-old Labour politician was an MP for 10 years, and served as the secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families, as well as Gordon Brown’s chief economic adviser. He is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University.
Chancellor of the exchequer
The person in charge of Britain’s economic policies. The job is currently held by Philip Hammond, and it was George Osborne’s before that.
422 votes
Balls lost his Morely and Outwood seat to the Conservative Andrea Jenkyns by 422 votes. For many, his loss was one of the biggest shocks of election night.
Odds
Over the weekend, Balls went from 100–1 to win to just 12–1. This means that betting shops think he has around a one in 13 chance of success.
Least popular
In a YouGov survey in 2012, for example, 28% said George Osborne would be a better chancellor, and just 22% said Balls.
10 million viewers
Interestingly, more people watch Strictly Come Dancing than voted for Labour in 2015 (9,347,304).
Paso doble
A Spanish and Portuguese ballroom dance which is based on the movement in traditional bullfights.

Subjects

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