When Ed Balls visits UEA it’s pouring with rain, the middle of exam season, and a re-scheduled visit after his intiial planned appearance at UEA’s Literary festival was cancelled. Nonetheless, the lecture theatre where Professor of Political and Social Theory Alan Finalyson interviews Balls is jampacked with residents of Norwich and students.
After unexpectedly joining the posse of Labour MPs who lost their seats in 2015, the former Shadow Chancellor has, some pundits have written, surived this electoral death and managed to thrive in his political afterlife.
Balls’ visit to UEA is his first in 42 years, something he calls “a terrible thing.” He explains that despite returning to Norwich “once a week at least in the last few years” the Literary festival event marks a homecoming to UEA.
On his early memories of the city, moving to Nottingham when he was eight, Balls says: “My mum grew up above the butcher’s shop in Unthank Road and I’ve been to a pub there with Charles Clarke a couple of times and my mum and dad now live in the Cathedral Close, where the cathedral is which I always enjoy as it’s such an amazing building and all that area around Elm Hill and when I was young we used to go on holiday every year to Sheringham and so I like going to the seaside there, it’s a good town. But having said all of that, my favourite place is obviously Carrow Road.”
Given the Brexit result and Donald Trump’s election, I ask what message Balls would give to students in a time of political tumult. Balls stresses that he feels the political situation is no different to the challenges faced by young people three decades ago.
He says: “Everyoneís worried about the very unstable situation in America but thereís also great opportunities at the moment and I think that the right thing to do at university is to feel still optimistic that this is a great country and new opportunities arising and you [have] got to go out there and grasp them.”
As lecturer in Economics at both Harvard and King’s College London, Balls says he is “worried” by a trend of no-platforming. When I ask his thoughts on the proposed no-platforming of Boris Johnson a couple of years ago at King’s, he says: “I think the idea of not inviting Boris Johnson onto a university campus when he’s the Foreign Secretary of our country is absurd and more generally, I think that universities are the kind of place where people should be able and encouraged to make arguments which are controversial.
“I think universities needs to be places which are safe and also where people learn and debate and speak freely.”
However, he adds that he thinks there are “limits to free speech” in cases when “it starts to directly challenge other people’s safety by inciting hatred on religious or racial grounds, but I think that banning anybody coming to university who you disagree with is wrong.”
Of course, I have to ask the ex-politican about using politics in the age of Twitter, given his accidental tweeting of his own name has since garnered almost 100,000 retweets since the 2011 slip-up. I ask whether he feels any anxiety about the social media site, given other politicians’ mistakes or past tweets have been used to oust them from their political positions, sometimes fairly and sometimes not.
He said: “When Twitter began, the idea that you would say things and have you know a timeline which interacted with people youíd never met was really quite a strange unusual thing.” However, he says now he feels “quite normal about being on Twitter and reading tweets from people Iím very familiar with and people I have never met.”
He adds: “The lesson you learn with Twitter is that you have to always have to think hard before you do anything because the things which happen on the spur of the moment or in a moment of anger, often turn out to be quite big problems.
“Having said that, as you said, my tweet was clearly a mistake and has now been retweeted 95,000 times so every now and again…but I think you always have to be, as a politician, quite careful.”
On the topic of Milifandom, an odd but endearing meme that saw teenage girls treat former Labour leader Ed Miliband as if he were a boyband member, fancrown edits and all, he describes such Internet reactions as “nice but not representative.”
“It’s real, I’ve done interviews in The New York Times and the Australian media all because of Ed Balls Day so it’s not that it’s not real but it’s not representative of the whole society. So you can have some nice tweets and that it isnít the same as what most people think.”
On the topic of politics and humour, he says British satire is “why we’ve never had a Donald Trump or a Mussolini. We’ve laughed and mocked those in power for centuries and I think that’s a very healthy thing.”
When we speak it seems certain that the Conservatives will win a landslide, and many are chomping at the bit to state Labour is doomed to an electoral abyss. With this in mind, I asked Balls whether he believed election campaigns could make a difference to the outcomes of elections. He said: “There are times in elections where things really shift in election campaigns, that was why the Spanish socialists lost after a terrorist attack a few years ago.
“I think you can look at the rise of Nick Clegg in 2010 or the Tory-SNP attack on Labour in 2015 both as events which shifted the election result but the underlying trend is that instincts and views are established over a long period of time.”
We move on to talking about young people’s political participation. He said: “We are a democracy because it’s the best way to run a society, of course it has lots of flaws and challenges but compared to any other system itís a better way to do things because men and women fought for very hard to win the right to allow them to vote, in our country.
“We get the politicians we deserve and the way in which we get better politicians and better outcomes is by participating in voting. I think in a democracy it’s our collective responsibility.”
Concrete spoke to him when he visited campus only a few weeks before the general election. Balls came to discuss his memoir Speaking Out, and admitted to the auidence earlier in the night that he didn’t write the book himself. Instead, he described sitting at his desk and recording himself speak for an hour or so every morning after taking his children to school.
This isn’t particularly unorthodox, though the same can’t be said for Balls’ post-Parliament career. Inbetween lecturing at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, Balls has appeared on Strictly Come Dancing but tells the UEA audience he wouldn’t do any other similiar shows. Despite the current period of precarious political promises, this remark feels believable.
However, so much else in politics does not feel certain, and I ask Balls whether there is anything else that could happen in politics that would shock him.
He said: “Well if you said to me two years ago, Jeremy Corbyn would be elected twice as Labour leader, David Cameron would lose a referendum, George Osborne would be made the editor of the Standard and Donald Trump would become President Iíd have been completely shocked.
“Even though I thought Iíd been around for quite a long time, I was shocked and thereís undoubtedly things which could shock me in the future.:
Ironically, in a few weeks time, Prime Minister Theresa May’s snap election would be revealed as a massive miscalculation on her part, as a hung parliament is predicted by the 8 June exit poll, and is later proven true.
Ed Balls acutely says, before the interview ends: “The point about being shocked is that you donít expect it so when I’m shocked I’ll tell you and I’ll only be shocked because I’m not expecting it.”