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Why Ed Balls Is Dancing All Over My Heart

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Photo: BBC/Jay Brooks/Matt Burlem.
I’ve spent a lot of my rapidly-declining 20s googling photos of Ed Balls. Despite me being pretty much gay, and him a portly, stern-lipped ex-Labour MP, the adoration persists. It lasted through his time as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, his tenure as Shadow Chancellor, the time he accidentally tweeted “Ed Balls” because he was searching his own name on social media and the time he lost his seat by just 422 votes in 2015’s general election.

And I’m not alone. Legions adore Ed; he’s number 16 in Heart FM’s “weird crush” rankings, Mumsnet anointed him a “sexy beast” in 2015, and in a recent Q&A on the site, Ed was asked: “I’ve got a crush on you. Are you free?” He replied: “I’m done here in 25 minutes… :D” Ed was joking, of course, as he’s happily married to another Mumsnet interviewee, his wife, Labour MP Yvette Cooper. In 2010 he insisted that if she wanted to run for leadership he would stand down to make way for her. Which only makes him more irresistible.
To my delight, on Saturday night, Ed Balls made his appearance on the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing, waltzing to Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” alongside onetime World Professional Latin Showdance Champion Katya Jones. His head was held high as he swirled the stage, but his efforts dipped lower than a Cossack dancer’s thighs, and he was ranked 15th out of the 15 celebrities competing. Luckily, he won’t yet face the prospect of elimination, as voting starts next week. What a fantastic feeling – a Labour supremo, looking unlikely to win, yet safe from the public vote.

In Balls, Strictly has an older eccentric, a requisite stock character of any TV talent show; he’s the Wagner, the Lady C, the Biggins. He’s the guy who does planking for exercise and thought the man who took the lint off his jacket was called a “fluffer”. On the launch episode of Strictly, we’d already had a flavour and it was scintillating, hands shoving about like he was batting away a bee with his Parliamentary order papers. And again, on Saturday, his unconvincing struggle with an umbrella – a prop in his performance – was funnier for him getting it wrong.

Ostensibly, Ed’s enduring the shame of Strictly to promote his book, Speaking Out, a tell-all of his rise through the ranks of the Labour party to become Shadow Chancellor. He's not the first politician to hit the dance floor; Conservative Ann Widdecombe was in Series 8 and Lib Dem Vince Cable had a stint on that same year's Christmas special. But Ed Balls is a Labour man, and as current leadership suggests, any special, celeb-y public appearances should be eschewed in favour of more pious activities: sneering at the mainstream media, going to rallies and afternoons spent making sugar-free jam.
But in my opinion, Ed’s position on the show, all grin and sequinned red tie, could improve Labour’s public image. As the party stumble out of the Keith Vaz scandal, and after Angela Eagle’s campaign has sputtered out, Labour also seem unable to get just one woman on a mayoral ballot paper. With the Parliamentary Labour Party’s decision to put Owen Smith – a man who said he could win the leadership because he’d “pulled” his wife – on the ballot against Jeremy Corbyn, the party needs better PR. And while featuring on Strictly would normally be a disaster in this context, perhaps Ed Balls has a chance to reach out to viewers in Middle England – a demographic they lost sight of in the election, and who were swayed by Brexit – people who Labour desperately need to win over.

So, while the party bickers at conference over its future, Ed is shimmying for an audience of millions – many more than would vote Labour should there be a snap election – and, to be precise, 8.3 million more than the number of those who voted Corbyn to lead the party. While Ed's dance was criticised by judges for being “too conservative” and “very pedestrian", political writer Gaby Hinsliff quipped that Ed “is basically now Labour's best hope of winning anything [...] even he's up against someone who can do backflips in heels”. The Times columnist India Knight expressed rage at Balls being left until the last half hour of the show’s second instalment: “I have become furious at the idea of waiting until tomorrow for Ed Balls,” she tweeted. The public reacted in kind.
Until Strictly, it's not always been easy to satiate my love for Ed Balls. I have suffixed my Google image searches for “Ed Balls” with “young”, “1990s”, “1980s”, “younger”, “looks like Harry Styles” in order to find a picture of Ed from yesteryear, when he was so smoking hot that even the biggest naysayer could see what I see in those glinting turquoise eyes. But alas, in his roles at Harvard, at The Financial Times, and as economic adviser to then-Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, Ed was in the shadows. Even his spell in Government, as Minister for Children Schools and Families, was a brief encounter of just three years. And then he ended up on the opposition benches soon after, taking the rap for the economic mess of a legacy the Conservatives promise they’re tidying up via austerity cuts.

Up until now, in order to fancy Ed, I’d have to waive everything he did to make Britain’s financial crisis so uniquely grim, and pretend to myself that, in the miasma of nonsense that’s been going on since 2008’s crash, it's been impossible to isolate exactly what Ed did to hurt the GDP. Or more simply, that his plan for the UK to borrow a lot of money was, at least, well-intended. But now, he has shown contrition. Speaking Out has been credited for its repeated mention of “failure”; for all his inability to spot initial hazards, he’s now full of a self-awareness, telling audiences of the Andrew Marr Show: “Maybe I will emerge from my chrysalis or maybe it will emerge that I was a slug all along".

Likewise, on Strictly he admitted – a lot – that this wasn’t his best work, telling presenter Tess Daly: “I think I was better in the rehearsal”, muttering to Katya through a grin as rigid as his hips: “It was so much better before” and joking to presenter Claudia Winkleman that his waltz was only a “sort-of waltz”. This is precisely why Ed is so charming, because an acknowledgement of previous mistakes displays a sort of humility lacking in so many public figures, not just politicians. He even acknowledges, with profound self-awareness, that a “midlife crisis” sparked his interest in the glossy joy of Strictly, according to an interview with Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian.

Again, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Ed defended the potentially political career-ruining decision to go dancing: “Even if I wanted to go back into politics, frankly I don’t think I’m the answer at the moment to the problems the country’s facing.” When was the last time you heard anyone who’s lost power honestly say they wouldn’t want it back again? Probably when Ed told The Guardian: “I’d drop everything except Norwich [City – his football club], to go and do [politics]. I would go like a shot. But it’s not going to happen, because I don’t think I am the answer.”

What is Ed the answer to? Strictly Come Dancing. Alongside the adorable and plucky Lesley Joseph (13 out of 15 on the scoreboard), he’s, according to judge Len Goodman: “Exactly what Strictly is about [...] someone who doesn’t dance.” Alongside those other contestants who have previously incorporated dancing into their profession – Anastasia, Louise Redknapp, Will Young – he’s the barrel-chested puff of fresh air that we all need, the relatable bulldog of an underdog, the be-sequinned dad-bod of my dreams. And I can't wait to see what he cha cha chas to next.
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