On the campaign trail with Ed Balls If it's 15.04 it must be

30th April 2010 at 01:00
With judgment day fast approaching, Richard Vaughan spends a frenetic 11-hour day on the campaign trail with Ed Balls and discovers a more approachable and less abrasive politician than the Schools Secretary of popular myth

Sitting in the back of a cab with Ed Balls, his campaign manager is anxious to get to a Unison conference where the Schools Secretary is giving a keynote speech.

"Can we just jump out here?" she asks the driver, urgency in her voice.

"Best wait until after the lights, madam," says the cabbie not missing a beat. "I wouldn't want to break the law. Wouldn't think it would be appropriate."

Mr Balls laughs. It's Monday and the Schools Secretary is The Sun's front- page story. He has been fined and given points on his licence after police caught him talking on his mobile phone while driving.

"That's life," he says shrugging. He can afford to be blase about it as he has woken up to another, more pleasant, surprise. On the day I am following the parliamentary candidate for Morley on the campaign trail, there are stories in the media about two Conservative councillors raising concerns over the Tories' free school policy.

Paul Carter, Conservative leader of Kent County Council, has told the BBC that the policy could mean state-maintained schools receiving less funding.

And in Hampshire, another Conservative councillor, David Kirk, cabinet member for children's services, has said he feels local authorities should be given the chance to turn around schools rather than immediately giving parents and charities the chance to open their own.

Hearing this at 7am on Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Balls says he was out of the house by 7.30, immediately giving interviews to the BBC and Sky.

"It was too good an opportunity to be missed," he says. "You can't help but see the irony. I've been pointing this out for months without much success but I've found an ally in the Conservative leader of Kent County Council."

I meet him and his entourage at 9.30 as the repercussions of this story are being felt. Visiting the Marchmont Community Centre in central London, Mr Balls is listening to concerns from parents who have been trying for four years to set up a new secondary school.

The campaigners are looking to the Schools Secretary for answers, but he says it is a local authority decision, although he is happy for the council to amend its Building Schools for the Future funding in order to release the funds needed to create the school.

Although they are disappointed, the news does not make the campaigners flock to the Conservatives, who would probably back their scheme.

"We want the local authority to build a school for our community," says Emma Jones, who is heading the Holborn and St Pancras Secondary School Campaign. "We have looked at the Conservatives' policies and they don't really seem to stand up."

After a couple of quick photographs, Mr Balls is away - rushing to the Unison conference, where he is greeted by an obliging, although relatively nonplussed, audience of school support staff.

Although broadly Labour voters, they seem unimpressed by the current Government. Mr Balls receives a couple of heckles about the academies programme, but despite this he seems to win the audience over with his promises of annual spending increases for schools over the next three years. He even manages to fit in a gag about making sure his mobile phone is turned off when addressing the conference.

After no more than 20 minutes, we are off again into a waiting car straight to Labour HQ in Victoria, where the Schools Secretary will hold a press conference on the Conservatives' free schools policies.

With International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander at his side, Mr Balls tells the nation's media that it has been a "revealing 24 hours", alluding to the comments from Kent County Council's leader. It is a theme he will continue to push between now and May 6, and one he repeats more than a dozen times during the day to anyone who cares to listen.

He is whisked away to give another radio interview and I am asked to wait for him at Victoria station to board a train to Brighton where he will be visiting a couple of schools and lending support to Labour parliamentary candidates in three local seats. The train leaves at 13.06; at 13.05 we are greeted by the sight of the Schools Secretary sprinting down the platform as if his life depended on it.

"I didn't want to miss the chance of speaking at the deaf school," a breathless Mr Balls says, referring to the town's Hamilton Lodge, as we scramble on to the train.

He takes his seat still fighting for breath and is greeted by "Oh it's youuuuuuuuu!" from a star-struck passenger. Elizabeth MacLean is a sixth- form sociology teacher (on compassionate leave) and, luckily for the Schools Secretary, she says she is the latest in a long line of Labour voters in her family.

"I've felt more secure in my job over the past 13 years," she says. "But there is still a lot more room for improvement, especially with my own child's education."

Once off the train, Mr Balls finds himself fielding questions at Hamilton Lodge School for Deaf Children alongside Labour's candidate for Kemptown, Simon Burgess.

Without taking even a breather, he is off again. This time to Hertford Junior in Brighton Pavilion, where he meets local Labour candidate Nancy Platts. It is after-school club time for a group of seven to 11-year-olds, which is the perfect opportunity for politicians to make fools of themselves.

The Schools Secretary takes part in the tennis club, where he asks the children how high they can hit a ball. It ends with one little girl in tears after being hit by an earthbound tennis ball.

Mr Balls is led into "eco-club" with as much enthusiasm as the children that follow in his wake. He bounds from one activity to the other, be it the school's herb garden, the chicken coup or giving his opinion on his favourite children's book. Perhaps all this time working on child policy has turned him into one.

In the marginal seat of Hove, held by Labour's Celia Barlow, the Schools Secretary finds time to have a cup of tea and a chat with two mothers in a local playground. He listens to their worries about the Sats boycott and the local admissions system "lottery", speaking as if he were any other concerned parent.

Mr Balls has a reputation for being bullish and aggressive, for being more Gordon Brown than Tony Blair. But on the campaign trail he is "Ed", the bloke down the road. He is undeniably personable.

On television he can be witheringly blunt, but it is this frankness that enables him to give open access to journalists. After all, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove refused an approach by The TES to follow him on the campaign trail.

Although gruelling, campaigning is something Mr Balls clearly enjoys. But by the time we are on the train back to London, it is clear that his diet of Cornish pasties, Kit Kats and coffee is no longer providing the energy levels he needs.

But he is happy to talk about the electoral prospects. A hung parliament, he tells me, would produce political uncertainty that would do no favours to education. But he signals that he would be willing to work with the Liberal Democrats.

"On the crucial immediate question of education - should we be cutting education spending this year? - both we and the Lib Dems are clear that would be the wrong thing to do," he says.

"I've been surprised to see the extent to which (Lib Dem leader) Nick Clegg has been cosying up to the Conservatives in recent days. In all the debates I've had with my counterparts in education, (Lib Dem education spokesman) David Laws has taken a very different approach and it has been the Conservative party's policies that have been exposed as fraught and dangerous."

Mr Balls claims that Mr Gove is "avoiding" dialogue with him, and points to a forthcoming Barnardo's debate where Conservative higher education spokesman David Willetts will be the Tory speaker.

He adds that Conservative leader David Cameron has been "desperate" to avoid education in the election campaign for fear of scrutiny, and then goads Mr Gove for not spelling out where the Tory cuts will fall.

"I have spelt out pound;300 million of the pound;500 million (of Labour's projected cuts)," he says. "And trying to identify the remaining pound;200 million will be hard, but I am committed to doing that. Michael Gove hasn't given anything, no detail at all. It's completely unacceptable."

But this does not spur him into spelling out where Labour's remaining pound;200 million of cost-savings he has promised will come from.

And he shrugs off the fact Labour have dropped to second choice among teachers, according to a TES online poll.

"The only poll that matters is the general election," he says. "For education there hasn't been a more important general election in the last 50 years."

Amid all his scaremongering about the dangers of a Conservative government or voting Lib Dem - the meat and drink of Labour's election campaign - this final statement has particular resonance. It is the one comment that would elicit little disagreement from his parliamentary opponents.

By this time the train has pulled into Victoria station and Mr Balls is off again, this time to give an interview with Newsnight. "I love it," he says, referring to the campaign. "But the diet you have is terrible."


07:30 Leaves home for media interviews

09.57 Late arrival for parents' meeting at Marchmont Community Centre

10.54 Guest speaker at Unison conference

11.35 To Labour HQ for party press conference

13.06 Train to Brighton

14.20 Question-and-answer session at Hamilton Lodge

School for Deaf Children

15.04: Joins in activities at an after-school club at Hertford Junior

16.16 Cup of tea with parents in Hove

17.19 Misses train to London due to radio interview

17.49 Train to London

18.45 Arrives at Victoria station and heads to BBC to pre-record Newsnight interview.

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Making your mind up - it's your call not ours
TES editor Gerard Kelly says we've given you all the information you need: now the professoin must cast its vote

Golden boy Clegg surges ahead - but will the attack dogs get him?
A TES poll has found that teachers are swinging toward Lib Dem

Michael Gove Webchat
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove pulls on punches

On the campaign trail with Ed Balls
Richard Vaughan spends a frenetic 11-hour day on the campaign trail with Ed Balls


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