Music to the ears... Ed Balls - "living legend" and rugby's greatest loss

There were long queues to get into the auditorium ahead of Ed Balls’ session, and you get the feeling he was music to the ears of much of the audience. 

Once LGA Labour group leader David Sparks had finished eulogising about the irrepressible Shadow Chancellor, a “living legend” who could’ve been a fine rugby player in another life, he took to the podium to warm applause.

His opening gambit had the packed venue belly-laughing as he regaled them with a anecdote about a frustrated Gordon Brown venting his spleen over an article on political power which listed Ed, Tony Blair and Gerry Adams above of him, until he realised it was alphabetical.

But he soon ventured into expected territory - councils, Whitehall, funding cuts, economic growth and localism.

There was praise for the LGA’s funding forecast, released this week, which he said was required reading for ministers and shadows alike - a “powerful” alarm bell which starkly demonstrated how “we can’t keep ducking the issues”. Adult social care funding was, he said, something a Labour government wouldn’t shirk from addressing.

More laughs as he joked about David Cameron branding him the most annoying man in UK politics, before returning to the tone of the day by earnestly expressing being “struck and impressed by the quiet and determined way local government leaders have responded to the pressures of the last two years”. Not surprisingly, everyone welcomed his call for Eric Pickles, addressing conference later in the day, to “acknowledge how councils are rising to the challenges of funding cuts”.

His statements “austerity alone is self-defeating” and “efficiency savings are only a small part of the solution” struck obvious chords, as did calls for central government not to fall back on 19th century liberalist thinking that removing local government is the best way to boost jobs and growth. That, he said, was not the approach taken by Germany, or even America. An important part of the solution is Local Enterprise Partnerships getting more freedoms and powers.

“You can only make progress if leadership comes from the local. You have to back frontline leadership” - preaching to the converted, and a popular note to end his speech.

There was just time for three questions from the audience – how do you boost tourism? What’s the role of faith-based community organisations? How can we better support small businesses?

An unexpected turn, Ed singing the praises of Wakefield  - ‘Rhubarb capital of Europe’ – for its strategic approach to tourism, sealed a thoroughly polished performance and amicable, uplifting session.

However, I doubt I was the only one feeling a little… “Well, you would say all those nice things wouldn’t, you’re in opposition and don’t have to do any of it.”

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