Shadow chancellor Ed Balls may have a reputation as a political bruiser but he showed his softer side when he performed Donald Duck and pig impressions for tots at a Chester children’s centre.
Mr Balls, who has three children with his wife and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper MP, joined six-month-old baby Agnes in playing with cornflour paste at the centre in Kingsway.
The shadow chancellor later joked with journalists that he should throw the paste at his opposite number, George Osborne, but quipped “the trouble is, it doesn’t stick!”
He was in Chester to back Chris Matheson, Labour’s candidate at next year’s general election, who aims to overturn Tory MP Stephen Mosley’s slim 2,583 majority.
The pair were keen to promote Labour’s promise of 25 hours per week free child care for working parents of children under five plus wrap-around-care from 8am until 6pm in all primary schools.
Mr Balls explained: “What we’ve seen over the last few years is the cost of child care going up at a time when the Child Tax Credit has become worth less since 2010 and lots of parents who want to work are saying they are finding it really hard to make things stack up.
“At the moment 15 hours’ child care is welcome but it’s not enough, we’re saying to make work pay for parents, we would increase the levy on the banks, it’s called the bank levy, which has been falling behind the last couple of years. We would increase that and use the money for working parents to increase the free offer from 15 to 25 hours.”
He added: “Another thing, when we were in government we said all primary schools had to offer wrap around care before and after school and in holiday times. If you’re a working parent that hour, between 3.30pm and 4.30pm, can be very difficult if you’ve not got a friend or a grandparent to have the kids for that hour. Over the last few years, in lots of parts of the country, schools have been withdrawing that and we are saying we want all schools to guarantee that they will be offering wrap around care.”
Labour candidate Chris Matheson, married to Katherine, with two daughters, aged 14 and eight, said he and his wife had spent “perhaps thousands” on child care.
He said: “In Chester, for example, my youngest went to Hoole Minis and she went to Hetty’s at Hoole Primary, but that’s only for limited hours and fortunately my wife Kathy works at home for part of the week so she was able to balance that, but if that hadn’t been the case we would have been in real difficulty financially as well as socially.”
Mr Matheson, who lives in Hoole, is buoyed up by a Lord Ashcroft poll which this week showed that if there were an election tomorrow, he would win, but with a tiny 1% lead over his Tory rival.
“We are pleased that we’re ahead and pleased that we’re getting such a good response on the doorstep. There is a real feeling out there that Chester has declined since 2010, as Ed said, prices are rising faster than wages in every single month.
“We know as well that wages in Chester have fallen by £2,500 in real terms since 2010 so Chester is feeling the pinch. I can remember when I was a young lad coming into Chester, it was a big deal, you just don’t have that feeling any more and that’s reflected on the doorsteps so I’m still confident we’ll win but there’s a still a way to go.”
Mr Balls added that only a Labour government could “stop” the privatisation of the National Health Service and said he was in the city “because we need Labour to win in Chester so we can form a government”.
Dismissing talk of Labour division and questions over whether Ed Miliband is fit to lead the party into the election, Mr Balls concluded: “The closer we get to the election, we’ll have the TV debates. I think we know from last time, for David Cameron, those television debates didn’t work very well for him. That’s why he lost his majority in part, because he comes over as being pretty out of touch, not like most people around here, not really caring about the lives of ordinary people. I think Ed Miliband, under that spotlight, people will see the kind of person he is and in the end they are going to say he’s got the policies that will make me better off.”
Mum Katy Stevenson, of Hoole, who has a six-month-old baby Hollie, welcomed Labour’s support for working parents, saying: “It would definitely take some pressure off.” She and fellow mum Priscilla Sellers, whose daughter Agnes was born on the same day as Hollie, agreed Mr Balls had proved himself a hit with their children.