You don't have to be attractive to work here, but it helps

Jackie Ballard is the only female contender for the Lib-Dem leadership and one of the party's brightest stars. But why do so many men seem to hate her? Surely it has nothing to do with the way she looks
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Jackie Ballard. Who was familiar with that name before it appeared on the six-strong list of contenders for the Liberal Democrat leadership? Who is familiar with it now? Mainly avid readers of the more snidely masculine newspaper columns. From The Daily Telegraph one might have gleaned that the BBC had felt it unfair to screen pictures of Ballard standing in front of a banner launching her campaign saying not "Jackie B. Who cares wins", but "Jackie B. Who cares?"

From Auberon Waugh, the magnetically attractive bon viveur, you may have learned, during a spat between them, that the MP for Taunton is horribly fat, too fat to be a politician, too fat to be a person.

From Simon Hoggart, the famously svelte Guardian sketch writer, it could have been learned that perhaps due to her heftiness she is regarded by fellow MPs as a joke candidate.

Armed with the descriptions of my fellow journalists, I prepared to meet this monster in the Member's Lobby at the Commons. Seeing The Independent's photographer sauntering towards me while chatting with a woman carrying two stones more than she might, my intention was to say "hi" to him, then continue seeking Westminster's answer to pre-surgery Roseanne. But the woman in smart lavender extended her hand with a smile that made her admittedly uncompromising features come over all Jan Leeming. I said my hellos, reeling from the idea that the level of female corpulence in front of me could possibly be worthy of scurrilous mention. I later learn that Ms Ballard has indeed shed a few stones recently, perhaps spurred on by the gentle attentions of the fourth estate.

After all, a diet is one thing she has in common with several other pretenders, including Charles Kennedy. But while, for some people, the contest is a fait accompli, with Kennedy's name already Biroed over Paddy Ashdown's on the little place-marker at joint cabinet committee meetings, for Ballard, Ashdown's co-operative politics project is already utterly compromised by New Labour's failure to deliver its side of the bargain.

"We cannot expand the joint cabinet committee to look at other areas of policy because, for one thing, there isn't such agreement on other areas, but also because we haven't finished the first agenda and, in fact, we've been let down over some of it - like electoral reform for Westminster, which I don't believe is going to happen this side of the general election."

If a note of distrust is apparent in this dismissal of further co-operation with New Labour, the tone moves up a gear when Ballard gets on to her own pet issue, social justice. "New Labour is punitive," she says. "It's actually a very Christian attitude, the realisation that you should not punish people for being inadequate. I wouldn't pretend to be an avid church- goer, but I would describe myself as loosely a Christian. And it does annoy me when other people who describe themselves as strongly Christian then treat people in a punishing way for problems that they actually need help with."

Who can Ballard have in mind? Not Tony Blair surely? It's pointless to ask, as Ballard insists that she would never stoop to making personal attacks on her political rivals. But it is worth noting that Ballard's declaration that the coalition has stalled and her pinpointing of social justice as one of the key areas of her disagreement with Labour was made on the very day that 44 Labour MPs called for a rejection of the centre- left coalition with the Liberal Democrats, so that Labour's future as a "democratic socialist party fighting for social justice" can be assured.

These are funny old times for British party politics. The truth is that Ballard, on the left of the Lib Dems, has far more in common with the Labour left than she does with the right wing of her own party. Jackie Ballard sounds far more like a socialist than Tony Blair does. Why is it that she defines herself as a liberal?

This, Ballard admits, is a complicated question, one that can only be fully answered with a quick run through her life story. And so this woman, who has been in Parliament for only two years but is already certain that for the good of all she must become its prime minister sooner rather than later, starts to tell a story that is ludicrous in its exemplary depiction of a life that has been lived as a political journey.

Raised for her first 10 years in rural Scotland, Jackie Ballard was born the daughter of a woodcutter. Since, in the Fifties, the days of the independent forester were very much numbered, the family was already reduced to living in a caravan when it became apparent that there was no more wood to cut in Scotland. The family moved to Wales where Jackie embarked on her final year of primary education at a tiny village school.

So impressed were her teachers by her academic prowess - a fact that, she is at pains to emphasise, had more to do with the superiority of the Scottish education system than her own genius - that they decided to do something they'd never done before, and enter their prodigy for a scholarship to the private boarding school, Monmouth School for Girls.

Her attendance at the school was the catalyst which jolted her into political awareness. At 12 she realised that "life was crushingly unfair". While she recognised that she had been given a great opportunity, she felt that her privilege was a burden. Riven by the contrast between her own school life and that of the local children in state education, she became a rebel, taking it upon herself to challenge the complacency of the people around her who took so much for granted.

In this same spirit she rejected English at Oxford, the course her teachers had mapped out for her in favour of psychology at the London School of Economics. Here she threw herself into the radical political ferment that suffused the place, campaigning against apartheid, against Vietnam, picketing Miss World, behaving in every way like the kind of student who typified the LSE of the late Sixties. Except in one respect. While she considered herself a socialist, something stopped her from joining the biggest, most influential organisation that was available to LSE students. She wasn't quite sure what it was that repelled her, but she couldn't quite bring herself to join the Socialist Club.

After she graduated, she became a social worker in Waltham Forest in London's East End. At 21, and with little experience, her job was to deal with at-risk children. She worked with a particular family which was headed by a single mother who at 19 had three children. Ballard realised that she could not, with the tools at her disposal, alter the course of this family's lives.

Disillusioned, she married, and the pair moved, inspired by the mid-Seventies television sitcom The Good Life, to the West Country, where they set about the great self-sufficiency experiment. As the pleasures of life as a wife and mother waned, a local wannabe MP started attracting Ballard's attention. "Westland was wanting to sell helicopters to Chile and Paddy Ashdown made a principled stand against it, which could have been a big vote-loser as Westland was a major employer in the Yeovil constituency. I was really impressed by that, so in 1983, although I still considered myself a Labour supporter, I voted for him, the person, not the party.

"When he got in, I felt like he really was my MP. I felt like I owned him, so I would write long letters to him all the time, about issues that were affecting me and my family - class sizes at the local school because my daughter was there; VAT on listed buildings because I lived in one; health because I had an aunt who hadn't been admitted to an intensive care unit because she was over 70..."

This went on for about two years, until one day the doorbell rang, and there was Paddy Ashdown. "He said: `You're obviously a Liberal, why don't you join the party and get involved?' `Oh,' I said, `but I've always voted Labour. Just tell me what Liberals are.' As he talked I realised what it was I didn't like about the socialist credo. It was their insistence on seeing people as groups or classes rather than as individuals. It was their desire to control from the centre rather than allowing decision- making to take place at a lower level."

This, she maintains today, is still the big problem with Labour. While she admits that Labour has made significant changes since the days when she could not bring herself to join the party she considered herself to identify with, she maintains that "at heart, they haven't moved away from viewing people as being part of groups or part of classes, and feeling that they need to control these groups from the centre".

As an example she takes single parents, who are seen as a group made up entirely of feckless 16-year-olds. The way to control this group is to encourage them to work, despite the fact that there are certain times in any child's life when it can be beneficial for them to be parented full-time.

Ballard, after her marriage broke up, experienced time as a single mother on income support herself. It is clearly her life experience which informs her politics, so while Europe and civil liberties are two more crucial planks of her platform, she claims not to define her membership of the Lib Dems in terms of electoral reform. Many liberals do define themselves in this way though, which is the main reason why the party remains so keen on maintaining Ashdown's Lib Dem-Labour alliance.

Others, though, see Ashdown's project as one which was brokered before the election and before Labour knew just what kind of whacking majority it would have. One Ballard supporter in the Lib Dems described his distrust of the project and the way in which it makes the Lib Dems - and especially Roy Jenkins' report on PR - a hostage to Labour's fortunes.

"I imagine Charles Kennedy turning up for his first get-to-know-you meeting at Number 10, and Tony saying to him, `Well Charles, here's Alastair, you know Alastair, and here's Peter, you know him. Here's our puppy, you don't know him but we call him Jenkins. One wrong move and the puppy gets it. I hope we understand each other'."

If Lib-Dems decide that maybe they ought to let the puppy off the leash, then they could do worse than to get behind Jackie Ballard. And while such a result would be quite a political shocker, her future as a heavy hitter in the party is now assured. People like her, they trust her, and they find her inspirational.

I trotted off from our meeting thinking that maybe I too was not a socialist but a Liberal Democrat. And when Auberon Waugh finally met her, he took back, unreservedly, all the nasty things that he had said about her. If politics is all about winning hearts and minds, then Jackie Ballard has got the market cornered.

Deborah Ross returns next week