Jonathan Reynolds: Labour has toned down its banker-bashing rhetoric
As Shadow City Minister, Jonathan Reynolds has one of the most challenging portfolios in British politics. He talks to Kevin Schofield about changing perceptions and why everyone in Labour needs to up their game
To some observers, Jonathan Reynolds may well have the most thankless task in British politics.
He is the man who has to take Labour’s economic message and sell it to the City. Crowds surely do not come much tougher than that?
Their conversations are at times “robust”, but the Shadow City Minister says he is winning over his sceptical audience. His approach would appear to be a radical departure from his predecessor, Richard Burgon, who faced criticism for his failure to engage with the financial sector.
“There’s a lot of people who aren’t natural Tories in the City,” says Reynolds as we sit in his small office in Portcullis House. “It’s a place where people really appreciate engagement. People are always intrigued and ask ‘what made you want to be Jeremy Corbyn’s City minister’, recognising that there is some wariness about Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell initially, but you break that down quite easily.”
Parallels have been drawn with the so-called “prawn cocktail offensive” which John Smith launched in the 1990s and Gordon Brown continued, as Labour attempted to persuade the City that it could be trusted again after 18 years in the political wilderness. Reynolds is eager to stress that this time round it is very different.
“It’s not an uncritical relationship – it’s not like the prawn cocktail offensive, not that I’m critical of those people who won large majorities for Labour – but it’s a genuine relationship of engagement and wanting to work with people and make sure they’re aware of what the party’s doing,” he says.
He has to start by attempting to explain to them how Labour’s proposals for a financial transaction tax would not be a disaster for the sector. Under the plans, which are probably better known as the more voter-friendly Robin Hood Tax, an extra charge would be placed on deals agreed in the Square Mile. Labour say it would raise £5bn a year for the public purse, but critics claim it would hammer an industry which already pours a fortune into the Exchequer.
Reynolds says: “We know that’s a sensitive issue for the City. We certainly don’t want to see businesses leave the UK.”
In an average week, Reynolds spends at least one day and quite often two in the City chairing round tables with business leaders, listening to their concerns and setting out Labour’s policy platform.
“There’s definitely more to do on economic competence, and on the relationship with business, but it’s a relationship that’s growing,” says Reynolds. “There’s different ways people look at the economy. If they take it from that sense of ‘am I happy about my family’s prospects?’ and they’re not, then what they’re looking for from an economic message is something a bit different, not ‘have you got the support of captains of industry?’. But we’re by no means complacent, we know we’ve still got a lot to do.”
Reynolds insists that challenging long-held stereotypes is not a one-way street. As much as Labour have to win the right to be heard in the City, he believes those same financial institutions have to do a better job of persuading the British public that they are a good thing for the economy.
He says: “There’s a real need in this country, given it’s a major sector of the economy, to understand a bit about how what goes on in the City makes all our lives better, notwithstanding the financial crash. Look at the hurricanes in America. Massive oil producing regions are affected, there will be some impact on oil production, will that make your holiday more expensive? No, because there has been a hedge taken out against oil prices. I say to them that there’s a massive need to better tell people what you’re doing.”
The MP for Stalybridge and Hyde also reveals how he was won an internal battle to tone down the banker-bashing rhetoric which was once a staple of many a Labour party press release.
“You’ll notice there has been less of that that type of language over the last six months, mainly because a lot of not high-paid bank branch staff take offence at it,” he says. “I’m very clear that there are very big bits of our economy that need to change and I consider myself quite radical on economic issues, but you’ve got to analyse where the problems lie and what you want to fix.
“In the last few months our language has changed and that’s been a conscious thing in the team because we want a constructive relationship with business.”
This development conjures up images of an angry John McDonnell – never usually slow to act when there are capitalists to attack - bound and gagged in the corner of a room as Labour’s press office declines to issue spittle-flecked missives at the latest examples of City largesse. But Reynolds – who describes himself as “classic Labour” as opposed to a Corbynista - insists he and the Shadow Chancellor get on pretty well.
He says: “It’s a genuine team and I work quite closely with all of John’s staff. It’s very enjoyable. John and I obviously disagree on things, but there’s no problem in terms of the dialogue we have. There are differences between me and Jeremy on foreign policy, but I’m happy to be in there and I’m happy with the way things I want to put forward are taken.
“There has to be a quite ambitious and radical economic platform from the Labour party – we are seeing a hunger for that and a need for that. There is an overwhelming need to find a way to create more stable, better-paid jobs, particularly outside the south east. There’s a huge need for more infrastructure. We’ve got to be in the market for quite a radical programme and I feel there’s a chance to be part of that.
“I could never describe myself as a Corbynista, but I’ve no problem working with John and Jeremy on those things. It’s on the need to put right a lot of the damage we’ve seen since the financial crisis that most of the Labour party is agreed upon. That’s where the consensus lies. The disagreement is on foreign policy and defence, and to an extent some of the public service reform programmes. But on the need for an economic programme, there’s quite a lot of consensus on that.”
Had you told Reynolds six months ago that he would be gearing up for Labour conference with an increased personal majority, 30 more MPs and a hung parliament he would have, rightly, thought you were mad. At the start of the campaign, YouGov put the Conservatives 24-points ahead, leaving Labour staring into the electoral abyss. Reynolds insists that was not a rogue poll.
“It was really tough at first,” he says. “It doesn’t feel to me that the polls were wrong initially. The doorstep reflected a substantial Tory lead.”
And while the paucity of the Conservative campaign is usually held up as the main reason for Theresa May losing her majority, Reynolds says the effect of Jeremy Corbyn’s style of campaigning cannot be underestimated.
He says: “Some of the Tory policies on dementia tax and things like that were terrible, but more than that there was a real sense that we got back from people in 2017 what we thought 2015 would be like, basically a backlash against austerity, stagnant wages, public sector pay cap and job cuts. It’s almost as if that didn’t crystalise in 2015, but it had in 2017.
“And to be fair to Jeremy – and I’m not someone who voted for him – he personally had a very good campaign, both in terms of rallies but in some of the interviews, such as Paxman, he did very well. But I didn’t believe we’d get a hung parliament until I saw the exit poll.”
Reynolds’ own majority increased from 6,686 to just over 8,000, but it was Labour’s ability to make advances in previously-hostile areas which defied the expectations of political pundits as well as Corbyn-sceptics within his own party. As with just about everything in politics these days, Reynolds says the Brexit referendum lies at the root of the turnaround in Labour’s fortunes.
He says the same forces which drove the Leave vote – including casualization of jobs and low pay – were also at play in the election campaign.
“What Jeremy has done is tap into that sentiment, a sense of people thinking that the best days are in the past and we haven’t managed that economic transition very well,” he says. “It felt like that was tapped into for the first time, particularly among young people.
“The referendum politicised a lot of people in different ways. There was an appeal from Labour to all those people – young people upset at the referendum result, older people expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo, they saw something in Jeremy too.
“It sounds cheesy, but it is a message of optimism and hope and doing something differently. People say Labour’s policy on the single market has some ambiguity and appears to attract everyone, but that’s because there’s quite a lot of different reasons why people were voting a certain way in the referendum.”
Like an increasing number of MPs, Reynolds is convinced the next election will not be until 2022. That’s a long time for Labour to survive on a diet of “optimism and hope”. Instead, he has a simple message for his colleagues – work harder.
“All of us have got to up our game, because there’s a long way to go from having a good election result as an opposition to being a government in waiting,” he says. “We need to put work into being a collegiate, well-prepared group of people who can aspire to be a government. If Labour does the work it can win, but I don’t think it’s in the bag.”
A man with four children, two dogs and one of the most challenging portfolios in British politics is clearly not afraid of hard work. With potentially another five years (at least) of opposition ahead, it’s just as well.