Rachel Reeves: “If you can build cross-party support, you’re more likely to secure lasting change”
As chair of a powerful select committee, Labour’s Rachel Reeves is no stranger to working with colleagues from across the House. She tells Kevin Schofield why it’s so important to look beyond “narrow” party politics
A lot has happened since Jo Cox was murdered on 16 June last year.
Britain voted to leave the European Union, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, Theresa May replaced him in Number 10, Jeremy Corbyn survived a coup attempt and was re-elected Labour leader, Theresa May called a snap election and lost her majority and, in the five months since, her government has done its level best to rip itself apart.
But throughout the political turmoil, and largely away from the public’s gaze, a lasting legacy to the former MP for Batley and Spen has also been developed, and at the forefront has been Rachel Reeves.
The Leeds West MP took her late friend’s place as a co-chair of the loneliness commission she had set up with Conservative MP Seema Kennedy. The aim was to come up with concrete proposals for how the Government can tackle the growing problem of loneliness in the UK. After nearly a year of hard work, the pair’s manifesto will be published next month.
It’s a perfect example of the kind of cross-party working that Jo Cox loved, the personification of her now-famous mantra that we have “far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.
Despite the optimism with which those sentiments were hailed in the immediate aftermath of her death, Cox’s vision of people from all backgrounds working together in common purpose has rather fallen out of favour. Indeed, it was a Labour MP, Laura Pidcock, who said she had “no intention” of being friends with any Conservatives after she was elected in June.
Sitting in her Portcullis House office overlooking Westminster Bridge, Reeves makes clear that she heartily disagrees with her party colleague – and says there is no doubt that Jo Cox would as well.
“If you can build cross-party support for something, it’s more likely to get through and you’re more likely to secure lasting change,” she says. “There are people in all political parties that you can do business with and work with. It doesn’t mean you’ll walk through the same division lobbies at the end of the evening, but you can find cross-party support.
“Jo Cox was a great example of how to do that. She worked with three Conservative MPs to bring about change. One was Seema Kennedy. Jo also worked with Tom Tugendhat on the importance of protecting civilians in warzones, and she worked with Andrew Mitchell on the plight of Syrian refugees.
“She did that within a year and got noticed for it, and helped deliver some change in all of those areas. I do think you can have friendships across the House. I would consider Seema Kennedy a friend and a colleague. Just because you walk through a different division lobby doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of respect for somebody and think their values are good.
“There are good people who are Conservative MPs and who vote Conservative and I’m not ashamed to say that. If you go through life and will only be friendly with, or have respect for, people who have got the same views as you, you’re going to have a very narrow view of the world and you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities and friendships that you might otherwise have developed. Seeing everything through the prism of party politics is not helpful.”
Reeves is putting that theory into practice as newly-elected chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. With an even split of Labour and Tory MPs (plus one SNP), there is little option but to muck in together. Reeves, who would have been in the Cabinet had Ed Miliband won the 2015 election, admits she is revelling in the role.
“I’m really enjoying it,” she says. “In a hung parliament, the need for effective parliamentary scrutiny and the chance to work cross-party to secure change is a real opportunity. Select committees are going to be very powerful in this parliament.”
It may only be a few weeks old, but the new committee has already hit the ground running. It will soon publish, along with the Work and Pensions Committee, recommendations on how the Government can implement the recommendations in Matthew Taylor’s report on employment practices in the modern economy.
They will include giving workers a statement of their rights on their first day in a job, making clear whether they are self-employed or directly-employed.
Other ideas include a proposal that workers on zero hours contracts be entitled to a higher wage than other members of staff, in recognition of the uncertainty they face.
Reeves believes there is merit in workers being directly-employed by default, meaning the onus would be on their bosses to prove that they are, in fact, self-employed. Uber are one of the companies which has sought to take advantage of the opaque nature of current employment laws, and Reeves says the committee has already heard some hair-raising details of what working for the controversial firm is like.
She says: “In our evidence sessions we had an Uber driver come in and although they said the nature of work suited them, they knew of drivers working many, many hours and sleeping in their taxis. They said it wasn’t clear that people would be safe going into taxis with those people.
“Uber have got to take more responsibility. They’ve got a lot of data about what their drivers are doing, when they are working, and how much they are earning, and Uber could not guarantee that everyone working for them was taking home the minimum wage.”
Reeves says there is “a real public appetite” as well as cross-party support for a government crackdown on insecure work and a modernisation of employment law, but says ministers are dragging their feet.
“The nature of work has changed so much in the last 50 years,” she says. “Part of that is technology driven, part of it is austerity driven, but the truth is within the next five years you’ll have more people self-employed and working in the public sector, and I don’t think that our labour market rules and benefit system are keeping up with that.”
The committee is also carrying out an inquiry into the Governments plans for an energy price cap – Energy Secretary Greg Clark gave evidence last week - and Reeves says this is another area whether the Prime Minister’s rhetoric has not been matched by action in Whitehall.
She says: “The announcement that you’re going to do an energy price cap does not save anybody any money on their bills. You’ve got to actually have a price cap. There’s not going to be a price cap this winter for customers on standard variable tariffs. I asked the minister whether there would be a price cap next winter. He kept saying ‘as soon as parliamentary time will allow’, but what he never did was say that next winter the 12 million people on SVTs will see a reduction in their bills. I really do think that is disappointing. It was in my party’s manifesto in 2015, and his party’s in 2017.
“There’s a lot of time when we’ve got opposition day debates, backbench business, private members’ bills. They’re all really important, but actually I think that parliamentarians would be very happy to have one less opposition day debate, or one less day devoted to backbench business so we can get this legislation through.”
Westminster has been engulfed by claims of widespread sexual harassment in the past two weeks, and while she insists she has never been of it in the seven years she has been an MP, Reeves acknowledges that the way parliament – and the men who work there – operates, needs to change.
“Parliament is still a very male-dominated place,” she says. “You get the unsolicited comments on your appearance, which some men in parliament think is a compliment but are slightly inappropriate.
“When I was in the Shadow Cabinet just before the 2015 election, I was pregnant and a Conservative MP said Ed Miliband shouldn’t put me in the Cabinet because I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on being a new mum and a senior politician at the same time. There is that misogyny and sexism.
“There is still a culture where there’s a lot of power and some people abuse that and it’s not acceptable. For too long people thought they could get away with that, but time has now been called on it.”
Whatever challenges the women of Westminster face, Reeves is sure that they can be overcome – especially if they work together.