The Jonathan Reynolds interview: "Vulnerability could and should be a universal standard"
Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
Jonathan Reynolds talks to Tali Fraser about a universal standard of vulnerability when it comes to energy policy – and his faith as a Christian where, he says, ‘questions of poverty and vulnerability are central’. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
In his Westminster office there is a map of the shadow business secretary’s Stalybridge and Hyde constituency in Greater Manchester. (Reynolds’s affinity to the area is so strong that on his right wrist he has a tattoo of the Manchester bee, designed by his constituent, and he is considering another: the coat of arms for Stalybridge and Hyde on his left arm. Their banners are: “Nothing without work” and “Onward”; apt, considering Reynolds’s brief.) Sitting above the map in his office is a Bible verse, printed on House of Commons paper. The last line reads: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Reynolds is open about how central his faith is to his politics, and agrees it impacts how he thinks when it comes toward those in need: “There are a lot of people in my constituency right now that I could make the case for being vulnerable… vulnerability could and should be a universal standard.”
This is something, he says, that shadow climate change and net zero secretary Ed Miliband and his team are looking at. “I think you cannot separate this [vulnerability] out from a need, first of all, to have a much more successful policy in terms of insulation and reducing people’s overall demand for energy,” Reynolds adds.
Political and personal life are inseparable to him as “it is something that is part of every bit of your life”. And, as chair of Christians on the Left, the question of how the two influence one another is a question he gets a lot.
We meet at a time when SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes’s political and personal life, as a Christian, came under scrutiny after she said had she been a member of the Scottish parliament at the time of a vote on same-sex marriage, she would have voted against it. Does he feel sorry for her? “I don’t to be honest. I don’t think politicians are the victims in any of this,” Reynolds says with a chuckle.
He adds: “You can’t expect any of you to be popular as a politician and you can’t just say, well, it’s a faith-based view… I mean, really, if you are a Christian, you understand that the core bit of Christianity is how we should treat each other, the love we should have for each other, the care and regard we should have for each other… I wish more people in the UK saw that side of faith and politics and social issues because I think there’s a very strong theological case I could make to you that some of those views [like those of Forbes’s] are quite old fashioned in terms of sexuality and family – and people then associate faith in politics with that, and it is detrimental to both faith and to politics.”
Reynolds wants this attitude to change, but he is focused on doing that through positive policy work, like helping the people that would come under this standard of vulnerability.
Some of the most vulnerable have been suffering at the heart of the prepayment scandal, where energy firms have forced customers to have prepayment meters installed in their homes, leading families who cannot afford to top up to have their heating cut off – and with British Gas even reported to have sent debt collectors to break into homes to install the meters. The energy regulator Ofgem’s response, Reynolds says, “has been found wanting” but that is not where he targets his ire. He adds: “I recognise that we’ve all been quite rightly critical of where Ofgem haven’t been as sharp as they need to be but to me the core of all these problems is the need for more successful, better calibrated government policy.
“Sometimes where government policy isn’t working very well you get a situation like this and you can put this on the regulator. But in all the responses we saw to things like the pre-payment scandal the government actually never said they would stop it. So we’re going to ask Ofgem why they’ve taken the energy company’s word on this rather than investigate ... Well, okay, but what is your policy to stop it?”
It is not just individuals that are vulnerable in their energy position but businesses too, especially small ones as the Federation of Small Businesses estimated at the start of the year that almost one in four of the UK’s small companies could be forced to close, downsize or restructure their operations owing to high energy bills.
Reynolds uses the moment to set out the detail of Labour’s plan: “For smaller businesses, because we would raise more revenue from the windfall tax we put forward, because we would tax at the Norwegian rate, not have the oil and gas allowances and start it when the windfall began to accrue, it gives us more money… We’d also put in a little fund that would basically give smaller businesses vouchers to spend on energy saving, net zero.”
If we’re serious about net zero and serious about the economic opportunities and making this country more investable, planning reform is going to have to be a part of that
The shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is playing a large part in this. Reynolds and Reeves, elected at the same time, are “very close friends” and have been since before coming into Parliament. He was the youth representative on Labour’s NEC while Reeves was the secretary of the Young Fabians. It has left Reynolds in an ideal situation: “It’s the job you want at a time where you’re very comfortable with the party’s leadership, very strongly and personally supportive of them.”
Reynolds’s and Labour’s big push – and they say it with certainty – is their green prosperity plan. He seems almost jealous of the levels of funding President Biden is committing to green investment in the US: “We’re not so naive to believe you can replicate the financial and political power of the US. But the kind of attractive offer they’re putting forward, which is about investment allowances, some degree of subsidy and incentive, we think we need to be on that bit of the pitch to make the UK more competitive.” Although he insists “it is not about matching what the US is doing” but working out how the UK fits in the world around this.
Looking at the planning system is a big part of this, he says. Especially when it comes to wind, which is one of the things that Reynolds gets most frustrated about. In one breath he calls planning on wind “completely farcical”, the restrictions on onshore wind “incredibly silly” and the treatment of onshore wind compared to fracking “obviously absurd”.
It requires “very significant” planning reform, he says. “I think the whole of the Labour front bench accepts that… if we’re serious about net zero and serious about the economic opportunities and making this country more investable, planning reform is going to have to be a part of that.”
Delivering, Reynolds adds, could take the country from a position where industrial energy bills are “completely uncompetitive with the rest of Europe” to a “competitive advantage because we’ve built a system that uses our natural assets”.
“None of this will happen without the state playing an active role,” he states as a matter of fact, though he wants to make sure it is not taken as a plan for government predominance. “It’s not about running businesses from Whitehall, or the 1970s or things that get associated in this place with industrial policy. It’s how are you enabling that environment for the private sector to deliver all of these things that we want from them?”
The response from business has been “incredibly positive”. Reynolds is often asked, including by myself, whether this all harks back to the “prawn cocktail offensive”; the efforts made by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to win the support of Britain’s financial sector ahead of their 1997 electoral victory.
He says the difference between now and the run up to ‘97 is often missed: the Labour party then had to show they “understood the country had changed” under Margaret Thatcher and John Major and recognise that there were people who “felt they did quite well out of the Thatcher years”, whereas now Labour can show they are a “partner to change the position the country is in” rather than reassure it will continue things as they are. Reynolds adds: “It isn’t business saying to us, ‘look the last decade and a half has been great’. It’s them saying, ‘look we face some real problems. We don’t think the government has compelling answers’.”
Reynolds says that businesses complain to him that they can’t get a meeting with the government as “they’re not interested”. “That bit is a surprise,” he adds, “because the Conservative party is usually quite comfortable with that sort of thing”.
Liz Truss’s time as prime minister has contributed to a certain level of distrust between business and government, he says: “I mean, the scale of the disaster there and just the sense of the unwillingness to listen to evidence and to believe you don’t have to govern in a certain way that is, I would consider, the appropriate way to behave. The Boris Johnson era played a considerable part of that as well, his ‘F’ business line is notorious. People do raise it.”
He then adds, launching into an assessment of Brexit, that “businesses are never going to warm to anything which puts trade barriers between themselves and a major market”.
But if businesses are still raising Brexit as an issue, is there a chance that in a Labour government they might relook at things to do with Brexit? “We think we can significantly improve the relationship. There is now considerable dissatisfaction with Brexit in terms of the public and businesses but I don’t think that dissatisfaction with how it’s going should be read for desire to relive the whole thing. I think that is a mistake,” he says. “I honestly don’t believe going into a process which might never end, reliving the whole thing, gives people the confidence to invest in the UK.”
For a while there was a view amongst some of the Labour Party’s leading people that you couldn’t talk to the other side!
The Labour Party’s economic mission is for the country to have the highest sustained growth in the G7 – but at the start of this year, it was forecast to be the only G7 economy to shrink in 2023. That goal might prompt a sharp intake of breath, Reynolds says, but the party is serious and it sees potential across the country. “People will be writing books and PhDs on ‘Why has the UK been failing so badly since the financial crisis, and particularly since 2010’ – and yet you can go to Airbus in north Wales, where their productivity is six times the national average. Or Nissan in Sunderland where we’ve got the most productive car plant in the world. We’ve got these things. If we can do it in Sunderland or in north Wales, where there is no special ingredient, then why is that not the ambition for the whole country?” he asks.
Reynolds wants to make sure that what is getting across to business is that this is not just messaging or an electoral play but “a genuine belief in what we think the next Labour government needs to be successful”.
Here it is clear again that his personal ethos influences his political: “For a while there was a view amongst some of the Labour Party’s leading people that you couldn’t talk to the other side! It has never been a thing for me that… I think that that approach has helped a lot in the business brief. Frankly a lot of business people just want a government that can be the partner they need.”
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