Rachel Reeves interview: “Usually, oppositions don’t want governments to succeed. That’s not the case at the moment”
Rachel Reeves is back on the Labour frontline after a five year hiatus. Though “shocked” to get the call up, the Leeds West MP is excited to be part of a team that she believes in. Tasked with pushing for a national recovery plan from the coronavirus crisis, she tells Sebastian Whale why we must address inequalities across society
Rachel Reeves was sitting in her garden, unaware the new leader of the Labour party was trying to get in contact. It was the day after Keir Starmer had been elected as Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, news that had been largely drowned out by the unprecedented lockdown of the country, forced by the outbreak of coronavirus.
For nearly five years, Reeves had been exiled from the frontbenches. The MP for Leeds West, who entered Parliament in 2010 aged 31, had been touted for big things. In an early profile of the promising politician, who was made shadow chief secretary to the Treasury after just eighteen months, The Independent said: “In the Westminster parlour game of ‘spot the next party leader’, she is tipped to be Labour’s first female leader.”
Under Ed Miliband, Reeves was promoted to shadow work and pensions secretary. Events, however, interrupted her trajectory. She ran out of road after the election of Corbyn, with whom she shared fundamental ideological differences that precluded her from remaining on the frontbench. She found solace in the role of BEIS Select Committee chair, a position she had held since the 2017 election. She also wrote another book, ‘Women of Westminster: The MPs who Changed Politics’, to line up on her shelf alongside, among others, her biography of Alice Bacon, the former Labour minister and first woman to represent her constituency.
It is great to be part of a team again: a team I really believe in, want to be part of and can see a future for
For all of these reasons, Reeves felt a combination of surprise and embarrassment when she picked up her mobile to find a missed call from Starmer. She called him back, only for the phone to ring out. ‘Oh no, have I lost my chance here?’ she thought to herself.
Starmer eventually surfaced, offering her the position of shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office. “It was quite a shock to me, but a really good shock,” Reeves says, adding: “It is great to be part of a team again: a team I really believe in, want to be part of and can see a future for.”
Born in Lewisham on 13 February 1979, Reeves was raised by her parents, Graham and Sally. Aged eight, while watching the Six O’Clock News with her younger sister Ellie, who is also an MP, her father pointed to Neil Kinnock and said: “That is who we vote for.” Reeves went to Cator Park school for Girls in Bromley, where she achieved four As at A-Level (in maths, further maths, economics, and politics). In 1996, she joined the Labour party.
Reeves had been struck by her experience in education. While at primary school, music lessons were cut back and special needs training was stripped to the bone. Winters at secondary school would bring with them cold classrooms, and textbooks were hard to come by. “I just thought that lack of investment in our future was such a criminal waste of talent,” she told LabourList in 2009. The experience inspired her to go into politics.
After studying PPE at New College, Oxford, and economics at LSE, Reeves joined the Bank of England’s graduate scheme as part of the same intake as Matt Hancock, the health secretary. “Look at us now,” Reeves jokes. Her first role was in the international economic analysis division, headed up by Andrew Bailey, who in March became Governor of the Bank of England.
On the dire economic consequences being outlined by the Central Bank, Reeves says: “Even though the first quarter only really included the one week's worth of lockdown, GDP fell by 2%. For the second quarter of the year a large proportion of that is going to be under some form of lockdown. These will be big numbers. The role of policy makers is to try and ensure that the recovery is as robust as possible.”
While at the Bank, Reeves did a year’s secondment at the British embassy in Washington. At the time of the financial crash, she was working for HBOS in its retail arm. On two occasions, she stood as the Labour candidate in her native Bromley and Chislehurst, finishing second in 2005 and fourth in a by-election a year later, behind, among others, Ukip’s Nigel Farage. She retained Leeds West for Labour at the next election by just over 7,000 votes on a challenging night for the party nationwide.
In her role, Reeves is shadowing Michael Gove, whom she has spoken to twice since being appointed. “On a professional basis, it is important that we have a good working relationship and can talk to each other. The Government has been pretty good at making sure that their Labour opposite numbers are briefed on issues,” she says.
The position they hold is diffuse in nature: Gove is responsible for relations with the devolved governments, as well as being a key point person on Brexit. Reeves finds herself leading Labour’s charge on a “national recovery plan” for coronavirus, focused on ensuring those most in need are ministers’ top priorities. As a starting point, she suggests that workers who are often “overlooked, underappreciated and undervalued” – she cites care workers as one example, but also those who work in distribution – should be given a pay rise.
“We should never have forgotten or overlooked their importance to us,” she asserts. “Those people who are essential, without whom the rest of society and the economy would collapse, I don’t think we can go back to a situation where not just do we pay them so little, but also we don’t value them.”
The effect of this crisis has not been felt in the same way by all people
“There are also other things which were true before this crisis but have been perhaps revealed to us in sharper focus than they were before,” she continues. Reeves points to high death rates from Covid-19 in places such as Newham, a deprived local authority area, and economic inequalities highlighted by the disparate “resilience” of families, as evidence that the crisis has by no means been felt evenly across the land. Some people are most at risk because of their pre-existing health, where they live, and their resources, she argues.
“The effect of this crisis has not been felt in the same way by all people. For many of us it’s an inconvenience, but we live with people we love in a home that we like living in or usually often has a garden. And for other people, it’s just a very, very different experience,” she says.
She adds: “I also think that this crisis should make us think more about the health inequalities, but also the inequalities around the everyday lives that we live and the different families, communities and places and the different impact those will have on our experiences – not just in this crisis – but in our everyday lives as well.”
Exclusive polling for The House found that nearly three-quarters of MPs believe taxes will increase to fund public services in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, while 85% agree that the state would play a greater role in the economy. Speaking prior to the survey, Reeves says: “We should have been better prepared going into this crisis, but the cuts to public services meant that that was hard to do. So, I don’t think there will be the appetite for austerity this time, but instead there will be an appetite for building more resilient public services, more resilient businesses and more resilient families as well.”
Could the coronavirus crisis, therefore, be an opportunity for Labour to push for making things more equal as a society and economy? “I’m on the left, I would like to see a fairer and more equal distribution of income and wealth,” she replies. “I would like a national recovery plan that helps some of those parts of the country, families and communities that not only have been worse hit by the coronavirus crisis, but that were least able to withstand both a health crisis and an economic crisis. A national recovery plan should prioritise those families and those communities as well as the public services that we depend on.”
I wouldn’t feel safe sitting cheek by jowl with my colleagues
Part of any recovery will require encouraging people to go back to work, while also avoiding a second spike in the number of coronavirus cases. Reeves has been studying materials on the Spanish flu, which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people. “Places that locked down and responded fastest and most robustly to the pandemic, actually recovered quicker,” says Reeves.
“We all want the economy to get back up and running, but we’ve got to do it in a way that workers feel safe and where we can be as confident as we can be that we’re not risking a second peak in this virus. To shut down again, I imagine would be even more dangerous for our economic future than locking down for the first time.”
Reeves disagrees with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plan to get MPs to return to Westminster in early June. “I wouldn’t feel safe sitting cheek by jowl with my colleagues. We should be sending out the right message to people around the country about what going back to work should look like,” she argues, adding: “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with MPs taking up places on the tubes, trains, and buses to get to work if we’re taking places away from people who need that public transport to get to jobs where it’s essential that you are physically present.”
The House survey also found that a small majority of MPs – 51% – said they would support the UK requesting or agreeing to an extension to the Brexit transition period, which is due to finish at the end of the year.
Labour under Keir Starmer has thus far remained tight lipped as to whether they want ministers to force an extension. Asked twice, Reeves refuses to go any further than her party leader.
“Certainly we don’t think that a cliff-edge and leaving without a deal would be good and it would go against everything that the Conservatives and the Government promised at the last election,” she says. “They now need to deliver on that because the last thing people want at the moment is any further disruption to their everyday lives.” Summarising Labour’s position, she says: “The Government has made the commitments; we need to hold them to those.”
It is in our national interest at the moment for this government to succeed
Plainly, Brexit has been a vexed issue for the Labour party. They do not wish to hand the Government an easy attack line by calling for an extension early, which would in turn be characterised as in some way seeking to prolong the UK’s immediate ties to the EU. It is illustrative of the approach to opposition currently being cultivated under Starmer, who has vowed to be constructive.
“It was particularly important at the beginning to get the tone right,” says Reeves. “Usually, an opposition doesn’t want the Government to succeed, because if the Government succeeds, it means you’re behind. It is absolutely the case that it is in our national interest at the moment for this government to succeed.”
She continues: “That means not trying to score party political points, because that’s not going to help the Government to succeed. Oppositions can be really effective and powerful in asking the challenging questions and holding government to account, to ensure the focus there needs to be on certain areas is actually there.”
Though few are currently thinking about the next general election, to turn around the Labour party’s fortunes will be a mammoth task. Reeves, who has endured four successive election defeats for the party, is better versed than most in what is at stake.
“We’ve got a massive challenge. I don’t think anyone, least of all Keir, underestimates the scale of what we need to do after the worst election defeat since 1931,” she says.
“What I felt over the last few weeks – and none of us have actually seen anyone – but from talking to people and reading people’s moods, they are really pleased to have what they think is a Labour Party they can vote for again. It doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for Labour, but that Labour is giving them an option which they haven’t much felt like they’ve had at the last few elections.”