Rachel Reeves: “We can’t make promises we can’t keep”

Rachel Reeves is the face of Labour’s fightback on the economy. Can she avoid being “ripped apart” by the newly optimistic Tories?

More fight than meets the eye: “I don’t mind being serious,” says Reeves.
“I am quite serious”.
Portrait by Felicity McCabe for the New Statesman

On the outside, it is a picture of suburban prosperity – one in a row of semi-detached, Edwardian houses. Inside, the illusion of middle-class security dissolves. The family asks not to be named. The father just found a second job. He drives a delivery van from first thing in the morning to mid-afternoon. Now he will also deliver pizzas in the evening. The best part, says his wife, is that unlike previous jobs this one involves a proper contract. It isn’t agency work, which means the bank will recognise the salary as a stable income and perhaps agree to renegotiate their mortgage.

For the past three years, they have been relying on help from extended family to stay in their home. They have a son in junior school and a daughter studying for her A-levels. She helps out by doing weekend shifts at McDonald’s for £4.35 per hour. She has also joined the local Labour Party, which is how it came about that Rachel Reeves is drinking tea in the front room of this house in Grays in Essex, hearing the family’s story.

“I look at her and think of what I was like 17 years ago,” Reeves says afterwards of the eager teenage recruit. The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury also joined Labour when she was at school. John Major was prime minister and the economy was in recession. “I just felt that the government didn’t care about people like me or places like the place I lived.” She describes becoming politicised in the comprehensive school she attended, Cator Park in Bromley, south London. The sixth-form classrooms were prefab huts; there weren’t enough textbooks to go around. Friends who left school early went on youth training schemes with no jobs at the end of them. “That’s what exercised me and still motivates me, the sense of unfairness. If you come from a privileged background where there’s a lot of money, you have so many more opportunities than if you come from a low-income family.” A former teacher from the school remembers the young Rachel as “a bright, hard-working” pupil: “She must have been very good because not many people got to Oxford from Cator Park.”

Reeves’s parents, both teachers, were Labour voters but not members. Her mum finally joined the party in 2010, the year that she was elected to parliament. Reeves was promptly promoted to the shadow cabinet and is now, at 34, one of the most significant figures in the campaign to persuade Britain that it wants a Labour government. While Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, is locked in mortal combat with George Osborne over the strategic direction of the economy, it is Reeves who talks about the human cost of coalition policy: the pressures felt by ordinary British households, the low wages, rising prices, soaring energy and fuel bills, insecure agency work with no rights, no holidays, no sick pay.

Grays, in the parliamentary constituency of Thurrock, is the front line in that battle. Held by Jackie Doyle-Price of the Tories with a majority of just 92, it is the fifth most marginal seat in the country. On the train back to central London, Reeves reels off a list of things the coalition has done to make lives harder for those Essex voters who could decide a general election – the cuts to tax credits, the VAT rise, the axing of services. Is Labour doing enough, I wonder, to persuade people that things would be so different under a Miliband government? Reeves goes through the menu of things the Labour leader has pledged to ease the burden: a cap on rail fares; tougher regulation of energy companies; cracking down on the abuse of zero-hour contracts that bind workers to an employer with no guarantee of wages.

Meanwhile, the economy has started growing again. The Conservatives are confident that they can claim vindication for their austerity policies. Opinion polls show that Labour is still blamed for the downturn and not trusted to run the economy. “Of course it’s welcome that GDP numbers have turned positive,” Reeves says. “But people aren’t voting on headline figures, they’re voting on what’s happening to them and their families. And the idea that the jobs market is doing well, the idea that the economy is working for ordinary families – it rings hollow.”

That assertion is central to Labour’s general election campaign. The Tories will be portrayed as complacent stewards of a false recovery, handing wealth and opportunity to those who have it already and abandoning those who need help the most. The coalition parties recognise their vulnerability to that charge and a race is on to find policies that will advertise compassion for people feeling oppressed by the cost of living. The median annual salary in Britain is roughly £21,300, which is £3,300 below its peak in 2005-2006. Over the same period inflation has hovered around 3 per cent, with the effect that most people have felt their spending power slump. If that doesn’t start to improve, it will be hard for the Tories to boast of mending the economy.

“It’s clear that living standards will tower over the 2015 election,” says Gavin Kelly, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, the leading think tank studying Britain’s low-wage economy. “The politics of it will in part come down to a brutal blame-game about who is most responsible for the big squeeze that has dominated this parliament. But just as important will be whether any of the parties are capable of convincing a sceptical public that they have credible policies that will make a significant difference to household incomes. That hasn’t happened yet.”

A recent opinion poll for Resolution found that 51 per cent of voters would be more likely to support a party if they felt it had a plan for improving living standards. Yet roughly 40 per cent think none of the main parties has any good ideas in that regard.

To shift those numbers in Labour’s favour, Reeves tours the TV studios, diligently holding the line on the economy. It is not always the most rewarding part of the job. When we meet at her Westminster office a week after the trip to Grays, a lavish bouquet of flowers arrives during our conversation. It is a penitent gesture from Ian Katz, the editor of Newsnight, who the previous night had accidentally made public a private message on Twitter in which he described Reeves as “boring snoring” for her exposition of party policy on zero-hour contracts.

Less than a day has passed and already a media feeding frenzy is gathering pace. “Urgh. I don’t really have a comment, to be honest,” says Reeves, clearly wounded and exasperated when I ask what she makes of it all. “They invited me on to talk about the economy. They asked me about zero-hour contracts. I think that’s really important . . . It’s not exciting, but it matters. I know I’m supposed to make some flippant throwaway remark to show how chilled out I am about it all. But I don’t mind being serious about it. I am quite serious.”

Reeves had been back at work only a week after six months on maternity leave. This is not how she envisaged her return to the front line, but politics demands a thick skin. She is not squeamish about the ferocity of Westminster combat – so long as it is policy, not personality, at stake. “I’m not one of these people who think we should all sit down and hold hands and try to agree with each other,” she says. “I think there’s something to be said for sitting opposite each other, having a proper debate and sometimes shouting a bit at each other and heckling. If you can’t stomach that, then you probably shouldn’t be in this business.”

There is more fight in Reeves than meets the eye, but it is a tightly controlled pugnacity. It comes as no surprise to discover that she is an accomplished chess player, having competed at national level into her early teens. She now supports a charity that spreads the game in state schools. She proudly shows off a shot of her at the board taking advice from Garry Kasparov. Chess terminology is often plundered for political metaphors and I wonder what the game has done for her politics.

It helps with concentration, she says. “And looking ahead, working out your opponent’s next move.” It helps with making decisions under pressure. “With an extra half an hour, maybe you could come up with a better move, but you have to weigh up how much time you’ve got on the clock.”

It seems an apposite way back to our discussion of the economy. Isn’t Labour running out of time to start winning some of those big arguments? Reeves doesn’t deny the scale of the task. For the first time her voice, studiously modulated most of the time to guard against emotion, acquires a quaver of urgency. “I know we’ve got to cut through. I know we’ve got to win back the support of people that we lost. I know we’ve got to do all of those things. I think we are moving in the right direction. Under Ed’s leadership we are doing those things, but we’ve got to work harder and we’ve got to do more.” It is at least a partial admission that Labour’s plans for retaking power in 2015 are not proceeding with mechanical efficiency.

Part of the problem, I suggest, is that the opposition has spent three years arguing that austerity is the wrong economic prescription for the country and yet now it must build a political strategy on the assumption that cuts are unavoidable. Is Labour marooned between saying it hates coalition cuts and then saying it can’t reverse them?

“You’ve seen how we voted in parliament. We voted against the bedroom tax, we voted against the top rate of tax, we put down a motion saying we wanted a mansion tax. We have signalled how a Labour government would be different.”

It is a familiar argument – the opposition can indicate its general priorities now, but 20 months before an election it would be unwise to commit to a manifesto. What I haven’t heard before is the candid acknowledgement that follows of why pledging to repeal hated coalition cuts would be such a mistake. The reason is fear of leaving policy hostages that would be slaughtered by the Tory attack machine. “As shadow chief secretary I also know we can’t make promises we can’t keep. It’s important that we make sure everything adds up, everything stacks up. Otherwise we’re going to be ripped apart by the Tories in a general election campaign.”

That position is a compromise between Rachel Reeves, the angry young woman who joined the Labour Party in fury at Thatcher’s legacy, and Rachel Reeves, the studious chess player who wants to be sure the defence is solid before going on the attack. “It is important that we are credible as well as fair. People want to know that we’ve got hearts, but that we’ve got heads as well.”

Rachel Reeves will be in conversation with the New Statesman in partnership with Santander on Monday the 23rd September at 19:00 in the Thistle Hotel Brighton.

To see a full list of our conference activity please click here.  

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.