Reforming zeal: Rachel Reeves says that high immigration means the welfare system must change. Photograph: Felicity McCabe for New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Rachel Reeves interview: A Miliband loyalist fights back

The shadow work and pensions secretary warns those who brief against the Labour leader: "The only people it serves are our political opponents."

It is often said of Ed Miliband by friends and foes that he lacks “outriders”. At moments of weakness he seems short of the die-in-a-ditch allies who sustained Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at their lowest points.

Rachel Reeves is one of the small band of shadow cabinet members who can be relied on to defend him at every turn. When I meet her at Portcullis House in Westminster and mention Labour’s recent woes, she delivers an unprompted tribute to Miliband.

“I backed Ed right from the beginning of his leadership contest because I saw somebody who listened to people, who cared passionately about giving people a better start in life,” the shadow work and pensions secretary tells me. “That’s why he’s been a strong leader and it’s why he’ll be a great prime minister.”

When I ask if she is troubled by Miliband’s personal ratings, which have fallen below those of Michael Foot and Nick Clegg in some polls, she replies: “The polls that really matter are what happens when people vote. We’ve got 2,000 more councillors than we had when we lost the last general election. When I’m out door-knocking – and I obviously spend a lot of time in my own constituency in Leeds West but also in the next-door seat of Pudsey – the issue of leadership that comes up is David Cameron’s leadership.”

She explains Miliband’s unpopularity by arguing that “it is always difficult for a leader of the opposition, because you’ve got to prove that you can do a job that people can’t see you doing until you actually do it”. She adds: “If you look at Tony Blair in the 1990s, he was called ‘Bambi’. If you look at the last general election, in terms of ability to do the job, people thought that Gordon Brown was better than David Cameron because David Cameron hadn’t been given that opportunity to do the job . . . I don’t think Ed was under any illusion when he became leader of the Labour Party: it was going to be difficult.”

To those who offer less sympathetic judgements of Miliband, often under the cover of anonymity, she has a firm retort: “If you’re going to talk to the press, you should put your name to it. Members of the shadow cabinet, members of the Parliamentary Labour Party aren’t commentators, we are participants . . . I don’t think there is a role for anyone briefing against our party. The only people it serves are our political opponents.”

Since taking on the social security brief in the October 2013 reshuffle, having entered parliament in 2010, the 35-year-old Reeves has won activists’ support by leading opposition to government measures such as the bedroom tax and the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases. But her recent vow to restrict welfare payments to EU migrants, in an article for MailOnline, divided the party, with some accusing her of pandering to Ukip and perpetuating myths about “benefit tourism”. Reeves, however, is unrepentant.

“Our welfare state was never created for a world where you have such high levels of migration. And it certainly wasn’t created so that people, when they arrive in this country, before ever having contributed or having any connection, are able to draw down on support whether
in work or out of work. It is right to redefine the rules for the new era we are in.”

She defends the decision to place the article with the Daily Mail, the title most reviled among Labour members. “We need to make sure that our message reaches all of the electorate . . . and to make sure that we get coverage in all newspapers, including those who might not back us at election time. The reality is there are a lot of Labour voters, there are a lot of floating voters, who read the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Times, and we’ve got to make sure that the people reading those newspapers hear what Labour’s policies are.”

But the tensions between Reeves and some in Labour are as nothing compared with those between her and Iain Duncan Smith, a man of whom she speaks with undisguised contempt. Their relationship reached a new nadir on 3 November when the Work and Pensions Secretary refused to apologise for claiming that she had not bothered to turn up for a vote (Reeves was absent due to illness). “I think he’s an incredibly rude man and I think that anybody else would have apologised,” she tells me, revealing that “a number of Conservative MPs” came up to her afterwards to say that he had “behaved very badly” and to apologise on his behalf. “It was very nice of them, but he’s quite capable of apologising for himself,” Reeves says.

Is she surprised, like some in Westminster, that he has kept his job despite multiple failures? “Well, I expect that people like Michael Gove and Owen Paterson, when they were summarily dismissed from their jobs at the last reshuffle, must have wondered why the axe came for them but not for Iain Duncan Smith.”

As for whether she will be in a position to replace IDS next May, she is unambiguous: “Because of Ed’s leadership, the decisions that he’s made and his ability to keep the party united, we are set to defy the odds and be a one-term opposition.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496