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

Niina Tamura
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“Anyone can do it, I promise you!”: meet the BBC’s astronaut-ballerina

Why science needs to be more open to women, minorities - and ballet.

Whether dancing on stage with the English National Ballet or conducting an experiment for her PhD in quantum physics, 29 year-old Merritt Moore often appears a model of composure. But in last Sunday's opening episode of BBC2's Astronauts: do you have what it takes? we got to see what happens when high-achievers like Merritt hit breaking point.

Merritt is one of 12 candidates attempting to win the approval of Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station. Along with her fellow competitors, who include mountaineers and fighter pilots, the dancer has had to face a series of gruelling tasks designed to measure her potential to operate well in space; from flying a helicopter, to performing a blood test on her own arm.

Many of these tasks left Merritt far outside her comfort zone. “I’ve only failed my driving test three times and crashed every car I’ve gotten into - but I think helicopters are different?!” she joked nervously before setting off to perform her first-ever helicopter-hover. Yet after a shaky start, her tenacious personality seemed to pull her through. “I’m good at being incredibly persistent and I don’t give up,” she told the space psychologist when asked to name her strengths.

Merritt also believes it is persistence (and hours of practice) that have allowed her to excel in two disciplines which are typically seen as requiring opposite traits: ballet and science. While studying for her PhD at Oxford, she has continued to perform as a professional dancer around the world. It's a stunning feat by any measure, and when I talk to her on the phone this weekend I ask whether it’s only possible because she’s some kind of genius? “No!” she exclaims, with a winning mix of genuine shock and self-deprecation. “I’m as far from a genius or a natural dancer as you can get - everyday I just feel like flailing mess! My thought process is that if I can do it anyone can do it, I promise you!”

But there is one thing that Merritt thinks might be holding back others from pursuing a mixed career like hers – and that’s the way the scientific world is run.

“They kind of self-select themselves,” she says of many science-professionals she’s met. "You get some people who are not incredibly understanding of those who perhaps approach [physics] in a different way, or who need a different type of schedule," she says. "They look down on people who are different from themselves, which is really difficult; I think that’s why women have difficulties, and I think that's why minorities have difficulties."

A report from the Royal Society on Diversity in Science would appear to support Merritt’s conclusions. It showed that women are significantly underrepresented in senior scientific roles, and that black and minority ethnic graduates are less likely to go on to work in science than their white peers.

So how can these trends be reversed? For Merritt the answer lies as much in schools as it does with targeted scholarships and support groups. Science education needs to be re-branded, she says, so that thinking creatively is actively encouraged from a young age; “It makes no sense to divide it up and say everyone either has an analytic mind or a creative mind." Simply leaning a set of very technical facts from a textbook drives her “bonkers” - but “when there’s passion behind something then anything is possible.”

If she could one thing about physics education, Merritt says she would switch things up so that the “exciting bits” get taught first - such as the latest thoughts on quantum computing or DNA repair. Then if students do choose to continue, they’ll know why they need to study the boring, rigorous parts too. “You’re like right, I need to learn about a harmonic oscillator because that’s how I’m going to understand this quantum computer.”

More cross-fertilisation between science and arts could also help the ballet world, she believes. “I can visualise my centre of mass, how gravity is working on different parts of my body, and how the torque effects my turns – and I think that’s a massive help,” Merritt says of her dancing.

But that’s far from all. When performing she often finds herself thinking about the more bizarre and “mind boggling” sides to physics: “Why is there all this dark matter in the Universe? What is that?! - when that’s going on in my mind, my legs become free because it means I’m not thinking about whether I look bad, or if something is right or not. I’m just inspired - and I want my dancing to be inspiring rather than self-critical all the time.”

Focusing on actions rather than self-image was definitely something Merritt's parents encouraged from a young age. Her dad’s work as an entertainment lawyer in LA meant he was particularly alert to the stereotypes that were being laid on young girls. And, as a result, Merritt and her sister grew up without TV or fashion magazines. Her dad was even initially worried about the mirrors in ballet classrooms

But self-criticism is also very hard to avoid when your antics are being broadcast to the nation on Sunday night TV.

“When you see yourself on screen you just feel incredibly vulnerable,” she says, “they are getting the raw emotions of how you’re reacting to stuff that you’ve never done before in your life!”. What Merritt’s episode one journey showed however, is that knowing yourself makes it easier to bouceback from nerves and self-doubt. And that perhaps more of us should be encouraged to believe that you don't have to choose between the stars on stage or the ones in space. 

The next episode of BBC2's Astronauts: have you got what it takes? will air on Sunday 27th August at 9pm.

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