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

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.