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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.