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  1. Diary
18 October 2023

Why I always do business over breakfast

Also this week: the blue suit brigade, conference karaoke.

By Rachel Reeves

It would be wrong not to start with the horrendous terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas that began on 7 October. The suffering being inflicted on those affected is unimaginable. The images are heart-breaking. Children murdered in their cots in a kibbutz, young people gunned down at a music festival and families in Gaza suffering terribly. We mourn the death of every civilian, Israeli and Palestinian, in this war.

There are more difficult days ahead for the Middle East and more awful pictures will emerge from this conflict. But, we must never surrender the hope that one day a safe and secure Israel and a viable and peaceful Palestinian state may live side by side in peace.

Building a better future

The journey to party conference is always the same, boarding a full train with hundreds of delegates, party staff and journalists. I feel for the other passengers, who must be bemused by the chat about fringe events and the conference arrangements committee. This year one of my advisers got chatting to an Everton fan heading up to Liverpool for the match. My ears perked up when I heard him say: “I quite like that shadow chancellor woman.” I decided not to interrupt.

It was the third time I had addressed Labour Party conference as shadow chancellor. Preparation involves a lot of Earl Grey tea, throat sweets and time practising in my office in Westminster. The speech was a chance for me to tell voters that under Keir Starmer’s leadership Labour has changed for the better. And because we have changed we can now change our economy for the better – and get Britain’s future back.

For too long working people have been left worse off because of the political chaos in the Conservative Party and the government’s failure to build our nation’s resilience. I have heard too many stories from families and businesses about opportunities that have been missed because of the instability of the past 13 years. My speech was also about offering an alternative: building new homes, backing British industries, achieving energy security, creating jobs, hiring more nurses and teachers, and rebuilding public services.

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The morning after my speech I feared I had caused a run on blue suits when I bumped into my friend Ayesha Hazarika in the hotel lift, wearing the same outfit I had worn the day before. This was, however, a better outcome than that the Conservatives faced last year, when their party conference caused a run on the pound.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s speech made the Tories look like the opposition]

The guinea fowl offensive

Within minutes of coming off the conference stage I was on my way to a post-speech reception at the Pullman hotel with more than 50 business leaders and chief executives. Since Keir appointed me shadow chancellor I have made a determined effort to restore Labour’s relationship with business. Government alone cannot rebuild our economy, create decent jobs and deliver the change we need to leave working people better off. It has got to be a proper partnership. And at conference we saw that partnership in action. More than 200 companies signed up to our Small Business Sunday, 200 attended the Business Forum and more than 180 were on the waiting list.

I know that many in the media have dubbed my engagement with business the “smoked salmon and scrambled eggs offensive” because most of my meetings happen over breakfast (my favourite meal of the day). But Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds jokes that his is the “guinea fowl offensive” because he is made to do his extensive business engagement over dinner in the City.

[See also: Labour’s two by-election victories could signal a landslide general election win]

On message, not the mic

Once home I caught up on some podcasts, including the latest episode of Ed Balls and George Osborne’s Political Currency. In it, Ed said I would have celebrated after my speech with karaoke. It is true that in my youth I was known for belting out the occasional Beyoncé song (“Halo”, if you’re asking), but this year I left that tradition to my shadow cabinet colleagues Lisa Nandy, Jonathan (“Sparkle”) Ashworth and Wes Streeting.

The women who went before

If Labour wins the next general election, I will be the first female chancellor of the Exchequer in the 800 years the post has existed. We might never have had a woman chancellor but there are many female economists whose ideas have helped to shape modern economics, from Harriet Martineau and Joan Robinson to Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde. They are the subject of my new book, The Women Who Made Modern Economics. It’s time we told the story of some of these incredible women.

Rachel Reeves is the shadow chancellor of the Exchequer. Her book, “The Women Who Made Modern Economics”, will be published on 26 October by Basic Books

[See also: The Tories needed to win conference season – but they lost it]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts