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6 March 2024

Steve Reed: “Farmers feel shafted by this government”

The shadow environment secretary on what voters want and how to make Labour the “party of the countryside”.

By Freddie Hayward

To understand the Labour Party today, you need to know what happened on Lambeth Council between 2002 and 2012. In this short period in south London’s political history, you will find the roots of the current Labour leadership’s victory-at-all-costs election strategy, and of its commitment to purge the party’s left.

It started in 2002. Steve Reed, who joined Labour at 16, became the party’s opposition leader on the council. He wanted to return to power and repair the damage, as he saw it, wrought by the “loony left”. He brought in a young party staffer called Morgan McSweeney, who was gaining a reputation as a shrewd, hard-headed campaigner. Together, the two built a strategy to win back control of the council in the 2006 election.

I met Reed, now Labour’s shadow environment secretary, in his Westminster office at Portcullis House. He wore a maroon tie and a centimetre of grey stubble. Rain slapped the window as he recalled: “Morgan was very interested in what we were doing in Lambeth; I was very interested in Morgan’s campaigning ability.”

“We wanted Labour to represent the community it was asking to vote for it,” Reed told me. “We both didn’t like what we felt the hard left was about: telling people what the politicians were going to do to them, whether they liked it or not. That results in you being defeated. It’s also very authoritarian.”

The 2006 election in Lambeth went against the national trends. Labour gained 11 seats and overall control. Reed brought McSweeney in as his chief of staff. They decided to apply their electoral strategy to governing itself: Reed set up a “cooperative council” in order to engage the public in council decisions.

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Today, the pair work together at the top of Labour. McSweeney went on to run Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign in 2020 before becoming his pre-eminent aide, responsible for Labour’s general election strategy. Meanwhile, as the shadow secretary for environment, food and rural affairs, Reed has retained his single-mindedness about the electorate’s wants and whims. His priority is stockpiling votes. He spies an opportunity for Labour to usurp the Conservatives as the political wing of rural people. “Farmers feel completely shafted by this government,” he said. “People living in rural parts of Britain, who overwhelmingly voted Conservative at the last election… [are] angry with the Conservatives now and they’re looking at Labour for the first time in more than a decade.”

Just as he did in Lambeth 18 years ago, Reed sees a gap between voters and his party. This is why, he believes, Labour lost the rural vote in 2019. “Labour had come to feel far too urban,” Reed told me. “It was a hyper, hyper liberalism and we were rejecting a lot of things that people in the countryside feel very deeply about: social conservatism, small-c conservatism – a lack of respect for the institutions that people feel are of value, including perhaps the monarchy.

“People in the countryside, under the previous Labour leadership, felt Labour was very disrespectful to their way of life, their world-view and their values.” His thought process returns to maximising the number of seats Labour wins at the next general election. “We hope to dramatically increase the number of MPs we have in rural parts of Britain.”

Reed’s new brief has taken him from inner-city council administrator to tweed-jacket-and-Wellington-boot-wearing pastoral canvasser. He now spends his time defending Labour as the “party of the countryside” and criticising his opposite number for “sickeningly foul stenches” at landfill sites. Bilious sewage spills and stinking beaches have become key Labour attack lines.

Reed is not prudish about taking the fight to the Tories. Every reason he offers to vote for Labour is bookended by a reason not to vote Conservative. He is rumoured to have been behind attack adverts last year that claimed Rishi Sunak did not think sexual abusers should be imprisoned. He once sent a fake email to a Labour group member to see if the information made its way into the press to smoke out a leaker. Reed is content wading through figurative sewage. For him, politics is not an idealistic pursuit but a daily, manure-strewn wrestle with reality.

Westminster might not have clocked that thousands of Welsh farmers are driving on Cardiff, but Reed senses danger. They are protesting Welsh Labour’s proposal that 20 per cent of their land be rewilded or planted with trees. There is real anxiety in Labour over pushing the public too far on the green transition. Party strategists almost had a meltdown when they lost the Uxbridge by-election; Sadiq Khan was promptly told to reconsider the roll-out of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone. Reed has now given Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, a similar slap-down. “We have no intentions to replicate the Welsh proposals across England,” he told me. “I’m hoping the Welsh government is going to listen to [the protests] and will amend their proposals.”

This is Reedism in action: moving towards voters, not righteously dictating what they should believe. (A less charitable interpretation might be that refusing to face down public opposition rules out governing with principle.) Reed doggedly condemns the Corbyn era for prioritising moral exhibitionism over listening to voters’ concerns. He once said Jeremy Corbyn cared more about criminals than their victims. Reed, in contrast, speaks about the “human need for retribution”.

The problem was that Corbyn, in Reed’s telling, did not understand that the country he sought to govern is ultimately a conservative one. Is Reed a social conservative? “Yeah – I think in part,” he said. “What shaped me as a human being fundamentally was my family. Family… is the single most important building block in society. And at times, some voters have felt Labour had not been supportive enough of an institution like the family. I’m not sure that was ever quite true, to be honest. But I think Labour is now much more respectful about the institutions that British people value… I think the majority of the British people are small-c conservative, if I’m honest.”

Reed was born in 1963 in St Albans, Hertfordshire. His mother was a cleaner. His father, aunt, uncle and grandparents worked in the Odhams printing factory in Watford, which was shut down in 1983 by the Daily Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell. The government’s failure to provide jobs for his family instilled in Reed a scepticism towards the free market. “Many of [my family] never worked again because there was no industrial policy. There was no retraining and reskilling. Those people’s talents and lives got wasted to some extent.”

That social dislocation – the failure to help workers into new jobs – deeply informs Reed’s politics. He said farmers today could face a similar future to the mining communities that were destroyed in the 1980s. “I don’t want the countryside to be hollowed out in that way,” Reed said. Instead, he wants the government to support them through the green transition.

Another political crucible for Reed was his experience of being a gay man during the era of Margaret Thatcher’s “horrific anti-gay legislation”. He demonstrated outside parliament to protest Section 28 in the late 1980s. “And then, by a quirk of fate, after I was elected in December 2012, one of the first things I voted on was equal marriage. So my personal journey was from standing outside parliament, shouting for equality, to being inside parliament voting for equal marriage. To all those people who think politics can’t make a difference, it can make a difference as profound as that.

“We should be free,” Steve Reed said. “And the Conservatives wanted to curtail our freedom.”

[See also: Inside the loneliness bureau]


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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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