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Rachel and Ellie Reeves: “We were constantly underestimated as state-school girls”

In their first joint interview, the Labour frontbenchers and sisters discuss their relationship, class snobbery and battles with the left.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rachel and Ellie Reeves, two powerhouses of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, are enjoying a conspiratorial giggle over a pot of tea. It’s not immediately obvious from their speeches in the House of Commons that the sisters hail from south London, but the Lewisham accent surfaces when they’re together at a café, reminiscing about their school days.

In the pair’s first joint interview, Ellie jokes that her older sibling, the shadow chancellor, was “more like a pushy parent” than a sister: “You gave me extra homework and made sure I behaved.”

“I encouraged her to work hard,” Rachel smiles, admitting she even marked mock assignments and insisted that her sister, now a shadow justice minister, learn trigonometry to the symbol.

Daughters to two teachers, they went from a comprehensive school to Oxford University: Ellie, now 42, read law and Rachel, 44, studied philosophy, politics and economics. They joined Labour as teenagers shortly before the party’s totemic 1997 election victory and are on the party’s traditional right.

[See also: Rachel vs Wes: Labour’s front-bench battle of the comics]

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Ellie, who took a week out of sixth form to campaign in that election, knocked on doors in Lewisham East with Bridget Prentice, then the MP, while Rachel was active in Eltham, considered at the time to be a marginal. Both sisters say they were inspired by the “Blair’s babes” generation, which included Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell and Oona King. “That was the first time there were women MPs we could relate to,” says Rachel. “They were dressed normally, they were young, they looked like modern women who were about ten years older than me and I thought ‘this is something I could do’.”

The sisters took parallel career paths after university before entering parliament. Rachel’s economic brain took her to the Bank of England and later the British embassy in Washington DC. Ellie trained as a barrister, became a partner in a law firm and later set up her own practice. The younger sibling was also embedded in the structures of the Labour Party. She sat on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee for ten years, firstly in her capacity as chair of Labour Students, before being ousted by a Momentum candidate.

Rachel was certain of her ambition to become an MP from the outset, eventually finding a seat in Leeds West in 2010, but Ellie “agonised” over the decision to stand for her home constituency of Lewisham West and Penge in 2017, which followed the 2016 murder of the Reeves’ friend Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen. Ellie was also left shaken after having lunch with her husband John Cryer, the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, with their baby son in Westminster when the palace was targeted by a terrorist attack in March 2017.

“I just thought that if I don’t put myself forward I might end up regretting it the rest of my life, but I’m so pleased I did. I absolutely love my job,” she says.

Rachel backed Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership in 2010 and cemented her status as a rising star by becoming shadow work and pensions secretary, a position she resigned from when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader. She staunchly opposed the left-winger from the outset, later declaring his plans “economically illiterate”, and became chair of the Commons’ powerful Business Select Committee.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s international inspiration]

Ellie, meanwhile, took a front-bench role as a parliamentary private secretary in Corbyn’s international team but resigned after voting in favour of UK membership of the EU single market (the front bench was whipped to abstain). Left-wingers later moved to target Ellie, who at the time was heavily pregnant with her second son, for deselection after she signed a letter criticising the former Labour MP Chris Williamson over allegations of anti-Semitism.

“It was so appalling,” says Rachel. “I was on the phone to her every day.”

Ellie adds: “When I set up my legal consultancy, it was specifically to advise women around maternity discrimination and sex discrimination at work, and I just felt really upset when I was facing these attacks from people in my local party.” Following pressure, Corbyn ruled out challenges against pregnant MPs but his leadership remained a brutal period for moderates.

Rachel and Ellie, who each have two children, turned to one another for support. “We used to regularly get a recipe book out and spend an afternoon baking and just having a chat about what was going on. It was a really big source of support,” says Ellie.

With that era now a distant memory, the sisters regularly meet after PMQs to discuss Labour’s plans for government and are unburdened by a Miliband-esque sibling rivalry. They clearly have a close and affectionate relationship.

“I think you have always been the big sister, haven’t you?” Ellie says to Rachel, before quipping of her sister’s reputation for fiscal discipline, “I have to say I am the least likely member of the front bench to make unfunded spending commitments.

“Rachel’s work ethic is something that I hugely admire, and her loyalty. Her schedule is really demanding but she still makes time for her friends and family. She has always pushed me and supported me in whatever I have wanted to do.”

“Ellie’s down to Earth,” says Rachel. “A lot of the people she went to university with have gone on to work in corporate law. She could have done that but she was very committed to justice issues, particularly for women.”

Ellie, who is leading Labour’s plans to tackle violence against women and girls – including tougher sentences for rapists and a domestic abuse register – admits she was probably the more rebellious teenager. Rachel agrees and says Ellie, who the night before our coffee was watching the Abba Voyage concert at the Olympic Park in east London, “probably has more fun” to this day.

“I used to love going to festivals and gigs,” adds Ellie, “whereas Rachel was more into things like chess tournaments. I did play chess but I stopped at about 13 or 14 because I got distracted by other things, but Rachel remained motivated.” As youngsters, the sisters delighted in taking on boys at a nearby private school in chess tournaments.

When asked who her female role models were Ellie replies “I had Rachel”, but says their mother Sally, who “went from classroom teacher to deputy head to headteacher” during their youth was formative. Rachel, a junior chess champion, idolised Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit Polgár, the three Hungarian sisters and chess prodigies.

“Both of us have worked in a very male-dominated environments; me in economics, Ellie in law,” Rachel says. “But chess was a good experience because people underestimated us. They underestimated us because we were girls and they underestimated us because we went to a state school.”

Rachel recalls receiving top A-level results and the parents of private-school children being “snobs”. Similarly, Ellie recalls her careers adviser doubting her aspiration to study at Oxford despite her achieving three As at A-level. This led to her pursuing a gap year in Italy as part of an EU exchange programme, including three months studying languages in Turin and a trade union programme focused on trade.

Should she become the first female chancellor, Rachel would seek to amend the UK’s Brexit deal, and is hopeful that Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland agreement heralds the start of a more open relationship with the EU. “It shows the deal that was secured just over two years ago wasn’t good enough. It’s not just about Northern Ireland though obviously that is hugely, hugely important. There’s lots of other parts of the deal that aren’t working well enough. It’s holding back the economy, and I want to make changes to it.”

Speaking on International Women’s Day, 8 March, the pair promise that a Labour government would mark a fresh start in the lives of women.

“Women still earn less and own less than men, they’ve been disproportionately hit by austerity and now they are being disproportionately hit by the cost-of-living crisis,” says Rachel. “It’s more than 50 years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced and yet we still don’t have equal pay. One of the things I’m really determined to do if I become chancellor is to close that gap between what men and women are paid.”

Labour must also grapple with the issue of trans rights. The party has agreed to update the current system, which requires a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and forces trans people to live in their new gender for two years before being able to access a gender recognition certificate, but the policy is under review. Rachel says that “obviously the system is in need of reform and modernisation” but emphasises that “it’s incredibly important that the Equality Act is protected, and that there are safe spaces for women. We’ve seen some of that play out recently in the case of prisons in Scotland. A rapist [Isla Bryson, who while awaiting trial changed gender, from male to female] should never have been in a woman’s prison.”

Ellie refers to guidance published last year by Women’s Aid, which runs refuges. It backed single-sex spaces as “really pragmatic and sensible”, adding that “it may not be right for a trans woman to be in a women’s refuge” in some circumstances.

Rachel says she is “not going to get carried away” about the prospect of a Labour government, with the next general election still more than a year away.

But before they both leave for parliament, she adds: “Neither of our children have seen anything but Conservative governments and my eldest is almost ten. I don’t want them to go through the whole of their childhood with cuts to our schools and public services, having the same experience that we had in the Eighties and Nineties.

“But what I also feel very strongly is that because we were constantly underestimated, we need to prove that two girls from state school in south London are just as good as any Eton or Winchester boy.”

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe