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Anneliese Dodds interview: “We can’t return to business as usual”

Labour’s new shadow chancellor has quickly risen from obscurity to high office. So what drives her? And how will she approach Britain’s deepening economic crisis?

It is a sign of the times that political interviews are now conducted over Zoom or Skype. This is what I had arranged with Anneliese Dodds, recently appointed to Keir Starmer’s new shadow cabinet, when circumstances conspired against us, and Dodds was unable to speak over video call. Instead, I joined the shadow chancellor and her two young children on their daily exercise. “I’m so sorry about this!” she said down the phone, the wind catching on the receiver and the noise of her daughter and son in the background, as they headed for their government-sanctioned walk around Rose Hill in Oxford.

The scene encapsulated the strange circumstances in which Dodds has assumed one of the most senior positions in British opposition politics. As shadow chancellor, she is leading Labour’s response to one of the worst economic crises the UK has faced for centuries; as a parent, she is, like everyone else, trying to adapt to the “new normal”.

Dodds’ rapid rise “from relative obscurity”, as some commentators have put it, means that the public knows little about her. A former academic in public policy, she was a Labour MEP between 2014 and 2017, before being elected MP for Oxford East – where she lives with her husband Ed Turner, an academic at Aston University specialising in public policy and the deputy leader of Oxford City Council – in 2017.

Dodds also served on the shadow Treasury team of her predecessor, John McDonnell. New to Westminster, she was prepared to serve under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, even though she is not considered a Corbynite. She now finds herself close to the top of British politics during a pandemic and an economic catastrophe.

So, who is Anneliese Dodds, and what will she bring to the role of shadow chancellor?

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Dodds isn’t from a political family. Her father, who worked as a chartered accountant, she told me, “got annoyed by things that were unfair, but not in an organised, political way”. On her mother’s side, “there was a kind of aspirational conservative attitude”. When recounting her childhood in Scotland and university years at Oxford, she does so with the hesitancy of someone who has never been interviewed about these subjects before. Born in Scotland in 1978, she had a “happy”, “ordinary” childhood in the Aberdeenshire countryside. “I suppose I was a little bit of a square peg in a round hole. When I was at primary school people thought I sounded very English because my dad was brought up near Manchester so I had a bit of his accent. Sometimes I got a little bit picked on.”

She doesn’t mention her education at Robert Gordon’s College, a private school of which another notable alumnus is Michael Gove. What looms larger in her memory is her first job when she was a teenager, in the local pub, washing dishes: “Two pounds an hour, before there was a minimum wage.”

Dodds’ politics partly comes from her first experiences of work. “I had a lot of friends who were doing the same kind of job that I started off on, but were looking forward to a lifetime of being paid £2 an hour. That shaped my view of things. Then, when I went to university it was just in the run-up to the 1997 election and a time of great optimism. I was involved with the Labour Party from then onwards.”

She studied politics, philosophy and economics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, between 1997 and 2000, which coincided with the early New Labour era. It was a “revolutionary time” of “incredible excitement”, a university friend of Dodds’ recalled. “We were all behind that [Labour] government.”

Dodds laughed uncomfortably at the suggestion that Tony Blair catalysed her politics. “It was the Labour Party and, I guess, the kind of heritage of Labour in Scotland and across the UK, rather than any one individual.” Like Keir Starmer, she is reluctant to define herself by Labour’s past. Only after our interview, when speaking with Dodds’ contemporaries from university, does it become clear that she could have discussed her political awakening in the New Labour years without coming across as a “Blairite”. Her relationship to the Blair government was not uncritical, as photographs of her protesting against the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 attest.

It was a sense of being unfairly advantaged that drew her to student politics, first as Junior Common Room (JCR) president of her college, then as president of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU, not to be confused with the Oxford Union, the debating society). “I felt it was extremely unfair that so many people weren’t able to have the kind of education that I had, the kind of opportunities that I’ve been given.” Her main interest at the time was improving the university’s outreach work.

Contemporaries speak well of Dodds, as one “deeply committed” to left-wing values and “incredibly intelligent”; “a rare JCR president who didn’t let her academics suffer” (she was awarded a First). Her old university friends say she was deeply absorbed in her studies, and fascinated by the background and theory of politics, but was still “someone you could go to the pub with and have a good laugh”.

A fellow JCR president remembered how she was “never afraid to make her point” in meetings, and possessed a “calm, thorough approach; a quiet strength and resilience about her”. Becoming OUSU president requires a particular kind of ambition and confidence. Did she have a sense of wanting to go into Labour politics?

“I didn’t particularly feel like that at that stage.” Choosing her words carefully, she continued: “I guess I’ve never felt inhibited about standing up when I think there’s an injustice. Certainly when I was at school I wasn’t frightened of doing that. I wasn’t frightened about what people might say.” Does she have a memory of making a particular stand? She hesitated, then burst out laughing: “I hate talking about myself as well. This is a kind of Presbyterian influence from my childhood!” Unlike many politicians, she is reluctant to mythologise her upbringing. “It is also because I see so many people around me who are actually themselves involved in politics,” she explained. “They might not call it capital P politics but they do amazing things and I guess if they got more airtime and were asked about their journeys as well I’d be really pleased to see that too.”

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Dodds has found her background as an academic helpful, “because for many years I was used to standing up and speaking in front of people who didn’t really want to listen to what I was saying”. Her research focused on how public policy in other countries could be applied to the UK. “In the UK we can be quite insular,” she told me. “What I think is quite interesting during this crisis is that we are comparing ourselves with other nations and looking at how we can organise things differently.” She spent her academic career “always thinking, ‘Do we have to organise things in this way? What can we do differently?’” But she “always had one foot a little bit on the doorstep, and the other foot in academia”.

As a former MEP, Dodds is often considered an ardent pro-European, but “I was never somebody who supported the EU just for its own sake”, she explained. “It’s very much about what we can do, not just through the EU but through internationalist engagement generally. My view was always that we have multinational companies which operate across nations and therefore we need political forces that can engage with them.

“I worked a lot on international tax issues and tax dodging, but also competition issues – enormous companies like Amazon. You look at their throughput overall and it’s easily as large as that which passes through some smaller states. That means that we need internationalist political organisation, and you achieve that through a range of mechanisms. The EU isn’t the only one.”

As a Labour politician from Scotland, Dodds has found it hard to witness the left’s shift towards the Scottish Nationalist Party there. “Obviously, I’ve got a lot of friends who would describe themselves as being socialist and some of them have a nationalist perspective as well. I can’t see the difference between somebody who’s really struggling in Liverpool, is on a zero-hours contract in poor quality housing, and someone in Glasgow in the same circumstances.”

Dodds stressed that she doesn’t have “all the answers” when it comes to explaining Labour’s declining fortunes in Scotland. “It’s quite unhelpful when you have people from down south saying that they should dictate the situation in Scotland,” she observed, adding that the SNP has “been very clever” in adopting “a lot of Labour’s appeal over the years, and that’s made it very hard for us to develop a distinctive narrative”.

Despite having been an MP for less than three years, Dodds is popular among colleagues. John McDonnell has described her as “a superb member of my Treasury team”, “really talented” and “conscientious in all she does”. Dodds said she “learned a lot” from McDonnell’s efforts to promote Corbyn’s economic policy in towns and cities across the country. McDonnell “keyed into the need to have that authentic input directly from people”.

Although many of these policies were difficult to sell to voters – a reality borne out by Labour’s crushing election defeat in December – those colleagues that I spoke to agreed that Dodds was “fundamentally loyal and hard-working to the team” in making the case for Labour’s economic programme.

This gets to the nub of Dodds’ politics. She served under Corbyn and has maintained good relations with the left of the party, but isn’t of that group. As with Starmer, there is a quiet fascination as to what her “real” politics will prove to be.

One colleague mentioned her pragmatism: “Very much in the mainstream, a fairly centre-left position in the party; ‘soft left’ is what it would be historically described as. Anti-austerity, investment in public services, not on the [Bennite] Campaign group side of the party.”

Dodds defines herself “just as Labour, and that should speak for itself. I have been happy over the years to work with people from all the different wings of the party. There is such a radical gulf between any variety of Labour and the kind of approaches that we see coming from [the Conservatives].” We’ve got to be grown-up about this. That’s always where I’ve been coming from. I don’t ever engage in any of the internal arguments. I think that they switch the public off us, and we’ve really got to get beyond that.” 

She mentions “the different wings” of the party: does she not define herself in those terms? “No, I don't think so.”

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After the party’s worst election defeat since 1935, MPs are cautiously optimistic that Labour’s prospects look brighter under Starmer. After a series of robust performances at PMQs, the new Labour leader has overtaken Johnson in the opinion polls for the first time. Although another general election is a long way off, Dodds’ chances of becoming chancellor are by no means fanciful.

How will she approach her role as shadow chancellor, as the UK faces recession? “Every member of parliament has large numbers of people contacting them whose lives have been turned upside down by what’s happened, whether it’s people who are directly affected by the disease in horrendous ways, or people who have lost their livelihoods, and who are struggling to keep a business afloat.” Her priority is “to make sure that we’re reflecting all of those concerns continually to government, making sure that people’s voices are heard as much as possible”.

Her other priority is “to ensure that we have a strategic perspective on all of this, making sure that we also have that chance to put forward our arguments for the future and how we come out of this. We can’t have a return to business as usual.”

Dodds’ approach to politics has been informed by the Labour Party members and activists she has known. They have taught her, she said, “about commitment and what that really means, always being open to people, and trying to get problems sorted out for people on the ground. That local experience is something that I try to reflect in my politics, and in how I conduct myself in this new role.”

Is there not a distinction between front-line politics and the politics of the grass-roots? “I don’t think there is. The political point that I would want to make is that in the Labour Party we always say that we’ve got to connect well with our grass-roots and work more with local councillors. We don’t always get it right, but we need to get it right. That is what socialism looks like in reality.” l

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman