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4 March 2020

Rachel Reeves’s Diary: Tackling floods in Yorkshire, standing up to Amazon and Channel 4’s relocation to Leeds

I was reminded of the force of nature and the impact of the climate emergency on us all. 

By Rachel Reeves

Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis, Storm Jorge. For me, they all bring back terrible memories of Storm Eva and the 2015 Boxing Day floods that devastated parts of Yorkshire.

The floods affected many lives, and ministers promised they would deliver the flood defences that my constituents in Leeds West so badly needed. However, just over four years later there is still a £23m difference between the money that the government is willing to put up and the amount required to protect the city. On 24 February I spoke in the House of Commons to ask for the umpteenth time that George Eustice – the fifth secretary of state for the environment in less than five years – do more to support the homes and businesses trying to cope with the reality of flooding.

The government’s Flood Re scheme is supposed to help secure insurance for those at risk of flooding. But ministers do not understand how hard it is for the small businesses that cannot take advantage of the scheme: many struggle to get insurance or are forced to pay impossibly high premiums and excesses. The government needs to look again at the scheme to help small businesses obtain affordable insurance. 

Climate change is going to affect our natural environment – and how we live. On 28 February I was in Harden Moor, up in the hills above Leeds and Bradford. The local council is planting trees and building “leaky dams” to slow the flow of the tributaries into the River Aire and ultimately to stop the water from flooding Leeds. Snow was falling and the ground was wet. It reminded me of the force of nature and the impact of the climate emergency on us all.

Toasting women’s parliamentary history

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the first speech by a woman in the House of Commons. On 24 February 1920, Nancy Astor, MP for Plymouth Sutton from 1919 to 1945, spoke to the House about the perils of alcohol. As a teetotal Christian scientist, it was something of a recurring theme for her. 

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Although I disagree with some of Astor’s views – not only th0se on booze – her speech was an undeniably important moment: it opened the way for many more women to take our seats in parliament and have our voices heard.

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In the Commons, I asked the deputy speaker, Eleanor Laing, for her thoughts on how people could commemorate that historic moment. She suggested raising a glass to Astor’s legacy – cheers to that.

Celebrating books and booksellers

On 26 February I joined booksellers, publishers and MPs in the Churchill Room at Westminster for the Parliamentary Book Awards. My book, Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics, which celebrates 100 years of women in parliament, won the best non-biographical book by a parliamentarian category. 

My Labour colleague Ian Murray won an award for his book, This is Our Story, on how fans of the Heart of Midlothian donated their own money to save the football club from ruin; the LBC presenter James O’Brien was among the other winners. I don’t mind admitting that I’m still delighted at the honour. My award is for all the 552 women who have been elected to the Commons since we won the vote in 1918.

At the ceremony, there was a lot of anger – led by the formidable Dame Margaret Hodge – directed at Amazon for putting high-street booksellers out of business. In my view, this was entirely justified. I love bookshops and the informed, passionate staff who work in them, and have visited many all over the country. A special shout-out to the Grove in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, and Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham, south London – two absolute treasure troves.

Amazon’s Victorian-era policies 

Talking of Amazon and its shortcomings, the GMB Union is doing brilliant work highlighting poor working conditions in the company’s warehouses and the related safety concerns. In behaviour better suited to the Victorian era, Amazon refuses to recognise or negotiate with trade unions, so workers have little chance of having their voices heard. This is despite GMB research revealing a rising toll of accidents in Amazon’s warehouses, from 152 received by local authorities in 2016-17 to 240 last year. 

I’ve been working with the GMB on a pamphlet about Everyday Work, focusing on insecurity and the importance of giving workers a voice. After reading the pamphlet, (Lord) Bernard Donoughue emailed me. “I should rejoin the GMB,” he mused. “But should I put myself down as a municipal worker or boilermaker. I’ve always identified more as the latter.”

So that’s what he was doing running Harold Wilson’s famous kitchen cabinet.

It’s great up north

Channel 4 is well ahead of Boris Johnson on the “levelling up” agenda. The broadcaster is moving its new national HQ to Leeds – and we are very excited. The brilliant Majestic building – opened in 1922 as a cinema and ballroom, before later becoming a famous city nightclub – will open as Channel 4’s new base later this year. 

Many Londoners, Mancunians and others from across the country have already moved to Yorkshire. Dinner with Channel 4’s executive team on Thursday sent me into full marketing mode for Betty’s coffee shops, the Hepworth Wakefield gallery and museum, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Kirkstall Abbey and many other gems. The House of Lords and the Treasury don’t know what they’re missing.

Weekend plans

I’d like to say that I have an exciting weekend of soirées lined up now the parliamentary week is done. And I suppose I do, of sorts – I’m going go-carting with a group of seven-year-olds. What could go wrong?

This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10