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20 under 40: Rachel Reeves

We tipped the new shadow chief secretary to the Treasury from the start.

Age: 32
Labour, Leeds West

At the Labour party conference in Manchester last year, I was talking to Sunder Katwala, who was then general secretary of the Fabian Society, when he paused and gestured towards a young, dark-haired woman. "She will be the first woman to lead the Labour Party," he said, and then nonchalantly continued our conversation. The woman was Rachel Reeves, and I had heard other Labour insiders speak of her in the same way.

Reeves won the safe Labour seat of Leeds West at the last general election. I first met her several months before that when she visited the offices of the New Statesman. I was impressed by her forthright confidence and, because she is a former Bank of England economist, the expertise with which she spoke about our economic woes.

Reeves, the daughter of two teachers, grew up in Lewisham, south-east London - and has the accent to prove it. She went to inner-city state schools and then up to Oxford, only the third person from her school to go to either Oxford or Cambridge. She did postgraduate work at the London School of Economics and then joined the Bank of England as a graduate economist. "It was really important to me that I went and worked outside politics after university," she told me. "I wanted to acquire skills and expertise." All good.

Her school years politicised her. "The Eighties and Nineties were a very tough time for schools like mine. There were large cutbacks in sport, music and other extracurricular activities. My mother is a special needs teacher and special needs were cut back as well. My sixth form was two prefab huts in the playground. We didn't have enough textbooks. The library was closed and turned into a classroom. There was nowhere for children to do their homework. I was struck by the unfairness of it all."

Reeves joined the Labour Party as a sixth-former and was active in the Labour Club at university, but avoided the Oxford Union. "I wasn't interested in debating with no purpose."

Even before she became an MP, she was one of a group of young intellectuals gathering around Ed Miliband, whom she supported for the leadership. "I wanted a leader who could set out a positive agenda and communicate well with ordinary people - and Ed can do that."

Reeves is just what Labour needs: a young, state-school-educated woman from the south of England who has a safe seat; a social democrat who is articulate in the language of economics and has experience of the world beyond Westminster, the media and think tanks. She is tough and direct, too, as I discovered when I was slow to reply to an email from her offering an article to the New Statesman.

In October 2010 she was appointed shadow minister for pensions. I expect this impressive and determined MP to be promoted to the shadow cabinet before long. From there, she has the potential to become a first-rate chief secretary to the Treasury, and more besides, in the next Labour government.

Next: Rory Stewart

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Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister