Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. The Politics Interview
8 February 2021

The comeback of Rachel Reeves

In an exclusive interview, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and key power-broker in Keir Starmer’s Labour, speaks to the New Statesman about her return to front-line politics.

By Ailbhe Rea

Rachel Reeves was earmarked as a “rising star” in the Labour Party from the moment she was elected in 2010. Look back at any newspaper or magazine’s list of “politicians to watch” from a decade ago and there she is: the new MP for Leeds West, a former Bank of England economist, Oxford PPE-ist and child chess champion, the “youngest and the brightest” of the bright young things. She was “Labour’s bright star”, as one paper put it: one of the party’s great hopes for a return to government after its election defeat under Gordon Brown. 

“I got promoted by Ed [Miliband] on to the front bench less than six months, I think, after I became an MP,” Reeves recalls when we speak. “A year later, I was in the shadow cabinet. It was great. I just felt like I was on an upward escalator and I thought we were going to win the [2015] election”.

But Labour did not, of course, win the election. Jeremy Corbyn, with whom she has considerable ideological differences, was elected as the party’s new leader, and Reeves announced that when she returned from maternity leave it would be to the back benches. Now, five years later, the 41-year-old is back from the political wilderness as one of the power-brokers at the top of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. 

She returns with fire in her soul and a lot of pent up political anger, after what she describes as “the most politically formative experience” of her life: leading the inquiry into the disastrous collapse of Carillion, which held over 400 public sector contracts, during her time as chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) select committee in parliament. Its collapse left thousands without jobs, tens of thousands more without the pensions that they were entitled to and thousands of debts to creditors unpaid – and the taxpayer picked up the bill. 

Reeves is using her role to “shine a spotlight” on outsourcing, she explains. It wasn’t initially part of her brief as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which involves shadowing Michael Gove’s brief on Brexit. But when outsourcing reared its head as a major issue in the government’s pandemic response, Reeves “sort of seized that one”, “because of my passion on it, and my knowledge of it”.   

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

We are speaking over Zoom ahead of a major speech that Reeves is delivering on this issue, her great political passion, accusing the government of handing £2bn of coronavirus contracts to Conservative friends and donors. “It makes me angry,” she keeps saying, reeling off contract after contract that has been outsourced to private sector firms with no experience of producing PPE, but often with personal or financial links to the Conservatives. It has meant hundreds of millions of pounds spent on faulty face masks and other equipment that can’t be used. 

“It makes my blood boil,” Reeves says. “We would do things really differently.” Her speech unveiled Labour’s plan for the biggest wave of “insourcing” – bringing public services back in-house – for a generation, as well as expanding the freedom of information act to include private providers of public services. “I’m really, really pleased to be back under Keir’s leadership,” she says. But her time away from the front bench has helped. “I don’t think I would have made such strong arguments for this five or six years ago.”

[See also: Why Covid-19 should end the UK’s outsourcing mania]

Content from our partners
Why modelling matters: its role in future healthcare challenges
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people

***

The last time Reeves was at the top of Labour politics, it was a whirlwind. “I dont think in those five years I ever really stopped to think,” she reflects. “It was just constantly running from one intervention, one speech, one policy announcement to another. And it was exhausting, but to what purpose? Ive used my time better on the back benches, in a way, than I did on the front bench.” The break has also made her “a bit more reflective, a bit clearer about what I want to achieve in politics, and in government, and in life”. 

Under Miliband’s leadership, Reeves held one of the most high-profile positions on the front bench. It was also perhaps the most difficult: she was Miliband’s shadow work and pensions secretary, with an explicit brief to take a hard line on welfare. This was controversial, and continues to haunt and define her. To this day, it is unusual to see her mentioned on social media without someone referencing her promise that Labour would be “tougher than the Tories on benefits”. How did it feel, personally, to be making that argument at the time?

Her face floods, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, with emotion. “So, to be honest, it became much worse after Ed lost. The grief that I get now is – or, you know, afterwards, was – much worse than what I got at the time. I think because obviously, you know, Ed had my back.”

Her voice falters slightly as she starts sentences several times over. “One of the things that I said was, you know, ‘Were the party of working people, the clue is in the name.’ And you know and then I got criticised: ‘Well, what about the unemployed and people who cant work?’ Well, of course, the Labour Party is the party of them: people who are out of work, looking for work, people who can’t work because of illness or disability or caring responsibilities. They’re all part of that working class. 

“I was trying to make the point, however badly, that spending more on benefits wasn’t always a sign of success. And actually the benefits bill goes up when society fails. Maybe I didn’t always say it right. But that was the point I was trying to make.”

She adds: “Look, perhaps it wasn’t the right job for me at the right time. I definitely feel like a better politician and maybe more careful about what I say now than I was then. But I was trying to get a Labour government. I was trying to address some of our weaknesses.”

Does she hope that some in the party will give her another chance, now that she has returned to the top of Labour politics? “I hope that the arguments that I’m making about outsourcing [are] popular in the country,” she says, “and also something that is able to unite the party as well.” 

“I’m not a victim here,” she adds, later. “Its not like, ‘poor Rachel’s been misunderstood’. Its not how I feel. I feel like I tried to do my best. I would never do anything that made poor people poorer. So, you know, its frustrating if people see me in that way because it goes against everything I believe in. I believe I would have been a progressive work and pensions secretary that lifted people out of poverty. But not just through making sure that benefits were sufficiently generous but by making sure that you tackle the root causes of that poverty, and that is a lack of good-quality work, a lack of good housing and a lack of training and investment in people. I believe that thats the way to do things.” 

Her status as something of a hate figure on parts of the left is clearly painful to Reeves, someone steeped in Labour’s history and emotional about its meaning to her. Long before I raise the question about her time as work and pensions secretary, she says: “I feel very rooted in the Labour Party. I joined when I was 16. I joined 25 years ago in April. I love the Labour Party. You know, if and when weve gone through difficult times…” she breaks off.

“Some of my friends in parliament, they left the Labour Party, didn’t they? I think somebody asked one of them whether theyd asked me [if I would leave too], and the answer was: ‘no point in asking Rachel, shes too Labour. And I take that as the greatest compliment.” She beams. “You know, I am Labour to my core. I love the traditions and the history of the Labour Party. And that tradition is being a party for the working class, for working people, and our policies, and our values, and our priorities have got to be their priorities.”

You can tell she really means it. Her politics come from her paternal grandparents, who “moved from Swansea to Kettering to find work in the shoe factories in the 1930s, and they were Salvationists. They very much defined themselves by their religion and their faith, and also the work that they did. And most of them suffered, particularly my grandma, very ill health because of the work she did, which was basically untying rope and turning it into shoe laces for shoes that were made in these factories. And that obviously contained glue and stuff that contributed to her poor health. The Labour Party was formed by people like them and for people like them. Its got to be the voice for those people. And those people have got to have faith in our party and in our movement.” 

She speaks with a warm, sad smile about spending her summer holidays with her grandparents as a child. “I always used to spend them going on tours of shoe factories with my granddad,” she laughs, visibly quite moved. “And going to the over-sixties fellowship at the Salvation Army and volunteering in the shop. I could have rebelled, or I could have become a Labour MP. 

I ask her about Labour’s strategy and whether some supporters are right to worry that the party’s efforts to win back Labour-Conservative switchers in the party’s traditional heartlands risk coming at the expense of losing some of its socially-liberal voters, described in the Labour Together election review as the party’s new “core vote”. (The recent leak revealing that an internal party presentation advised Labour to make “use of the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” was “unfortunate”, she says.)

“To govern, you have to build a broad coalition,” Reeves says. “That’s what Labour did in 1945, 64 and 97. That’s the only way that you can win because, yeah, by definition youve got to get more votes than what your core is. But its also quite interesting what is described as Labours core vote. Because that is not the traditional Labour core vote that you just described.

When I wrote my first book about Alice Bacon, who was the Labour MP in Leeds between 1945 and 1970, she was interviewed in the 1980s. She was the daughter of a coal miner, working-class background, her dad was a union leader in the pits in Normanton where he worked. And she was asked in this interview, ‘When did you decide to join the Labour Party?’ and she said, ‘There was never time I decided to join the Labour Party. For me being Labour is as natural as breathing.’ And I just think that was a wonderful way of putting it. But how many 16-year-old girls in Normanton today would say that being Labour is as natural as breathing? Our majority in Normanton is down to what, 1,000 or something?” She adds: “Some of the seats that weve lost, I mean, it’s just, it sort of saddens me to the core, really.”

“Now, its great that we’ve built a new core,” she says, without much enthusiasm. “But I think to be true to our values and our roots and our purpose, which is giving a voice to ordinary working people, weve got to reconnect with those communities again.” It’s “essential to electoral success”, but it’s also fundamental to how Reeves, much like Starmer, conceives of Labour’s fundamental purpose as a party.

[See also: Labour MP Nadia Whittome: “We either confront the culture war directly, or we lose it”

Her conversation is full of stories such as the one about Alice Bacon. Reeves spent her time away from the Labour front bench restoring Bacon’s place in history, and then writing a second book about the women of Westminster. Even interviews with Reeves before she entered parliament show a deep sense of the history of the labour movement, and the inspiration she draws from figures, particularly women, in Labour’s past. (“History is so important!” she says, delightedly, when I mention an early interview in which she named Beatrice Webb and Jennie Lee as inspirations.) 

“Im just so pleased that I know these stories and know the difference, because what inspires me is knowing the difference a Labour government can make. I’ve been an MP for 11 years in May, right, and I think I have made a difference. I’ve done some important things and I’m proud of them. But I’ve been in opposition for 11 years. And it is soul-destroying at times.

In my constituency Ive got 26 blocks of high-rise flats, a third of the kids grow up in poverty, what have I honestly been able to do for them? I can help them with the casework, I can write to the council and get their lifts sorted when they break. And they’ve got a new train station. But in the end these changes come when you’ve got a progressive government. And for 11 years I havent been able to get to the root causes of the problems in West Leeds, or in the country. And writing these books and researching these women reminds me what Labour can achieve when its at its best, and its at its best when it wins.” 

***

It is worth paying attention to Reeves’s thoughts on Labour’s strategy, not only because she is one of a select few understood to have Starmer’s ear, but because it is an explicit part of her brief. “Keir has asked me to do some longer-term thinking on how Labour recovers from four election defeats,” she explains.“That’s another part of my role, which you wont see me making speeches about in the House of Commons but is going to be absolutely crucial, I think, hopefully, leading up to 2024.”

“Theres only really three big moments in our history when weve won,” she goes on. “I think better to dwell on them than all the ones weve lost, because I think thats where the lessons are going to come from. In 1945, nobody thought that Churchill had done a bad job as war leader, but they did not think he had the answers for the future. They thought that Labour did; they wanted to create a fairer and more equal society after the war. I think that is an interesting lesson for Labour to learn.”

She doesn’t believe that a general election in 2024 is “going to be an assessment, necessarily, of what happened during the virus. Its not a referendum on how the government did. Its about whether youve got the answers for the future and what sort of society do we want to create? And who do they trust to do that, after the virus?” 

“Why did we win in 1964?” she continues: “The Tories looked tired and they looked exhausted and they didn’t have the answers for the future. And Labour looked modern, you know, the white heat, comprehensive education, the social liberal reforms and meritocracy. We were the modernising party that stood for the whole country, not a tired elite. And in 1997, again, the Tories were exhausted, but you cant just rely on that. Youve also got to have the answers for the future. Labour again, we dealt with the problems around our economic credibility. Labour had a vision for public services that were going to transform our peoples lives: education, education, education’. I mean, that’s what got me to fill in the form to join the Labour Party. 

“We can dwell on why we lost not just the last four elections, but probably two thirds or three quarters of the elections that Labour’s ever fielded candidates in. Probably more than that, actually,” she adds with a wry smile. “We’ve got to look to those big moments and learn the lessons of those. I can’t remember how many MPs we had going into 1945 [154], but its less than what weve got now [200]. We managed by being a responsible party  not of opposition, because we went into the national government  but being a responsible party, during those difficult years for the country, and then also painting a vision of what Britain could look like after the war. We won.” 

[See also: A consensus is forming among the commentariat that Keir Starmer is not up the job. Does it matter?]