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Giving an impromptu speech to the nation with no warning is the stuff of most people’s nightmares. But when this happened to Rachel Reeves last week she rose to the occasion. With only 45 minutes to go before Rishi Sunak delivered his Budget last Wednesday, the shadow chancellor was told that Sir Keir Starmer had tested positive for Covid. She was going to have to stand in for him and deliver Labour’s response to Sunak’s speech. She gave a punchy performance, forensically holding the Government to account on the lack of policies to help those struggling with inflation, rising tax and energy bills.
“I hope I did a good job for my party,” she tells me afterwards, modestly. “My background is as an economist and I had to put that to pretty good use.” Answering the Tories was easy, though, compared with what Reeves faced when we met. A few weeks before the Budget, she invited me to her old school, Harris Girls’ Academy Bromley, where she was being grilled by sixth formers. “What is Labour’s biggest weakness?” asks one student. “Losing,” says Reeves.
The teenagers look impressed at her honesty. “We look inwards and spend loads of time arguing among ourselves. A tweet and an impassioned speech has never changed lives. You change lives by winning elections and forming governments.” Reeves is eloquent but approachable, in an ultramarine dress (“from M&S!”), telling the girls to “ask me anything you like”. She has gone back to school to show that people can become politicians, regardless of their backgrounds. “We need Parliament to look like the rest of the country, it leads to better decisions,” she says. “How can a group of white men who went to university make the decisions for all people?”
She is in high spirits, enjoying a comeback. A rising star under Ed Miliband, as shadow work and pensions secretary, she retreated under Jeremy Corbyn. She was rehabilitated in May, when Starmer appointed her shadow chancellor and she gave a rousing speech at party conference. Her daughter, eight, likes to quote it back: “I told her I love her to the moon and back and she replied, ‘if you can afford to fly to the moon you can afford to pay your taxes on earth’,” says Reeves, laughing.
They are a political family — her husband Nicholas Joicey was Gordon Brown’s speech writer, her sister Ellie is also a Labour MP. Even her six-year-old son watches “the great Andrew Marr show”, as he calls it. “When I’m on it he says, ‘do let Mummy speak, Andrew’.”
Like Sunak, Reeves is a Yorkshire MP; Sunak for Richmond, Reeves for Leeds West. But she hasn’t seen him much. “Rishi never comes to the Commons,” says Reeves. “He sends the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury.”
Whereas Sunak starts the day with a Peloton session, Reeves swims in her constiuency, half-joking that she is careful about overtaking because she doesn’t want potential voters in the pool to take against her.
How can a group of white men who went to university make the decisions for all people?
Her speech on Budget day was impressive but what would she do if she were Chancellor right now, faced with shortages and the double whammy of Brexit and Covid? Could she save Christmas? “You don’t have to be a f*cking economist to work out that if less stuff is coming onto our shelves, prices are going to go up,” she says. “When there was no petrol, the government took too long to act. The army should have been used much more quickly to get petrol, ease the panic and reassure people that we are going to address these shortages. The whole thing shows a total lack of planning – the government brought the Brexit deal forward, it’s their legislation, they were closing off the UK to foreign workers, what were they going to do to plug those gaps? It’s not just HGV driving, there’s hardly a sector in the economy that’s not struggling with shortages and where is the plan?”
As she talks, she gesticulates, a purple bangle sliding up her arm. “We’ve jumped from one crisis to another without any proper thinking or resilience built into the system. When you’re talking about food and energy and petrol it’s not good enough for the government to say it’s all down to business. We need a plan to make sure our supermarket shelves are stacked and people can get gas and electricity at affordable prices. Right now there is no plan.”
On Covid, “the government have got to get a move on with the vaccination booster programme and vaccinating children. We need to see it back at the levels it was at before.” Labour backs more mask wearing, more flexibility to work from home and vaccine passports (showing vaccination plus the option of a negative test), “but let’s not let the government off the hook with Plan A either.”
Reeves became interested in politics when she was eight, growing up in Sydenham. Her parents were primary school teachers. “When I was at school some girls were talking about the 1987 election and I had no idea what they were talking about,” says Reeves. “I was embarrassed so I went home and asked my dad. He put on the telly and said, ‘that’s Neil Kinnock, that’s who we vote for’. My dad says he doesn’t think this can be true, if it is it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything he told me to. But after that I became really interested in it for some reason. The late eighties were a political time – unemployment, strikes. I remember feeling the government wasn’t on our side but it was time for change.”
Proactive from a young age, her campaigning extended to writing to the Evening Standard. There was a news story about her secondary school, which was then called Cator Park. “It said that parents were devastated it was the only school they could get their children into. I thought, ‘that’s unfair that they haven’t got a comment from the school’, so I contacted the Standard and got my mum to buy it day after day to see my letter. But no letter was published. I rung up and said if you don’t publish the letter, I’m going to get all the kids in my school to write in.” It worked.
Despite her affection for her school, it did not have the resources it has today and that politicised her. “There was no library, we had to share text books, we sat in prefab huts that were freezing in the winter and boiling hot in the summer. One of my friends got pregnant at 14 and I remember thinking oh god, what is your life going to be like – this school had a bit of a reputation for that sort of thing – but actually she could have been deputy leader of the Labour party like Angela Rayner, who had a child at 16”.
When the girls we meet ask her for career advice she says “work hard - I did. Do not expect to have anything handed to you on a plate. Actually, if you work for something and achieve it it’s better than when it’s handed to you on a plate.”
Seeing two girls in the year above apply to Oxford inspired her to do the same, and she read PPE. Oxford “was hard at times because there were so many people from privileged backgrounds which you really did notice, there is so much at Oxford that is expensive – clubs and societies and parties but I found my friends. I thought I’d find them at the Labour club but not so much”.
But despite her interest in politics and changing the world, being an MP “never occurred to me”. “Politics was my hobby. I don’t want to trivialise it but I did it at weekends”. She went into economics, joining the Bank of England’s graduate scheme, working as an economist, and doing a year’s secondment at the British embassy in Washington. Slowly she realised that she wanted to go into politics, eventually winning Leeds West in 2010. “Part of my motivation for going into politics is that I wanted it to change - if you don’t have a wide range of people represented you won’t have politics that stands up for them. But there were things I had to learn. I had not done any public speaking and had to learn that over the last 11 years.”
Speaking to Reeves, there is a sense of relief that the party she joined as a child has been saved. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader, she says, “they tried to hound me out and said ‘why don’t you eff off and join the Tories’?” But she dug her heels in. “I thought, ‘I have been in this party for a hell of a lot longer than you have and I’ll be around for a hell of a lot longer as well. The Labour party is my home. It is like how when you fall out with your family you don’t go and join a different family. I couldn’t leave the Labour Party but I was determined to drag it back to electability and decency, which has happened. It’s a huge sense of pride for a lot of us who have stuck with the party and tried to secure these changes.”
Not everyone has stayed though. She is friends with former Labour MP Luciana Berger, who resigned over Corbyn’s leadership. “Seeing Luciana leave the party, the Panorama documentary, it went against so much of what I believe in,” says Reeves. “Anti-racism, tackling discrimination, treating people with decency and respect. But I believed through all of it that the Labour party was still the best vehicle for getting the change I wanted to see in the country.”
It is still far from unified . The MP Rosie Duffield decided not to go to Labour Party conference because she didn’t feel safe after threats from transgender campaigners. “Keir has spoken to Rosie,” says Reeves in a matter-of-fact tone. “We need to make sure the Labour party is a welcoming place for people.”
Surely Starmer still faces an enormous task if he wants to be Prime Minister? 61 per cent of people said he does not look like a Prime Minister in waiting at the most recent YouGov poll. “Keir had the time of his life at conference,” says Reeves. “People say he is a serious guy but he loved meeting so many people. It’s given him a huge amount of energy and confidence, you know, that there is a movement behind him.”
If Labour does win the next election, Reeves would be the first ever female Chancellor. She doesn’t want to talk too much about what women face in politics in front of the students, in case it puts them off, but later she tells me that being a mother and an MP “is not easy, I’m not going to lie”. “There is still an awful lot of sexism - so much of the abuse we get is gendered. When I first got elected, I was told I could get a pass for my husband. The man in the office asked if my husband had just been elected as an MP then he looked at me like, ‘oh, you’re an MP?”
You don’t have to be a f*cking economist to work out that if less stuff is coming onto our shelves, prices will go up. But there was no plan for this
In 2019 she wrote a book, Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics, charting how far we have come and she speaks regularly to Yvette Cooper about it, “who didn’t have any children when she became an MP and now they have all left home”. “More can be done to make it easier but being an MP is a vocation and you are making a commitment beyond a normal job. There are sacrifices but I am willing to make them. The pandemic made it harder because they got used to having me home all the time and then suddenly I had to go up and down the country again for late night votes. There could be further reform to make parliament better for parents, I don’t think there is any reason for us voting at 10pm on Mondays, it could start earlier.”
The safety of MPs is another area that needs to be reviewed, most recently brought into focus with the killing of Sir David Amess MP and a man being sentenced for sending a threatening email to Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner. “What happened to Sir David Amess was tragic and deeply troubling. Having surgeries is what we do week in week out, and at the heart of our jobs as MPs. Of course, MPs’ security must be reviewed in the light of what happened, but seeing constituents face to face is crucial, and essential for a thriving democracy.”
If Reeves became Chancellor she would make sure her policies were green. “A green Chancellor is the only responsible type of Chancellor,” she says. “Not just because I believe in leaving a better planet for my children, but because that’s where the jobs of the future are, that’s where the huge opportunities for our economic recovery lie. The office for Budget responsibility set up by George Osborne said it’s not a question about whether to invest or not invest in tackling climate change it is whether to invest now or further down the line. You will have to do more on climate change later to make the same impact rather than if you start now and spread it out over time. The government are very short sighted on the costs not to mention the moral imperative.”
She highlights how many of the jobs of the future will come from new, green technologies and how “businesses have a choice whether they do that investment in this country or go around the world. Unless you’ve got a government that is ambitious and there is a framework for the future the investment will go elsewhere, and we are in a global race in this for the jobs of the future.”
Back in the library with the students, they ask one last question. Does she want to lead her party? “I have a big job already,” she says. “Economics is what I am good at.” And this week she got the chance to show the whole world just how good she is at it.