Labour’s Rachel Reeves: ‘We are in the strongest position maybe in 10 years’

There has not been much in the last decade that has given Rachel Reeves cause for optimism. Serious and careful, she has been one of Labour’s most candid critics in discussing how far the party has to go to win back trust, especially on the economy.

But the shadow chancellor is more optimistic about Labour’s chances now than even during the polling heights of the Miliband years. “I think we are in the strongest position we’ve been, maybe in the last 10 years,” she says, sitting in a corner of Bramley Elderly Action in her Leeds West constituency while the hall next door hosts a group doing tai chi.

“I knock on doors in my own patch every week; the response I’ve had over the last weeks has been the best I’ve ever had in my time here. I was in Darlington with [the former MP and now peer] Jenny Chapman a couple of weeks ago. She said: ‘I can’t believe I didn’t get a landslide.’”

During the first 18 months of Keir Starmer’s leadership, and the pandemic, it looked as if Labour was in paralysis, unable to oppose or offer much in the way of a dynamic alternative – an “odd time in politics” that has begun to subside.

Then the news of Omicron’s spread began to dominate and No 10 was consumed by scandals over lockdown-breaking Christmas parties. But even before that, Labour had begun to creep ahead in the polls, building what became a nine-point lead. Still, that would not necessarily lead to a majority. “We’ve got a huge amount of work to do to rebuild people’s trust, not least in communities in the north of England. Lots of people were very, very angry,” Reeves says.

Reeves believes Labour’s biggest task is to remove the association in people’s minds with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour of 2019. Starmer’s determination to do so has infuriated many of his party activists, who believed passionately in its visionary and ambitious manifesto. The new-look shadow cabinet, including Yvette Cooper and Wes Streeting from the party’s centrist wing, sent a particular signal of intent.

Starmer and Reeves are prepared to break with policies such as nationalisation that are crucial to many party members, as well as isolate those on the left of the parliamentary party. Reeves recalls some conversations on doorsteps in recent weeks that underline that approach.

“People are not saying they regret their vote; they voted Tory for a reason. And they probably would do it again if offered the same choice again. But it’s not the same choice. It’s a different choice next time. We are turning that oil tanker around after four election defeats. And Keir and I are both pretty determined people. We know what needs to be done.”

Reeves’ constituency office is in Bramley shopping centre, in an area that is largely white and economically deprived, and where she warned of significant community tensions during the EU referendum of 2016.

The most recent community tensions have been more benign, with local people infuriated by the shopping centre’s decision to remove its benches. Some have staged sit-in protests with deckchairs.

But at her surgery on a Friday morning there are a steady stream of worries about the costs of living: “Worries around gas/electricity bills; always worries about the cost of Christmas, but I think this year particularly; then there’s all these tax increases coming down the line next year.”

Reeves says this anxiety is feeding into more widespread anger about Tory cronyism, corruption and rule-breaking. “We did our best to make those political issues at the local elections. And in the end it didn’t really work. And yet now we’re making those same arguments and it is starting to resonate more.”

Though Starmer now also leads Boris Johnson by 13 points on the poll question of who would make best PM, it is the economy where Labour is still struggling to make inroads with voters. The latest YouGov poll had the Tories six points ahead on economic competence.

It is a daunting task for Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, but she says she can challenge that perception. “Even now, there is £1m a day [spent] on consultants within test and trace,” she said. “If that’s getting to grips with public finances, I can do a lot better than that.”

Another part of Labour’s narrative is that the government has overpromised and underdelivered, especially for the north of England. “I think we feel on the east coast side we’re really missing out,” she says. “Leeds station is at 101% capacity. The government says ‘we’re going to use existing infrastructure to have faster trains between Leeds and Manchester’. Well, good luck with that.”

Reeves stresses sound financial management, words that can set off alarm bells on the left. But she says it will give her spending announcements greater impact, such as the £28bn a year on climate measures that she announced at the Labour conference.

“The net zero carbon stuff and the climate investment pledge is more ambitious than anything that we had during the Corbyn era and I’m really proud of that,” she says.

It is a major spending pledge that the Conservatives find hard to criticise but also hard to match given the chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s fiscal rules. But would public ownership of energy companies not be a way to force clean growth, as well as showing a way through other issues such as water companies dumping sewage? “I actually don’t think you need to nationalise to stop the sewage from going into the sea,” Reeves says. “You just need much tighter regulation.”

But the cost is the true issue. “The truth is, we’ve got debt as 100% of GDP. A chancellor can’t say yes to everything. You’ve got to decide what the priorities are. And for me, the climate investment pledge is absolutely fundamental to what my priorities would be as chancellor.”

In contrast with the fractious relationship between Nos 10 and 11, Reeves peppers her remarks with “Keir and I” and talk of sharing speech notes with the leader. When the election comes, they will be a double act reminiscent of how David Cameron and George Osborne presented to the electorate. That was how Starmer pitched the role to Reeves: a package.

“When Keir gave me the job he said people have got to be able to imagine me as prime minister, and they’ve got to be able to trust you with their money,” she says. “Those two things are essential if Labour is to get back into office.”

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