Family values

Mary Riddell

Rachel Reeves has quickly garnered a reputation as a rising star since her election to parliament in 2010. With government cuts hitting women the hardest, Mary Riddell speaks to the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury’s and finds her response to ‘Osbornomics’ deeply rooted in her family background

On arriving at hospital for her 12-week pregnancy scan, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury checked in at reception. “The lady behind the counter wanted to know if I was Rachel Reeves, the MP. Then she asked if I could help with a problem she was having with the council over the trees in her back garden. I’m not sure if anything similar will happen when I’m in labour.”

However obliging she may be to her constituents, Reeves is a formidable political opponent. A former Bank of England economist and a steely operator in Labour’s Treasury team, she is increasingly tipped as a future leader of the party. In more personal terms, she is also a trail-blazer. Her daughter, due in March, will be the first baby ever born to a serving member of a shadow or a government Cabinet.

“I got married last year [to the Cabinet Office civil servant, Nick Joicey]. We wanted to have a family, and it all worked out. It’s been really exciting for my husband and me, but I’ve been quite surprised – no, gladdened – by the number of people from all parties who have said how fantastic they think it is that a politician with a high profile is going to have a baby. I’ll have to show, as Yvette [Cooper] has done, that I can juggle both things, but it’s also inevitably going to give me an insight into the challenges that working parents face.”

We meet on the eve of the chancellor’s autumn statement, and Reeves is rehearsing her attack. She is scathing about George Osborne’s failure to reach his targets of reducing debt as a share of GDP by 2015 and getting rid of the structural debt in this parliament; an aim she likens to “always saying you are going to give up smoking in five years’ time and never actually doing it – so your [goal] is always five years away.”

Recent financial statements have gone well for Reeves, with her boss, Ed Balls, demolishing the chancellor’s record on the basis of their back of the envelope calculations while he was delivering his speeches. A picture of Reeves and the two Eds munching taxable pasties offers an epitaph to the Budget of 2012. “Greggs in Redditch: I’m not sure if that photo was my finest or least fine hour,” she says.

By the time we speak again, a few days later, Labour expectations that the autumn statement would prove to be Osborne’s own worst hour have evaporated. With the press inclined to the view that the chancellor played a dire hand adroitly, Labour was instantly reported to be “on the rack” over whether it would back a welfare uprating bill, limiting increases in benefits to one per cent for the next three years.

While Balls initially refused to say whether Labour would vote for the measure, Reeves’s first reaction sounds more dismissive. “We want to see it before we decide,” she says, before adding; “The tests are whether it increases child poverty and whether it’s fair. Unless they put in provisions to protect [the least well-off], I don’t see how it will pass those tests. It looks as if the main losers will be low income people in work, and that feels really unfair. I wonder if Osborne was as clever as everybody said on the day. It’s not clever to make people in work poorer. They are the ones who are being clobbered.”

In the immediate aftermath of the statement, the chief clobbering was delivered to Ed Balls, whose unusually hesitant performance earned him the criticism of pundits claiming that his response reflected a deeper Labour malaise. He ascribed his stumbling to his stammer; Reeves, the loyal lieutenant, blames the chancellor’s selectivity.

“It’s incredibly hard to respond to a statement without all the details. We were sitting there, me and Ed, with the [old] borrowing numbers from the budget. We had a calculation to do, but the chancellor didn’t read out the [new] numbers, and it was incredibly hard to work out what the finances looked like. We were thrown by that, and it made our immediate response very difficult.”

She denies that the moment marked a chance for the government to regain the upper hand. “In terms of what matters, it’s how people feel and the impact the policies have on them.” Women may be the least impressed, especially with the so-called “mummy tax” chipping away at maternity allowance and pay. “Those have been hard won. I don’t know if maternity benefits have ever fallen in real terms. Women have been hit four times as hard as men. Given that men own more and earn more, it does seem particularly galling.”

From March onwards (she plans to work almost until the birth), others will have to make that case in her absence. “Ed M and Ed B are really excited and pleased for me. When I told them in October, they both had advice and top tips for me (she declines to say what these might be), and they were keen to give me as much flexibility as possible in terms of taking maternity leave but also in ensuring that I can keep engaged with what’s happening here.

“I’ll be off over the summer recess and come back in early September when parliament returns. Everyone gives you advice – because I’ve never been through it before, I’ll have to judge it for myself. But that’s my plan – to come back full-time and get stuck in again.” Her childcare, she has decided, will be split between the Commons nursery during the day and “then support from a childminder or whatever at home.”

On weekends in her constituency of Leeds West, she and her husband plan to look after the baby between them. “I’ve got an auntie who will help out in London, and my mum will hopefully help as well because she works part-time. I’m incredibly lucky to have supportive bosses. I think Yvette probably came upon more barriers, and Harriet Harman even more. Those women who have gone before me have made it easier. Hopefully it will be even easier for the next generation of women.”

Reeves seems extraordinarily deft at combining the roles of forensic economist and excited mother-to-be. She moves easily from discussing the big economic questions facing Britain to “the big decisions to be made about what sort of buggy to get and all the rest of it. It’s lovely. My mum’s being really helpful and wants to go to the shops to help me choose a cot. All that brings you down to earth. I’ve always tried to have balance in my life.”

Reeves, who comes from a relatively humble background, went to a south London comprehensive, where she excelled at maths and became the British under-14 girls chess champion. Her political interest began at roughly the same time, when her father pointed at Neil Kinnock on the television and told her: “That’s who we vote for.” Reeves went on to read PPE at Oxford and spent 10 years as an economist for the Bank of England, HBOS and the British embassy in Washington before being elected in 2010. Despite her rapid rise, she remains resolutely rooted in her new constituency and old community.

Christmas, for example, will be spent “at my mum’s house in Sydenham, south London, with my sister, Ellie, and her husband [the Labour MP, John Cryer]. There’s a little restaurant at the end of my mum’s road that she goes to every Friday. There’ll be party hats and a keyboard synthesiser thing that the owner plays.”

While her interests are wide-ranging (she was talking about pre-distribution well before Ed Miliband), family has shaped her politics. As well as stressing the need for better childcare, she has also spoken often about the social care crisis facing the elderly. Both her maternal grandparents have dementia, and for the first time she describes the plight they and their family have endured as “awful. My grandma’s been in a home for around four years and granddad for a similar length times. They’re now in the same care home, but for a while they were separated [on the grounds that] they had different needs.

“We had one of them in Sydenham and the other in Sidcup, and they barely met. Now they don’t really know who the other one is, but at least they are in the same home, where they can see one another and the rest of the family can see them together rather than splitting our time between two homes. Part of the reason my mum works part-time now is that it was impossible for her to do all the negotiations with the health service, the local authorities and the care homes and actually to see her parents.

“This system needs to be sorted out. One of my grandparents is funded and the other one isn’t because of a technicality over whether it’s a health need or a social need. That means we’ve already sold the house where they brought up their five children, and the resources are being run down.

“You can argue about whether that’s fair or not. They’ve got the assets, they can afford decent care because they had a house to sell, but it’s not fair that just because you have deterioration in your mental health, you lose all of what you’ve worked and saved for. It’s only a modest house in a south-east London suburb but [seeing it go] has been really difficult for all the family.”

Although Reeves does not sound hopeful of cross-party consensus, there is talk of Andrew Dilnot’s report on social care funding being revived in the coalition mid-term review in January, possibly with a £75,000 cap on what the individual must pay, as opposed to the £25,000 to £50,000 that Dilnot recommended. “If there’s any kind of cap, it would be better than the situation you’ve got now.”

Though she supports the initial proposals, she warns that “Dilnot is only a start.” As well as the cuts to local authority funding, she cites low pay and skills. “You’ve got people who are 100 per cent committed. But when you can earn more stacking shelves in a supermarket than caring for some of the most vulnerable people in society, then it’s hardly surprising that you don’t get quality or consistency of care.” Childcare, she says, is beset by the same problems. “My cousin has a teaching qualification but she’s working in a nursery, and the pay is appalling.”

As an early Ed Miliband adopter, who supported him as leader and is now his reviewer of public service efficiency and value, she also demonstrates unswerving loyalty to Ed Balls. Is she more naturally sympathetic to the Miliband idea that global capitalism must be entirely rebuilt or the Balls prescription of short-term Keynesian stimulus? “You’ve got to have both. The Keynesian analysis doesn’t say all that needs to be said about the economy, such as how the proceeds of growth are distributed, but it’s a bridge to the place you want to get to.”

And what is her role if the two Eds disagree? “I haven’t seen those disagreements,” she says. Tactful as she may be, Reeves is also frank about the causes of recession, many incubated under Labour. “The economy wasn’t well-balanced enough between north and south, manufacturing and financial services, between those at the top, the middle and the bottom – so the squeezed middle and the stagnation in living standards predates the crisis.”

Does she think Labour will win in 2015? “I think we can. The next two and a half years will be full of risks and uncertainties, but I do think Ed’s message of one nation…and protecting institutions like the NHS is resonating. But I certainly don’t think the next election is in the bag.”

What risks does she foresee? “It’s really difficult in opposition to show that you can be the leader for the change people want to see. You don’t get opportunities like the prime minister does to prove you are a statesman. It’s very, very difficult. There is an incumbency factor that gives [the government] strength. It’s a huge challenge to come back within a term when we were so roundly defeated in 2010.”

If this sounds downbeat, then Reeves is doing her utmost to maximise Labour’s chances. She is working on the upstream policies that, in Miliband’s vision, are central to social democracy on a shoestring. Beside the living wage, pre-distribution measures include “more affordable social housing so there’s less work to be done through housing benefit” and “decent” occupational pensions to cut the dependency on housing benefit. But, as she admits, there is no promised land in prospect. “We would have to make cuts – some of them very unpopular cuts [because we] recognise that we would have to be reducing the deficit as well.”

Green energy, she says, will not only be central to Labour’s rebuilding of the economy but also a potential vote winner among people concerned about energy bills and security. “If you make it relevant to people’s lives, it’s a big issue.”

Although she remains a favourite as a future Labour leader, some are inevitably asking if having a baby will hamper her chances. “I don’t think having a child should be a hindrance to anything,” she says. “But that isn’t where my aspirations are. My ambition is to get Ed M as PM and Ed B as chancellor, because that way I can start what I came into politics to do.”

While she deplores the all-male nature of the government Treasury team, she has little sympathy for Louise Mensch, who resigned her Corby seat, saying that she needed to spend more time with her family in America. “I don’t think her predicament is one that very many women face. For them, the question is – can I afford to go back to work because of the cost of childcare? Not can I live in two continents at once?”

Does Reeves think that other political high-fliers delay or even abandon having children because they worry about whether they can combine a family and their job? “It’s certainly the case that women worry they’re going to be held back in their career if they have children. I’ll be 34 when I have my baby, and the last four years have been the most successful of my career. Objectively, it’s an odd time. If you were a man you wouldn’t be taking your career break right now. It is difficult. But you have to retain the talent of good people, even if they take a few months off. I hope men are also taking a more active role.

“I don’t think it’s going to hold me back, but you’re always going to miss out on something. I’ll miss the budget in 2013, but I expect there’ll be a budget in 2014 to look forward to.” While few might share her relish for the fiscal reckonings of the future, it seems certain that Rachel Reeves will be centre stage in many budgets to come.

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This interview was originally published in the 2012 Winter edition of the Fabian Review. For more details, and to read the full magazine, please click here.