After five years under Jeremy Corbyn’s leftwing leadership, the UK Labour party enters the “virtual” party conference season under new management and with an apparently prosaic but vital mission: to persuade voters it can be “trusted running the economy”.
So said Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist dubbed a “Red Tory” by hardline Corbynistas, who is now a prominent figure as new leader Keir Starmer seeks to transform the party to regain public trust after a disastrous result in last December’s general election.
Ms Reeves, who shadows cabinet office minister Michael Gove, wholly endorses the leader’s attempt to pull the party back to the centre ground, which included a purge of Mr Corbyn’s supporters.
Next week Sir Keir will set out his stall at the annual Labour conference, being held online because of coronavirus restrictions. But radical new members who flocked to the party under Mr Corbyn are likely to miss some of the former leader’s leftist zeal.
“Labour needs to demonstrate we can be trusted running the economy, being competent and sensible,” said Ms Reeves, a London-born former youth chess champion and now a Leeds MP.
“I’d rather have a competent and sensible prime minister than the one we have at the moment, the public will see the contrast between Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson and like it.”
Sir Keir considered making Ms Reeves his shadow chancellor, which would have been a hugely controversial choice among the party’s leftwing members: instead he gave her the cabinet office role.
Even so, the appointment of Ms Reeves, who last served in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband before 2015 and refused to do so under Mr Corbyn, was a sign of his intent.
Anyone expecting Sir Keir’s new team to roll out a suite of new policy initiatives this week will be disappointed. “I don’t think we’re at the stage for policies yet,” says Ms Reeves.
Instead the shadow minister suggests that the new leadership is in listening mode, in particular in the “red wall”, mostly northern, seats that were lost en masse last December — many of which had voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“It was not just 2019 that people were sending us a message, it has been for quite a long time now,” she said.
“They just didn’t feel that Labour spoke for them: we spoke at them rather than with them. They felt that their values haven’t changed but the Labour party has changed and they didn’t recognise the party any more.”
Ms Reeves said her party needed to show “humility” and listen to voters, starting by accepting that the party’s former opposition to Brexit had added to the alienation of core supporters.
Sir Keir has in recent weeks adopted the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, accepting that trying to stop the UK leaving the EU is now pointless and trying to put the onus on Mr Johnson to show that his own policy can be a success.
“We want the Tories to deliver the deal that they promised people,” said Ms Reeves, pointing out that it had taken more than four years and three prime ministers since the EU referendum to get to this stage.
She warned that the sudden ending of the furlough job support scheme in October would “pull the rug” from under a huge number of workers. “We’ve always said the furlough scheme can’t go on forever, but there’s a real danger in the one-size-fits-all removal of support from businesses and people still impacted by coronavirus restrictions,” she said.
As for her leftwing critics, she retorted: “I have been a Labour party member for 25 years, I have campaigned in every election since then, I will be in the Labour party a lot longer than some of the people who have criticised me.”
As chair of the House of Commons business select committee during the last parliament she led formidable inquiries into issues such as the collapse of Carillion, the former construction and outsourcing group.
In 2018 she made a speech calling for £20bn a year of new wealth taxes to address inequalities in the UK: including higher capital gains tax, a land tax and a cut in pension tax relief.
Now she strikes a very different note, saying life has moved on since the coronavirus pandemic struck. “It would be the wrong thing to increase taxes right now because we need to make sure there is more money flowing through the economy to support jobs and the recovery,” she said.