North and south collide: Rachel Reeves and her ‘northern’ political roots

Leeds West Labour MP Rachel Reeves, Picture by Tony Johnson
Leeds West Labour MP Rachel Reeves, Picture by Tony Johnson
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Rachel Reeves might be from the south but her politics are as northern as they come. Neil Hudson asks the six-months pregnant Labour MP how she juggles family life and politics

For someone who is some way off 40 and considerably younger than your average MP, Rachel Reeves is not lacking in confidence. God knows she needs it. With a dearth of women in the House of Commons, the London-born former economist is very much aware of her minority status.

Rachel Reeves is a former school chess champion and is pictured here playing pupils in her constituency in February.

Rachel Reeves is a former school chess champion and is pictured here playing pupils in her constituency in February.

A mother of one, she is pregnant with her second child (due in June). It was her pregnancy which drew criticism earlier this month from Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, who questioned whether she would have the time to devote to her role as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (especially if Labour win the election and she takes office) whilst juggling the demands of her growing family.

Reeves was robust in her response, delivering a sharp, no-nonsense retort to her Tory critic, dubbing him “out of step” and “sexist”.

“I was quite shocked at Andrew Rosindell. There are 300,000 women a year who take maternity leave, there are millions of mums holding down jobs. He said I wouldn’t be able to handle a job in government because I would have a young child. I had a baby two years ago and I hope my constituents haven’t thought during last couple of years I have been some sort of substandard MP.

“I was not in Parliament for a few months after the birth of my first but I stall made the important votes and after a few weeks restarted constituency surgeries. Very few people can say I’m having a child, I will give up work. People cannot afford it. It’s just what mums and dads deal with.

Very few people can say I’m having a child, I will give up work. People cannot afford it. It’s just what mums and dads deal with.

Rachel Reeves MP

“If people had children then just left the workforce, we would be losing a lot of talent. David Cameron has had a child while he has been PM, Gordon Brown had two and Tony Blair had a child in office. I didn’t hear anyone suggest, including Andrew Rosindell, he shouldn’t be PM because of that. It’s really out of step and I think a lot of people will say ‘hang on a minute, we manage it.’”

She adds: “When you have a kid you suddenly think, what did I do with all that time before? I imagine the same will be true for the second but you get by. Perhaps it will help me empathise with some of the challenges of dealing with work and having to pick your kids up from school. In some ways I think it will make me more in touch.”

When I meet Rachel, it’s at Five Lanes Primary School, Wortley, where she is being interviewed by two pupils on camera, one of whom asked what she would do it she were Prime Minister.

Her vowel heavy southern accent immediately jars with that of her constituents but it’s what she says which manages to somehow connect with the northern mindset.

“I’d increase the minimum wage to £8-an-hour,” she says matter-of-factly. “Not straight away but over time. More and more companies are signing up to the living wage. I’d like to see football clubs do it, because they pay their top players sometimes millions a year and yet the people who clean the stadium, serve at half time and lock up at night, are often paid not enough to live on. I’ve written to Leeds United and urged them to sign up to the living wage.

“There are others, West Ham, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, already doing it. I think it would be a great signal if LUFC also stepped up to the mark and became a living wage employer.”

But she not done there and continues apace: “Scrap bedroom tax - that’s the first thing I would do if I was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

“I would also make sure young people have access to local facilities, like the library, swimming pools, leisure facilities.

“Personally, I love swimming at my local baths in Bramley, it’s the one place I go where I have to turn off my mobile phone.

“I’d also like to see Leeds City Region get more powers, I think the way to do that would be through Leeds City Council and the local enterprise partnership but I do not think we should have to have elected mayors to get that. We were given a vote on that a few years ago and people said no.

“Another thing I’m passionate about is the NHS, I think it’s the closest thing we have in this country to a national religion and people want to make sure the idea of medical care free at the point of need is kept.”

Asked what she would change about Leeds in particular, she’s quick to bring her knowledge of the south to the fore.

“It’s more expensive to catch a bus in Leeds than it is in London. What’s that all about? We need an electronic system like they have in London. Transport for London has powers Metro would love but the legislation makes it very difficult for them to get what they need. So we need to change that.”

While she might not sound as though she’s from Leeds but her politics are as northern as they come.

As one of Tony Blair’s ‘babes’, she entered politics at the 1997 election, after her selection from an all-women shortlist. But that wasn’t the first time she’d stood for election - she contested the safe Tory Bromley and Chislehurst seat in 2005, finishing second and the following year attempted to win the same seat following the death of sitting MP Eric Forth, in which she finished fourth, with the Labour vote reduced from 10,241 votes to a woeful 1,925 in what was described as a humiliation and the worst performance for a governing party since 1991.

Still, it should tell you something about her character that, despite such setbacks, she remained undaunted. A trained economist with experience working in Washington DC, before she moved ‘up north’ she was offered a ‘lucrative’ job at Goldman Sachs, a position she turned down to once again try her hand at politics, this time in the safe Leeds West seat, then held by Labour stalwart John Battle, with whom she is good friends.

She won the seat, making her only the second female MP to represent Yorkshire since 1970, a fact she is quick to point out.

“If you look around Parliament, it’s incredibly male dominated, a lot older and also so dominated by people who went to extremely expensive schools - I do not think that’s what politics is about.

“How can we say we represent the country when most of our MPs are white, upper class, older men? It’s still the case 77 per cent of MPs are men.”

She adds: “When I was born 1979 there were 19 women, today 148. That’s a huge change. About 23 per cent of MPs are women, which is a big improvement but there’s still a long way to go until we have equal representation.

Before I became MP for Leeds West, there hadn’t been a single woman in any Leeds seats - and there are eight seats - for 40 years. I’m the second woman ever to represent Yorkshire - the last being Alice Bacon, who was MP from 1945-1970, then 40 year gap.”

Then, with a roll of her eyes, she quips: “Honestly, it’s even worse than buses.”

FACTFILE

Rachel is patron of Leeds Women’s Aid, which offers protection for women fleeing domestic violence by providing temporary supported housing, outreach support, telephone support and other support.

in the 12 months to June 2014 there were 14,128 incidents of domestic violence and abuse reported to police in Leeds - an increase of 858 on the previous twelve months, which has coincided with a 15 per cent increase in the number of calls to their helpline.

Rachel, who spoke at a fundraiser on Friday, said: “There’s growing problem in the city, one of the things I have done it to help them raise money and awareness.”

Contact the group at www.leedswomensaid.co.uk or ring the helpline on 0113 246 0401

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