Rachel Reeves might be from London but her politics are as northern as they come, writes Neil Hudson.
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.
A mother of one, she is pregnant with her second (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) 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 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.
“If people had children then just left the workforce, we would be losing a lot of talent. David Cameron 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’.”
Rachel was at Five Lanes Primary School, Wortley, where she was 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 sets her apart from 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,” 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 top players sometimes millions a year and yet the people who clean the stadium 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. Some clubs are already doing it.”
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, this time in the safe Leeds West seat, then held by Labour stalwart John Battle.
She won, making her only the second female MP to represent Leeds 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.”
Asked what she would change about Leeds, she’s quick to bring her knowledge of the south to bear.
“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.”
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 Leeds – the last being Alice Bacon, who was MP from 1945-1970, then a 40-year gap. Honestly, it’s even worse than buses.”
SUPPORT FOR WOMEN FLEEING VIOLENCE
Rachel is patron of Leeds Women’s Aid, which offers protection for women fleeing domestic violence.
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.
Contact the group’s helpline on 0113 246 0401