Rachel Reeves: Can she save the Labour Party?

Exclusive interview: Young economist, fast-tracked into the Shadow Cabinet, talks to Jane Merrick, and bats away suggestions she is a leader in waiting

When an eight-year-old Rachel Reeves was chatting to her friends in the playground during the 1987 general election campaign, some of the girls were talking about who their parents were voting for.

The schoolgirl, lost for words, felt "really embarrassed", because she had no idea what the election was about. She went home and asked her father, who turned on the television news and pointed at Neil Kinnock. "That's who we vote for," Mr Reeves told his daughter. "I really remember that moment," says Rachel Reeves. "I was always Labour after that."

On Friday, the 32-year-old, who married earlier this year, became the youngest member of Ed Miliband's as shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And Ms Reeves, who went from a south London comprehensive school to Oxford and the London School of Economics and who now represents Leeds West, is being tipped to become Britain's first female Labour prime minister.

Does she want to be leader one day?

"To be honest, last year I was delighted to be elected as a Member of Parliament," she replies.

"If Ed thinks he can use my experience to help us make our case at the next election, then that is great. I am delighted that I can help on the frontbench team. It is a huge responsibility, this job." It is the polished response of a politician who expects to be asked the leadership question.

Her background is certainly interesting. While the Labour leader and many in his shadow Cabinet are easily labelled by Nick Clegg as "backroom boys", bag-carriers for Gordon Brown with little experience outside politics, Ms Reeves was an economist for the decade between university and entering Parliament in 2010.

She was born in Lewisham, south- east London, the daughter of teachers, and attended Cator Park School for Girls, a state school in nearby Bromley. She joined the Labour Party at 16.

At secondary school, when the Tories were still in power, she had to share textbooks because there weren't enough to go round the whole class. Her sixth-form classroom was a prefabricated hut in the playground, a chilly place to study maths, further maths, economics and politics A-levels.

She got four As, and a place at New College, Oxford, where she studied PPE – politics, philosophy and economics.

Her first job after university was at the Bank of England, where her initial task was to analyse the Japanese government's introduction of quantitative easing – a measure implemented in the UK by the Bank last week.

"I had no idea what quantitative easing was. I just thought, this is so different from the UK economy.

"Little did I know that, 11 years later, it would be exactly the policy that our government was having to follow."

In 2002, she did a year's secondment at the British Embassy in Washington, sending reports back to the Treasury, under the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, about the US economic situation.

Four years later, she went to work for HBOS's retail division in West Yorkshire, and was there when the financial crash came in autumn 2008.

"People I worked with who had worked for the Halifax Building Society in their home town, they were really proud of the company they worked for, but when it went wrong their savings were lost. They felt so let down. People took their staff for a ride."

In October 2008, she and her younger sister, Ellie – who is on Labour's national executive committee – helped Barack Obama's presidential campaign, working in New Mexico.

Ms Reeves sees a comparison between the US president and Mr Miliband, whose leadership nomination papers she signed.

"One of the things that Obama did was to reach out to people who hadn't voted in the past – young people, BME [black and minority ethnic] people – who didn't see politics as relevant. When Ed ran for leader, many people joined the party and since the election there have been 60,000 new members.

"Ed is starting to take on vested interests, energy companies, banks and media empires like Rupert Murdoch. People do want politics to be done a bit differently."

When Mr Miliband carried out his reshuffle, it left him with not a single MP in his shadow cabinet with a seat in the south of England outside London. So, I wonder, is Ms Reeves, with her suburban background the dream solution to this problem? Some critics have observed that her deep voice with its estuarine twang could hold her back.

But she is saying what voters want to hear: "In Surrey or Leeds, in Durham or Cornwall, families are asking the same questions and facing the same challenges at the moment: have I got enough money to make ends meet? Is my job secure? Is my child or grandchild leaving school in the next year going to find a job?"

So how will she take on her opponent, Danny Alexander? "I don't think he has an economic background. He worked in the national parks before he became an MP. I have to judge people on their policies.

"Whatever his experience, his policies at the moment show that he and his government don't get the challenges that families and businesses are facing right now."

Before being promoted, Ms Reeves was shadow Pensions minister, and she has campaigned on the issue of women's retirement age – which the Government is raising at a faster rate than had been expected, meaning that 500,000 women will have to wait more than an extra year to receive their state pension.

She says: "This is why Cameron doesn't get it on women. These women – many of them are caring for young grandchildren, helping their own children go back to work, and also caring for elderly parents, and trying to hold down a job. I don't think the Government understands the challenges of working people."

Back in 2000, on her first day at the Bank of England, she met Matthew Hancock, the future chief of staff to George Osborne and currently Tory MP for West Suffolk, who was also starting as an economist at the Bank. "We get on fine," Ms Reeves says of the Tory MP. "It was always clear our politics were different."

Given that Mr Hancock, who is also 32, is tipped as a future leader of the Conservatives, there is the intriguing prospect of a general election being fought between them one day.