As next year’s general election looms into view, Britain’s political parties have started to emphasise their strengths and tackle their weaknesses.
The job of addressing one of Labour’s weakest spots – the Conservatives’ claim that it is “the welfare party” – falls to Rachel Reeves, the 34-year-old shadow Work and Pensions Secretary. She makes her first big speech in the role today.
Her billing as one of Labour’s rising stars is about to be tested. The former economist at the Bank of England and British Embassy in Washington has been MP for Leeds West since 2010. She was fast-tracked into the Shadow Cabinet the following year as No. 2 in Ed Balls’s Treasury team and promoted to the sensitive welfare post last October. She is one of the band of Ed Miliband loyalists from the 2010 intake presenting a new Labour face to the voters.
Ms Reeves leaves no doubt that her new brief is to be tough, to counter Labour’s image as being too soft on the claimants some Tories depict as “skivers” as they champion Britain’s “strivers”.
In an interview with The Independent, she talked as much about taxpayers as benefit claimants as she pledges to make sure every pound spent on welfare is properly used. Her mission is to create a “fair and affordable social security system”, with “sticks and carrots” to get the unemployed back to work, which will be good for them and for taxpayers.
She is trying to match, or even outflank, the Tories on an issue they regard as a trump election card. Labour, she says, would increase “benefit sanctions”: the jobless who do not make enough effort to find work would lose their jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). Ms Reeves’s big idea is for all newly-unemployed people to take a “basic skills test” in English, maths and IT within six weeks of claiming JSA, rather than languish on the dole for up to three years before getting such help.
Under Labour’s “compulsory jobs guarantee”, adults unemployed for two years would receive 25 hours of work and 10 hours of training each week for six months. It would kick in for under-25s after one year. Again, those refusing the offer would lose their JSA.
“It is hard, but it is also fair. You can call it tough love,” says Ms Reeves. “It is a responsible policy. That is what taxpayers want. What people claiming JSA want more than anything is to get working.”
Far from being the welfare party, she insists, Labour is reverting to its original brand as “the party of work”. She wants to revive and extend the “contributory principle” behind the post-war Beveridge report which led to the modern welfare state. That could mean a higher JSA rate in the early stages of unemployment for those with a longer work record.
“It is absolutely right that if you pay into the system, you should get something out,” she says, but admits this “could not be done overnight”.
Such an approach could enable Labour to tackle another problem – migration from the European Union.
“If you have just arrived in this country, or you haven’t paid into the system, you shouldn’t be entitled to the same as someone who has worked all their life,” she says.
Ms Reeves is ready to support the Government if it tries to prevent EU migrants claiming benefits for two years (instead of the current three months). She also wants to stop EU migrants whose children do not live in Britain receiving UK rates of child benefit.
“Paying child benefit to children in other countries around Europe is not what child benefit is designed for, not what Beveridge envisaged,” she says. “It is clearly a loophole that needs to be addressed.”
But is there a danger that Labour’s attempt to neutralise the welfare issue will look as if it is also attacking “skivers” ?
“No,” she replies quickly. “I do not think people who have been out of work for six months, a year or two years are shirkers. People who come to my constituency surgery have filled in 300 job applications and not had a single reply. They are not shirkers.”
Ms Reeves has not seen and will not watch Benefits Street, the controversial Channel 4 programme which has been accused of being exploitative “poverty porn”.
She says: “A majority of people on in-work benefits are not earning enough to live on. Most people out of work desperately want to work… You are always going to find people who are playing the system. You will find more very rich people playing the system by not paying their taxes than very poor and overclaiming their benefits. Maybe that will be the next documentary Channel 4 makes.”
However, Ms Reeves is “not boycotting” another TV programme, the BBC’s Newsnight, even though its editor Ian Katz branded her “boring, snoring” in a tweet.
The label may stick. David Cameron tried to pin it on her when he told Westminster journalists last Thursday: “There’s a chronic shortage of anaesthetists in parts of London and she’s dealing with the most difficult cases.”
Ms Reeves insists: “I am not really that bothered. If that is the biggest insult they can manage, I am not doing too badly.”
She may rattle off statistics about the number of jobless and the cost of social security, but her own backstory is anything but boring. Unlike many MPs, she had a taste of life at the sharp end, attending a comprehensive in south-east London. Although she was the junior chess champion who made it to Oxford and the London School of Economics, she felt “the odds were stacked against” her classmates.
“The sixth form was two prefab huts in the playground,” she says. “Our library was turned into a classroom because we didn’t have enough of them. We didn’t have enough textbooks to go round.”
Noted for her competitive streak, Ms Reeves is determined that she will never allow her daughter Anna, now 10 months old, to beat her at chess. How do she and her civil servant husband juggle looking after her?
“It is a challenge but a fantastic one,” she says.
She adds that she feels lucky when she meets mums in her constituency struggling to make ends meet with three part-time jobs, saying her six months of maternity leave gave her an insight into some of the challenges facing “normal people” outside the Westminster village.
Ms Reeves has been tipped as Labour’s first woman prime minister, although Yvette Cooper might have something to say about that.
“It is not something I aspire to,” says Ms Reeves. “I love being an MP and being in the top team. I also see the sacrifices you have got to make as leader. I am not sure they are sacrifices I would like to make in terms of my family life.”
On a recent visit to a school in her constituency, the head teacher asked pupils if they knew who “Rachel” was. One boy said: “She’s a shadow, isn’t she?” Her ambition, Ms Reeves smiles, is “not to be a shadow but someone making decisions at the Cabinet table.”
Q and A: Rachel Reeves
Where was the last place you went for dinner?
Sheesh Mahal Restaurant, Kirkstall, Leeds
What was the last album you bought or listened to?
I bought the latest Emile Sande album.
What was the last event you attended?
I spent a great morning with campaigning with 40 Labour members campaigning in New Addington, Croydon on the #costofcameron.
What was the last sporting event you went to?
Chess championship in West London in December, which included pupils from my constituency.
What was the last book you read?
A new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst by Katherine Connelly.