What we do in the shadows: Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor

Serving in the Shadow Cabinet is a relentless communications challenge. A select group of notable MPs, chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to lead on a specific policy area, fight tooth and nail to earn sustained media attention and boost their relevance in the minds of the electorate.

Fighting with limited resources and against intense media scrutiny, the uphill battle to connect with the public and counter the government’s narrative can be daunting. Especially when trying to balance internal party dynamics, avoid contradicting party messaging, and present a cohesive alternative vision for the country.

Modern politics certainly isn’t for the faint of voice.

And the high-stakes game of political messaging is set to become even more treacherous in the year ahead. With the Conservative Party likely to throw everything — including the kitchen sink — at the thrice thwarted Labour Party to slow its progress towards Number 10.

In this ongoing series, we want to shed some light on the strategies of some of the Shadow Cabinet’s boldest communicators, examining their strengths and weaknesses in the lead up to the next General Election.

Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Chancellor

Rachel Reeves MP has served as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer since May 2021. An experienced political operative, Reeves has spent 13 years in opposition and served as an MP for half-a-decade longer than both Starmer and Sunak.

A cursory glance at the UK media landscape shows the Labour Party see Reeves as a key asset to deliver their economic message to the public — with Reeves a regular guest on radio/podcast interviews and a frequent commentator/figure of focus in the national papers.

Of all Shadow Cabinet positions, serving as Shadow Chancellor for a Labour opposition is amongst the most challenging. As a progressive, centre-left political party, Reeves must demonstrate economic credibility, an aspect of Governance often targeted by the Tories, while not sacrificing Labour’s pledges to address inequality and improve social welfare.

For her part, Reeves has made consistent efforts to strike a rhetorical balance that appeals to the diverse membership of the Labour Party.

Her background in the City and her coining of the phrase ‘securonomics’ has gone a long way to earn her credibility as fiscally responsible and a safe pair of hands which appears to the pro-business social democrat elements of the party. At the same time, her accusations of ‘war profiteering’ directed towards energy companies, her endorsement of a windfall tax, and her willingness to tell Tory MPs to ‘f*** off’ will have earned her points with left-wing factions.

However, this is a difficult fence to straddle for long.

As Reeves attempts to adapt policies in the face of an uncertain economic landscape, she has been hit by accusations of backtracking on ambitious spending pledges. Most recently, Reeves has received criticism over postponements to Labour’s pledges of a £28 billion green plan and universal childcare support.

These apparent U-turns present a real comms challenge for Reeves; giving the sense that their agenda as currently set out is not fit for implementation. From the outset, the strategy looks like an attempt to under promise in the short-term in order to eventually overdeliver in government.

This is a double-edged sword of course; Reeves may insulate herself from accusations of being unrealistic, but risks being labelled as lacking an ambitious vision.

Even her signature policy, ‘securonomics’, is liable to attract criticism as being imprecise, forced, and ‘corporate’ — presumably ‘safeonomics’, ‘greatonomics’, ‘dependonomics’ might be found crossed off on a whiteboard somewhere in the bowels of Labour HQ.

The phrase encapsulates Reeves’s call for a return to competency — a direct reaction to the chaos of ‘Trussonomics’. And while this is certainly consistent with Labour’s wider strategy, the term does little to explain what it offers beyond competency and may struggle to differentiate itself from Hunt’s economic vision for the country.

To add a bit of policy weight behind the phase, Reeves has synonymised it as ‘Bidenomics’. Hinting at an economic policy alignment between the Democratic and Labour Party which will prove essential in a post-Brexit landscape. Such a tactic is reminiscent of the ties between ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reagonomics’ in the 1980s.

Yet, Reeves certainly has big ideas. For instance, her proposal to create a £50bn “future growth fund” (essentially a UK version of the sovereign wealth fund model) is a novel and ambitious concept. However, the longer a policy idea exists in the public space the more criticism it takes on from the vast eco-system of political commentators — death by a thousand op-eds.

This strikes at the heart of Reeves’ Catch-22. As we head towards the next General Election, Reeves is under pressure to put forward specific economic policies that move beyond generic lines about fiscal responsibility that might equally come from Hunt. Yet, in this highly volatile landscape, a policy that may seem workable today may not be as effective in a years’ time.

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