Remarkably fresh from speaking at last night’s ‘Beers of Europe’ reception, Labour’s shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds switches seamlessly from delivering booze gags to discussing one of her party’s prevarications of the moment: a referendum on EU membership. She reveals she has “different opinions” from Jon Cruddas on the subject, who is in support of discussing a future referendum, and that she is “not a fan” of treaty change. She also explains to me why Ed Miliband’s speech will be a “tough gig”, urging him to “put a bit more meat on the bones”, before hailing Rachel Reeves as a potential future Labour leader.
What is the one thing you’d like to bring across at conference?
That we have an alternative to austerity, and that the government’s economic policies aren’t working, and that we want to set out a vision for how we get back into work and the economy growing. We have some specific ideas. For example, to repeat the bank bonus tax, to create thousands of jobs for young people. This government is a sort of ‘do-nothing’ government in terms of growth, they keep making announcements about infrastructure projects and things that they’re going to do, but they don’t deliver, and we want to prove to people that we have a different vision and that there is an alternative.
People have been labelling Ed Balls ‘Austerity Ed’ because of his reluctance to renege on all of the government’s economic policies were he to become chancellor. Does this create tension between the party and its supporters?
I think the public realise that there has to be a sustainable path to reducing our deficit. I think that’s what people intuitively understand. But the question is at what pace you do that, what is the timing of that? Also, who bears the biggest burden? So the government cutting the top rate of tax for the richest earner, but at the same time hitting pensioners by raising the personal allowance, eventually meaning that the poorest pensioners have to pay tax, is exactly the wrong way of doing it. You’d want the richest to bear the heaviest burden.
So would Labour put the top rate of tax back up again?
Look, we’re not making any specific commitments like that yet. We certainly wouldn’t have reduced it in the first place. When we get back into power, hopefully in 2015, then we’ll have to look at the books. Like Ed Miliband said yesterday, we don’t even know what they’re [the government] going to do in the next few months. We don’t want to make any promises now that we can’t keep later.
Talking of Ed Miliband, it seems a lot of this conference rides on his speech, because he needs to give some concrete ideas, do you think he’ll deliver?
Firstly, last year in Liverpool, he gave by far and away the meatiest conference speech of the three leaders. David Cameron has shown that he doesn’t have a vision for this country other than reducing the deficit, that’s all he wants to do, it seems. Ed Miliband does have a vision. He talked last year about responsible capitalism and various commentators said “oh, this is rubbish”, and then six months later we had the Libor scandal and everyone started to think “actually what he was saying kind of makes sense”. So it took a while, but people did get it. And I think his job tomorrow is to put a bit more meat on the bones. There’s a lot of pressure on him to deliver something really good, and I think he will.
What do you think of the analysis that he has to shed his geeky, academic image to be accessible to the ordinary voter?
Firstly, I don’t think it should be a problem that somebody’s clever. I want our future prime minister to be somebody who can think through problems and can come up with solutions. Now certainly, as leader of the opposition of a party that had their second worst performance in their history since World War One, was always going to be a tough gig. But I think Ed’s doing incredibly well. Yes, he’s an intellectual, but he understands people’s concerns and is incredibly compassionate.
He’s seen as quite a consensus-builder…
That adds to his strength. When we lost in ’79, our party almost completely fell apart; I was talking to Jack Straw last night about the ‘80s, and they were horrific. I think we’ve learnt from that, yes we did lose in 2010, yes we were unpopular, but we are incredibly united. I worked in the Labour Party in government, and we weren’t as united in government as we are now.
Doesn’t this consensus-building compromise his ability to be a strong leader?
No, I think he’s a strong leader. He knows what he wants, he has a clear set of ideas and principles. Building consensus with your colleagues, that is a good thing, but it only goes so far.
Are there tensions between him and Ed Balls?
It’s absolute rubbish. Of course, they don’t agree on every detail of every policy, but I think it’s good to have that debate between the shadow chancellor and the leader of the party.
A couple of days ago, Jon Cruddas suggested Labour could offer voters a referendum on EU membership. Have you discussed this with him?
I have discussed this with Jon before he was appointed in his newish role. Look, our position remains the same as it was in October last year. We could have done a very opportunistic thing when we had the vote on the referendum in the House of Commons. We could have opted to vote with the anti-Europeans, and voted for a referendum; that would’ve been the easy thing to do, and probably would have defeated the government.
However, we don’t think that the time is right now to have a referendum, firstly because the economy has to be the priority, and health and education are above Europe. We think it’s right that the eurozone needs to integrate its economies more closely.
We think our government has made us even weaker – they’ve burnt bridges, and we criticised Cameron for the veto and for backing Nicolas Sarkozy. However, there might be some time in the future, because of these changes in the eurozone, when we might make that decision.
When you come to writing your manifesto for 2015, will you promise an EU membership referendum?
It depends on the state of the economy, what’s going in the eurozone, whether the treaty changes are really put on the table again…I am not a big fan of treaty change. I think the EU needs to prove to people that it can deliver. That’s where it derives its legitimacy from. When the EU is successful in terms of economic prosperity, jobs and exports – that’s when people like it. Not when it has some new text in some new treaty.
So was Jon Cruddas treading on your toes a bit then when he came out with that comment?
Well, Jon and I talk all the time. He’s been very clear about his position on a referendum before he got appointed, and I respect him for that. We have different opinions, and that’s fine.
Do you think you and the new, young 2010 intake have brought something refreshing to the party?
I hope so. I think that the 2010 intake, according to colleagues who came in in previous years, was a breath of fresh air. After 13 years of being in government, towards the end of our time in government, we were unfortunately pretty unpopular. I suppose it’s easier if you’ve never been in government because you don’t know what it feels like. In a way, I think that makes it a little bit easier.
You, Stella Creasy and Rachel Reeves are part of this new intake – all strong women who have shot to success. Do you see a female Labour leader on the horizon?
Yeah, definitely. I think Rachel would be a great leader. She’s a tremendous communicator, she’s very natural, she’s got a fantastic brain. She works bloody hard and is incredibly organised. She’s a good friend, but I more objectively think she would be a good leader in the future.
What about yourself?
Oh, well, I don’t know. That’s not how it’s looking at the moment!