Talking to Eastlondonlines a year after re-election, Lewisham MP Ellie Reeves discussed the issues facing her constituents, how she got into politics, and how Labour can bounce back from their crushing defeat last December…
Lewisham’s problems have always been a challenge to be faced for local MP Ellie Reeves. But when she was re-elected last year, she could barely have imagined what was to come in 2020.
Since then, she has been busy fighting the devastating effects of the “double impact” of the global pandemic and preparing for the fact that there may not be a deal on the table with the EU.
The Labour MP for Lewisham West and Penge is part of the new-look Labour and recently gained a frontbench position – as Shadow Solicitor General – following the election of leader Keir Starmer back in April. But, brought up in the Lewisham area, representing her home constituency in the House is a special responsibility.
It is a seat she first won in 2017 with a resounding majority of 66%, retaining it in 2019 with a still impressive 61.2% majority and in both elections not exactly being a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, whose support in Lewisham has always been strong.
And her family is deeply embedded into Labour politics. Sister, Rachel Reeves, has been MP for Leeds West since 2010 and is the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The daughters of teachers, both sisters went to school in south London, both joined the Labour Party in their mid-teens and both graduated from Oxford and both are now front bench members of the Shadow Cabinet.
Her husband, John Cryer, is the MP for Leyton and Wanstead and Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the son of former Labour MPs Ann and Bob Cryer, who represented the Northern seats of Keighley and Bradford South respectively.
Housing crisis in Lewisham
Prior to the pandemic, Lewisham was already tackling a housing and homeless crisis and such issues were always a large part of Reeve’s casework . According to data published by Shelter last year, 7,015 people are now homeless in the Lewisham borough, which equates to 1 in every 43 people. She is now deeply alarmed about the effect that the pandemic is having on her constituent’s health and livelihoods.
She said: “People are having to spend long periods at home and often in really terrible conditions. Thinking about young people and families in those conditions, these things are going to potentially really widen the inequality gap, that’s an issue I deal with.”
The looming end of the Brexit transition process is made even bleaker by the “awful recession” she predicts as a consequence of the pandemic. “At the moment there is no deal on the table, [even though] we were promised an oven ready deal at the last election by the Conservatives.”
A Lewisham education
Reeves grew up in the Lewisham area and her parents were teachers at local schools. Her own schooling helped her understand the noticed ‘chronic underfunding’ in education in secondary schools. ”There weren’t enough books to go round, we had lessons in port-a-cabins, and I felt there was a real sense of girls in my school being left behind and there not being enough aspiration for them.”
“And rather than moaning about on the side lines, I thought if something isn’t right, go and change it. So, I joined the Labour Party and I’ve been campaigning ever since.”
But her 24-year political journey, from joining the party at 15 – just before the landslide 1997 election of Tony Blair – until becoming an MP in 2017 didn’t take a conventional route.
Although she was an active campaigner for Labour at while studying Law at Oxford and later back in London, she decided she didn’t want a full-time job in politics after leaving university. Instead, she worked as an employment rights barrister for many years, mostly with Unite and UCATT trade union members.
Much of her work was spent fighting to end “bogus and exploitative self-employment”, a process which allows companies to class employees as ‘self-employed’ rather than ‘workers’, meaning that are not protected by the same rights.
Although she “loved” her legal career, Reeves stayed involved in the politics which enticed her into activism at 15. She was on the NEC of the Labour Party for ten years between 2006-2016, and was Vice-Chair of the London Labour Party.
But, it was the Spring 2017 snap General Election which changed everything for Reeves and she followed her older sister into the House of Commons, where she had been since being elected for Leeds West in 2010. Labour stalwart Jim Dowd, who served the Lewisham constituency for 25 years decided to stand down. She faced an “agonising decision” and although “she had a successful legal career and a young family, opportunities like that don’t come around very often, it’s my home seat so I decided to put myself forward.”
Whilst she has enjoyed enormous success in both her election campaigns, she was became involved in the turmoil over anti-Semitism which racked the Labour Party last year. In July 2019, she signed a letter – alongside more than 90 other Labour MPs – which opposed then party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to re-admit MP Chris Williamson to the party, after he had been suspended for saying the party had been “too apologetic” over anti-Semitism.
This prompted her Constituency Labour Party to consider a no-confidence motion – one which was tabled while she was 22-weeks pregnant. But after a fierce backlash and claims of bullying which rocked the party, the motion was eventually dropped. Reeves gave birth just as the 2019 campaign began, taking exactly one day’s maternity leave.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth at the time tweeted in her defence: “My friend Ellie Reeves is a socialist, an ex-trade union lawyer who fought against injustices for working-class people. She’s campaigned against oppression internationally, eg trade unionists in Colombia for years. An excellent MP. Ludicrous no-confidence motion should be binned.”
A new direction
Reeves is, naturally, happy with the direction the party are going under fellow former lawyer Keir Starmer, who’s leadership bid she openly supported. She said: “We had a crushing defeat at the General Election in December, and [even though] I represent a seat with a big Labour majority, we also need to win seats outside of cities.”
Under Starmer, she says, Labour are starting to look “like a party which is ready to govern” and has been impressed by the new leader’s performances at PMQ’s every Wednesday. But she especially believes he’s got it right on Covid. Adding: “I think that people see Kier Starmer as someone they can trust.”