OPINION - Rachel Reeves is making the Labour Party look afraid of its own shadow

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Here is a very Labour conundrum. Two-thirds of respondents, according to the latest Ipsos poll, think it is more likely that a centre-Left Opposition will be in Downing Street after the next election than the Tories. The requirement is then to behave more like a government-in-waiting, which means not only doing heart-stringy interviews on how you grew up suffering from decades of Conservative rule.

In the case of Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, you then do something oddly rare for a party which claims to like the EU but hardly ever goes there and wants to sell Britain “in the world” but seldom leaves SW1 either. Reeves embarked on a fact-finding (aka contact-making) trip to the US, leaving in her wake a a soulful message behind about “economic dignity”.

Students of irony will guess what transpired. Discovered by this paper’s Diary (and then everyone else) to have travelled Club World to New York on BA, which in normal-speak is Business Class and can cost up to £4,000 for a return ticket for a lie-back seat and an edible meal, Labour “comms” then get the response all wrong. Reeves deleted the tweet (which is already a matter of record, so that was a waste of time and deletions make matters worse). Busy bodies asked who paid for the flight, to which the answer is a “donor whose identity is not revealed” but will in the fullness of time — in which case, reasonable folk will ask, “Why not now?”

What a palaver. The net effect is jejune, ham-fisted and, worst of all, guilty where no actual guilt had been incurred.

And all for what? Because an aspiring chancellor, who has a good shot at running the economy within a year and a half, got into a tizz about a lie-back seat on BA and did not have the confidence to make sure her team respond that it is absolutely fine for people in very senior and demanding jobs to have a proper sleep and one of those dinky meals before arriving for a full schedule of work in one of the most powerful cities on earth.

Worse, Reeves knows from her time in an economic brief in the British Embassy that the US is where the big global trade decisions get made. In other words, just own it.

I know the “turn left” option these days on a decent carrier costs an arm and a leg. I say this having suffered row 29C on a British Airways flight from Rome this week which delivered me 21 hours late to Heathrow and whose customer services operation is now so meagre that even reaching it to vent one’s fury is a major enterprise.

This is pretty grim for an airline which is akin to being the national carrier —and certainly a major British brand globally, for all its flaws. But even in my advanced state of BA ire, I don’t expect the shadow chancellor to have to fly in a part of the plane where they run out of water and are served with a doll’s size nasty pretzel. That’s my job.

What is sauce for the goose, however, must be a mini-tray sauce for the gander. If we want our politicians to focus on the job, hounding them about how they handle speed-awareness courses (see Suella Braverman’s ongoing mini-series) and airline seat envy is a road to nowhere.

It is, in the French Revolution analogy, the gap between Danton, who wants to tear down autocracy and still have some joie de vivre, and Robespierre, who is all about the rules and the punishments. In our own reactive times, we can reinvent this prurience at scale.Labour needs to learn a lesson from this saga of putting one of its most prominent figures in row 4. If it really is the government-in-waiting, it will have to lose the hair shirt — because being in power, even if responsibly held, means shedding some aspects of an existence which is “just like” everyone else’s.

The MPs’ expenses scandal in many ways was a turning point which demanded accountability from a group of people who had set their own terms. Its backwash, however, was a public mood in which any professional leeway has become an unfair target. Because Labour has been on the outside looking in and the Conservatives have been cast as spendthrift offenders, the Opposition has forgotten that this stentorian mood can swiftly turn on it too.

The closer it gets to power, the more Labour will be reminded of a fundamental truth of politics — throwing stones is a lot easier than living in a glass house.

Anne McElvoy is Executive Editor at Politico