Smartly Dressed Man: Jonathan Reynolds has a special appeal to Red Wall voters
Labor has struggled in recent years to reassure business that it can be trusted with the economy. One man who has done his share of the hard work is Jonathan Reynolds, Shadow Business Secretary. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Reynolds is a former paralegal who looks every bit the city guy.
But his northeast working-class background could also appeal to coveted “Red Wall” voters that the party lost in the 2019 general election.
Our meeting place – the headquarters of industry lobby group UK Finance in the heart of the Square Mile – was undoubtedly chosen to reinforce the impression that the party has moved on from Corbynism and is now comfortable with British business. This was a timely reminder as the 2023 Labor Party Conference begins today.
“Most days I meet with a company,” Reynolds says. “Usually several in a day.”
Reynolds, who served as both shadow cities secretary and shadow work and pensions secretary before his current role, goes to great lengths to highlight the importance of business relationships, a stark contrast to the radical left era of Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
He even takes a look at the Tories’ strained relationship with the economy, which was particularly strained during Boris Johnson’s time in office. “Every government needs a good relationship with business,” he says. “However, many of these companies believe that the current administration has given up on having a positive dialogue.”
If Labor also tries to wrest the “emerging party” label from the Tories, Reynolds would be a good figurehead.
Born and raised in Sunderland, his father was a firefighter and his mother worked for doorstep lender Provident Financial.
After graduating, his ambitions were briefly put on hold when he impregnated his then-girlfriend, which led to the birth of his first child. He then returned to education to study law.
In 2010 he was elected to the Stalybridge and Hyde constituency on the eastern edge of Manchester and has been its representative ever since.
The frontbencher seems to cut a much quieter figure in his personal life and tells me that one of his favorite hobbies is gardening.
“I think I’m the only current Labor MP to have won his local agricultural fair,” he chuckles.
He also unusually expresses a preference for Tesco among the major British supermarket chains, although he admits this may just be due to its proximity to the company.
The word “stability” comes up a lot in our chat, which is unsurprising after a year in which the UK has seen a three-prime ministerial turmoil and an economic collapse triggered by Liz Truss’ mini-Budget.
According to Reynolds, a major issue currently affecting the UK is the lack of response to the Inflation Reduction Act – a package of measures signed by President Joe Biden that has funneled billions of dollars in investment into the US healthcare and green energy sectors.
“Businesses want the UK to respond to this,” says Reynolds. “We cannot match the fiscal clout of the United States, but we must become more competitive in all areas.”
He says a key obstacle is Britain’s planning system, which has been heavily criticized by business leaders and activists for delaying housing, infrastructure and business projects such as factories.
In July, our largest real estate developers accused the government of failing to get to grips with declining housing construction. Last month, the head of McDonald’s British branch blamed bureaucracy and red tape for slowing the fast food chain’s expansion.
“To be honest, given the planning system for both houses and infrastructure, there is a feeling that there is nothing more we can do in the UK. “I find that frustrating.”
Does he blame the impasse on the rise of Nimby – Not In My Backyard – habitual opponents of local building projects? “Nimbyism is a factor,” Reynolds says.
Still, he insists things need to change to boost the UK’s competitiveness and warns that neighboring countries are heavily focused on poaching companies.
“We need to be a country where you can build energy and transport infrastructure and if a company wants to make an investment, the UK is their first choice,” he says.
“We have companies telling me about the Choose France policy and how it seduces them, about the Biden incentives in the US and about how the Spanish government is trying to attract the automotive sector.
“You have to feel like the UK is out there.”
As an MP for a north-west constituency, Reynolds is his harshest critic of the government’s handling of HS2, the high-speed rail line originally intended to link Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds with London.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced last week that the Manchester link would be scrapped. Reynolds says: “To say we can’t build a new rail line, or that we will build part of it but it doesn’t go to Manchester, is embarrassing.”
So is there common ground between him and his Tory colleague Kemi Badenoch, whom he wants to replace as business secretary?
“I think we both think we could do a better job than Rishi Sunak,” he jokes.
In policy terms, he highlights parts of a partnership agreement signed between the UK and Singapore last month, particularly elements relating to sectors such as artificial intelligence. He also praises some parts of a post-Brexit agreement with Switzerland on professional services.
But Reynolds stresses that trade policy should be more about “quality rather than quantity.”
Turning to the steel industry, he rejects claims that Labor’s net zero commitments would automatically lead to greater contraction in the sector and job losses.
“I think that would be an absolutely tragic place to be and the steel industry in the UK is smaller than you would expect for an economy of our size. “I see a bright future for the sector if the government gets it right. But I don’t think we’re on the right track right now.”
He says Labor’s strategy would focus on protecting taxpayers’ investment when working with private companies.
“We need to reassure the public that the money is well spent.” “This investment should not just be a gift to the corporate sector.”
Reynolds says one of the post-Brexit realities is to “make more effort” to attract supporters from the rest of the world, even if some of that money comes from places with mixed human rights records.
“Not every country is a Western European-style democracy, but you have to get involved. “I don’t think that means ignoring our values, and one way to promote them is through a strong economy.”
However, he notes that this does not mean giving other countries full access to more sensitive industries. He says any business minister “must be prepared” to block takeovers that could threaten Britain’s security. But overall he is adamant that the UK needs to turn outward to move forward.
“A strong United Kingdom is open to the world, but our strength requires investment and when I become business and trade secretary it will be my job to go out and get that.”
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