Angela Rayner has already made it from teenage mum to the shadow cabinet – and some are saying the leadership could be next. She talks to Kate Murray about values, factions and why she will always stand her ground
When Angela Rayner’s grandmother was dying and struggling to get the home care she needed, she used to say if she were a dog, she’d be put down. “If that’s the sort of society we have, which makes older people feel like they’re a burden, that’s not a society I want to live in,” Rayner says now.
This vignette is just one of many that pepper a conversation with Rayner and that, she says, shape her career in politics. Her struggle as a young single mum to afford nappies for her baby. The English teacher whose support influences her to this day. The people – ‘from professors to people living in poverty’ – she looked after at the end of their lives when she worked as a home carer. “They taught me the value of standing up for people and knowing what’s really important in life – all those values that are in the labour movement,” she says.
It is this brand of personal politics, rooted in a working class background now rare in parliament, which has seen Rayner tipped as a future Labour leader. Her performance in the eight months since she was appointed shadow education secretary has impressed many in Westminster and beyond, with her speech to last autumn’s party conference seen as one of the few highlights in a downbeat week. Even those who have had her down as a fully paid-up ‘Corbynista’ since she joined the shadow cabinet – she supported Andy Burnham in the 2015 leadership race – have praised her for how she’s taken the government to task over grammar schools.
Yet the self-proclaimed ‘ginger kid from a council estate’ still feels she has much to prove. “It feels strange when people look at me as the shadow secretary of state for education. I’ve always had to earn the respect to be around the table,” she says. “One of the things that I think is a trait of the working class is we feel we’re not quite good enough so we over-compensate for that. We work our tiny minds off trying to make sure we know everything.”
It is a contrast with others she sees in her working life. “Some of the Conservatives, the really posh ones, think they own that chamber. It’s like ‘I have a right to be here, I was born to rule.’ But when you scratch the surface, they don’t know what they’re talking about and once you call them out they run scared. The secret is having the confidence to know you are just as good as they are.”
Rayner got her chance to show what she could do after her two predecessors with the education brief walked away from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – the last, Pat Glass, after just two days in the job. But Rayner claims taking on the role, and sticking with it, is about doing her bit for the party rather than allegiance to any grouping. “I don’t class myself as a Corbynista, a Blairite, a Bennite or anything else. I class myself as Labour through and through,” she says.
“It frustrates me if we go into our little niches. Labour and the labour movement sort of cannibalise each other at times and it frustrates me.”
Labour members, in parliament and outside, need to work together, she insists. “If there’s one thing I admire about the Conservatives, it’s that they are ruthless when it comes to discipline and power. Whereas I think we spend too much time fighting each other instead of actually looking at what unites us, our principles and what makes a Labour alternative to what we currently have. We need to be working for what makes a fairer society, which is what the Labour party is about, and that certainly isn’t going to be found in a Momentum fringe or a Progress fringe – it’s going to be found by us all working together.”
Education, Rayner feels, is one of the areas where Labour can most successfully unite to take on the Conservatives. “It has been really heartening to see all wings of the labour movement working with me to highlight the damaging effect of the grammar school programme and working with me on what Labour’s alternative will be and what will be in our manifesto,” she says. “Our strength is in our numbers and in our broad church.”
There’s plenty for the party to go at, Rayner insists, not just on academic selection but on the funding pressures which have prompted headteachers to take the ‘unprecedented’ step of writing to parents telling them how much money is being lost.
“The sector is in chaos,” she says. “The government is wasting money on vanity projects like the free schools programme. The Department of Education have become land barons – they even bought a cemetery and then realised afterwards they can’t build a school on a cemetery. It’s a grotesque waste of finances at a time when schools are facing their first real-term cuts in over two decades. Most schools are really worried about the fact they are going to have to lay off teaching staff or support staff or narrow the curriculum. Some are even talking about shortening the working day.”
Then there’s the ‘unravelling’ of the government’s free childcare pledges, the increasing burden of tuition fees and the failure to fund the technical and adult skills the country needs. But with all this to aim at, isn’t it frustrating that not enough is cutting through to the country? Rayner admits it is, and although she partly blames Brexit for crowding out debate on everything else – “it’s like cholesterol clogging up parliament” – she concedes that Labour’s problems are not helping.
“We are not in a good place as a party, that’s quite clear, and I think the general public are still not sure we’re coherent about being united around a common aim.”
So what is Rayner’s vision of a Labour alternative? On education, she says, it’s a “universal offer that’s inclusive and talks about standards rather than structures”. She’s a fan of the ‘national education service’ Corbyn has talked about and wants it to be built on a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to lifelong learning. “The economy of the future will need people to be resilient and adapt and therefore you can’t just learn in one place in one time in your life, learn for one job and that’s it. We need to have an agile and resilient population that love learning and see value in all the different ways you can gain qualifications,” she says.
More widely, if Labour is to provide a credible platform for government, it will need to build on its values – and its achievements. Rayner is unapologetic about highlighting the difference New Labour governments made to her life and those of others like her. “When I was a single mum at 16, living on a council estate I was feeling ashamed of myself, like there was no path out of my poverty,” she says. “Just to know there was someone fighting for me and know somebody cared enough about me to put that effort in meant I was able to go back to adult education. That second chance was there for me and I was able to contribute to society, look after my son and change his life chances by being in work. I make no bones about it – it was a Labour government that did that. The tax credits were a revolution.”
But while all this is evidence that Rayner is on the pragmatic side of the ‘power vs principles’ debate that so preoccupies the Labour party, she clearly feels the party could have done more for many parts of the country when it was in power. Indeed, she believes the anger many communities now feel at being left behind has its roots in the ‘magnolia politics’ of the pre-crash years.
“This has been building up for the past 10 or 15 years,” she says. “Tinkering was OK. We knew that investing £1 in London would see a £4 return, rather than putting £1 into, say, the midlands and getting a £2 return. We were happy to see that £4 return and then redistribute £2 to the midlands. That meant those communities felt they were getting handouts rather than hand-ups. They felt left behind – rather than building an economy that works for them we just allowed some people to be doing really well and others to be subsidised by them. And [taking handouts] is just not a working class trait – it’s not what we like.”
Whether Labour can successfully reconnect with those left behind communities will be the defining question for the country – and for Labour itself – over the next few years. Rayner accepts it will be tough, admitting that most people “don’t know what our strategy is if I’m honest”. But if Labour can get its act together, she feels there is hope.
“Not all is lost,” she says. “The government is in disarray. We have to start pushing forward with what our alternative to that is and I think we can do it – we have got some great people across our movement. “We have got to find a united position where we can talk to everyone about those values that we hold dear that are within the labour movement. If we are able to be be a coherent united opposition then people will see us as coherent united government-in-waiting. It’s within our grasp – it’s up to us now.”
But what about those who feel the divisions are now too deep and are tempted to walk away from the fight? “Instead of feeling downtrodden or upset or frustrated by the current situation you have to think ‘what am I going to do today to move the party in the direction it needs to?’ You have to think ‘I can’t deal with the big stuff I have no control over – so how do I do something that will help to move the movement forward?’ That could be instilling our values through something you do in your community or it could be like I am, pushing the government on education policy. We all play a role.”
For the moment, Rayner is content with that. Whether she will have a tilt at the leadership, she’s not saying. “Who knows what the future holds but at the moment I’m just doing what I need to do to make sure I hold the government to account in the roles I’m doing. I’m a working class kid – I keep trying to prove I’m good enough and that I’m doing the right thing.”
When it all gets too much, she takes a break with what she, using a phrase made popular in the world of motivational management courses, calls ‘hippo time’. “Everyone’s allowed a bit of hippo time – putting on a girlie movie, speaking to your friends, getting a take-out. Then you’ve got to come back fighting because the alternative is what – to give up?
“I’m not giving up on the next Angela Rayners – I think they deserve someone to fight for them. I want to make my grandkids proud of what I do. I want them to look back and say ‘at a time when things were tough did she stand her ground or did she run off?’ I’m not going to run off.”