Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner. Photo: Getty

Angela Rayner: "You never relinquish power, ever, even if it’s difficult"

Labour's rising star talks social mobility, what she learnt from trade unions—and why being leader is "the stuff of dreams"
September 11, 2017

It says something about the modern Labour Party that one of Angela Rayner’s most unusual—and so best-known—attributes is her working-class back-story. Perhaps it says even more that in response to her rapid rise, to the point where she is now being tipped for the top job, some fellow Labour MPs have warned her to tone it down.

“I remember colleagues saying to me ‘it’s great you say so much about your back-story, but I wouldn’t do it too much, because it can prevent you from being a leader,’” says the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. “Or, ‘it’s really good that she’s got a good backstory but it doesn’t really qualify her to be Education Secretary.’ So it does cloud people’s judgment. But it can also help you—and you can use it to your advantage.”

Indeed. The 37-year-old has had a remarkable last year or two, and for that matter—in the context of today’s professionalised politics—a remarkable life. Born in 1980, Rayner grew up on a council estate in Stockport, leaving school with no qualifications and falling pregnant at 16 and having to fend for herself and her child. (“I know what it’s like to be hungry,” points out the now mother-of-three. “It’s not an academic statistic for me.”)

While raising her young kids, she also worked as a home carer, and became involved in Unison—becoming the union’s organiser on Stockport council. A blink of an eye later, and she was northwest convenor. After following the well-worn path into the Labour Party, she ran for selection in Withington and finally secured Ashton through an all-woman shortlist, entering parliament in 2015.

“It’s the trade unionist in me, I think. You never relinquish power, ever, even if it’s difficult.”
Already, at 35, that was more than many people cram into a lifetime. But a year later, Rayner found herself handed the shadow education brief in the wake of the disastrous 2016 anti-Corbyn coup. “I genuinely thought that I’d be gone by Monday,” she insists. “I just thought it was the right thing to do rather than leave the frontbench empty.” Then, with contrasting single-mindedness: “It’s the trade unionist in me, I think. You never relinquish power, ever, even if it’s difficult.”

And so far, she hasn’t. If her accelerated rise up the greasy pole has been the product of circumstance, her growing profile reflects something else too. The account Rayner gives of herself flits between the self-doubting “impostor syndrome” she says she felt on being promoted—similarly her insistence that she had to be “pushed” to stand as an MP—and a laser-like ambition.

“She’s a tremendous operator,” says one fellow Greater Manchester MP. “She’s charming, but she’s also really tough. It’s true that if you look at her background she’s got a remarkable story, but she plays to that and she’s not to be underestimated in any future planning for the party. If I could have any colleague in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) represent me in an employment tribunal it would be Angela.”

In the last year Rayner has taken the cards she has been dealt by the Tories—not a bad hand—and played them with a flourish, taking them on over grammar schools, sex education, higher education reforms and schools funding. It has led her into television and radio studios, where some Labour detractors have muttered her performances need more “consistency.” Others hark back to her first blaze of publicity—“Shoebacca-gate”—as a black mark against her judgment. Shortly after being elected Rayner ordered a pair of novelty “Star Wars heels,” pricey shoes propped up by little R2-D2s, but ended up threatening the store on Commons-headed paper after they had sold out. (“It’s been a learning curve,” she admits.)
“If Corbyn can become leader there’s no reason Angela can’t.”
Yet despite the gripes, her tenacity means that more than one colleague believes she may have what it takes. “The level of humility in the PLP is practically zero, so I think almost everyone thinks they can do the top job,” says another MP. “But I think she is very ambitious. The one thing you can say about politics is you can’t predict anything and if Corbyn can become leader there’s no reason Angela can’t.” There are similarities between Rayner’s back-story and that of Alan Johnson, who was also often touted as a future leader. Johnson, however, ultimately decided against running, once explaining he just couldn’t imagine making that final “step up.” Ask Rayner if she wants the top job, and back comes the impostor syndrome.

“I couldn’t think of anything more frightening than standing up and having that pressure. I’ve seen the pressure and what it’s done to people. Jeremy is probably the most perfect individual—but I’m like a rogue. I was feral as a teenager,” she says, providing music to the ears of tabloid lobby hacks. “I didn’t think I’d get selected to be an MP, so the thought of being leader of the Labour Party and one day prime minister is the stuff that happens in books to other people. It’s the stuff of dreams, it’s not something I’d consider to be a reality. I just keep doing what I’m doing.”

But few people would make the journey Rayner has made by accident. While her positioning as “neither a Blairite or a Corbynite” is neat, most feel it is genuine. She has credited Blair for policies that allowed her to thrive as a single mother, at the same time as thriving in a Corbyn cabinet. Unlike Rebecca Long-Bailey on the left or Lucy Powell on the right, here is a Mancunian MP who can walk this trickiest of Labour tightropes—without looking like a mere triangulator.

Ask about her background and there again is that steely flip-side to the working class self-doubt. “Being a woman, people underestimate you,” she smiles. “When they do, I think: ‘I don’t have a problem with it mate. I’ll just eat you alive.’”