Angela Rayner: “I’ve been on a journey. But the idea of running for prime minister is still a bit much”
In just two years at Westminster, Angela Rayner has risen from backbench MP to shadow education secretary. So why does she still fear she is ‘punching above’ her weight? She sits down with Jess Phillips to talk class politics, Labour’s future and how the pair ended up ‘on opposite sides of the fence’
As I sit down to interview Angela Rayner in her Westminster office, I feel a bit awkward. This is a woman whose floor I slept on for weeks when we were first elected in 2015. I’ve sat around with her in pyjamas. The two young MPs we were – getting ready together before heading to Westminster in those first few weeks of May 2015 – those women are gone. Those of us elected in the 2015 election have had a hell of a time, multiple elections, referendums, leadership battles, wars, and deeply personal bereavements. So much water has flowed under our bridge that it is now so rickety as to be almost impassable. Or is it?
To the average outsider Rayner is from the Corbyn wing of the party and I am from quite another faction. Although I’m not sure which one it is; moderates, centrists, Blairites – I’ve been called every one of those things. In a time where self-identification is the politics du jour I think it is safe to say neither Angela or I self-identify with the labels we are given, but hey what would we know about our own lives?
“It frustrates me,” she says with considerable annoyance in her voice. “I feel really aggrieved that the 2015 intake were a really close group but we’ve been categorised, labelled. When did me and you become a label and end up on opposite sides of the fence?”
Much like Theresa May benefiting from a Brexit which will in the end be her undoing, the factionalism Rayner dislikes so much helped her in to her position. She is more than happy to admit that she got her job as shadow education secretary through being in the right place at the right time. “If you have an opportunity to step up and change things you should take it,” she asserts while we laugh together about how she found herself with loads of jobs after the mass walk out of the then shadow frontbench.
You have got to admire her for this; she deserves the rewards. However Rayner, unlike some of her shadow cabinet colleagues, doesn’t want to gloat from a position of authority and join in the activity of deepening the divide. Perhaps this comes from her class demons, in her words, “telling me I’m not good enough”. But in fact I think she genuinely wants not to end up lumped in one camp thus annoying the other side of the party.
“The party is bigger than Jeremy Corbyn,” she says with near sing song clarity as if she has had to say it a million times. “Name me one Labour leader you’ve agreed with on everything they have said or done. I’ve had problems with every leader.” I ask her if she purposefully takes this stance of appeasement and she says: “Absolutely, we are a family, we will fight like a family – but at the end of the day we want the same thing.”
When I suggest that the party is doing better than it was she agrees, but she is cautious with her responses, not wishing to join in some of the more fevered Labour chatter that would have an alien landing on earth thinking we had won the general election. She does however think that the party is healing after a bitter battle. “Time is a great healer. Jeremy is not going anywhere and no one is naturally coming forward. I think everyone in the PLP wants stability, they are knackered.”
I don’t disagree with her, but I am less convinced that the vitriol faced by MPs from within the party is dying down. She isn’t blind to it and can see how in the weeks and months ahead there are too many delicious opportunities for problems to arise. “I do worry about conference and the rule changes that cause factionalism within the party. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. But the difference between this year and last year is we know what we are here for now.”
This pretty much sums up Rayner’s politics. What she has by the bag load is heart, a sense of purpose and a sturdy understanding of what she is here to do. She wants to prove people like her can lead, that people like her family and her neighbours from the council estates she grew up on can achieve, that everyone deserves a chance in life.
Many feel that the Labour Party out of government lost its way in this area, that we became a function of democracy, bureaucratic cut-outs who had forgotten or didn’t care for the big ideas about why we were here. I don’t disagree. I find myself in front of politicians of all banners and I wonder what drives you? What is it that makes you get out of bed in the morning? Angela Rayner is not one of these people.
No politician can say with any certainty what tomorrow brings, and while our colleagues in the Conservative party appear to be spending conference recess arguing over who is more responsible for Brexit, Johnson or May, we gird our loins for the possibility of another election.
Is Rayner preparing for government? In a recent interview with the Guardian John McDonnell talked about how he and Jeremy Corbyn would ask every shadow ministerial team to turn their section of the manifesto into a detailed ‘manual for government’. Rayner’s drive and purpose to create an education system for all is admirable, however does heart and purpose mean she feels ready to run a huge government department as important as the Department for Education? “It might sound flippant but we couldn’t be doing a worse job than them,” she says. Low morale amongst teachers, news of academy chains closing schools in the first week of term and a row over an ever changing schools funding formula have dogged the education secretary and her team, and Rayner has used her position at the despatch box successfully to highlight these failings.
She tells me about how nervous she felt when the civil service teams reached out to her prior to the 2017 election, as is the normal protocol at election time. “I refused to meet with them down here, they had to come to Ashton [Rayner’s constituency]. I kept putting it off. I didn’t want to pre-empt anything.” Her self-doubt showing once again.
Did she think there was any chance we would win, that she would have the job of her dreams? This is a very firm “no!” “But I did think that some of the more pessimistic polling was ridiculous,” she adds.
I push her on some of the detail of what she would actually do given the job she might get one day. “We have a blueprint of what a National Education service would look like. I think of it in terms of a cradle to grave model like in the NHS.”
Her ambition to revive and renew the Sure Start services is clear. She speaks with passion about new mothers in her constituency and tells me she relied on the services to teach her to be a good parent and give her the space to meet with others and get support when she found herself a new mum as a teenager. Early years and support for parents is clearly where her heart is, while all anyone else wants to talk about is tuition fees. She does mention this but more in prose than in poetry. “My first day as Secretary of State for education saying I’m going to saddle your kids with loads of debt? I just cannot do that.”
She is more than happy to pitch her flag clearly in favour of more government spending on education to fill a growing skills gap. She wants to see state investment in technological innovation and entrepreneurial skills that will help our economy and is unapologetic about the fact it will cost money – at the same time as recognising that it won’t, and can’t, all happen on day one.
“I think I will find it hard to work within the constraints of the enigma that is government, I’m not without competence or ideas but I know how frustrated I will be with the bureaucracy, I found that in the trade union movement. But we got stuff done, stuff I’m proud of. The broader Labour family, and all the organisations we work with, has the answers – we have to let people in to help with the details and the solutions.”
This might sound a bit naive to some but I think back to all the times my dad, a teacher of 40 years, lamented how little politicians working in education ever listened to them, the experts.
Rayner’s open, and almost vulnerable, willingness to learn is honest and is in fact what every secretary of state since the beginning of time actually did. It is certainly better than what we have at the moment. I bet Theresa May is wishing she had widened her field a little when writing her blueprint for government. Turns out a couple of ‘yes people’ in a room does not a successful premiership make. Arrogance born of certainty is not something Angela Rayner has ever experienced in her life, so why would she adopt it now? She is not pretending to have all of the answers.
So would Angela Rayner ever go the full hog and stand to be leader? She has spoken before of her imposter syndrome and she reaffirms this point. “I can’t envisage it at the minute.”
I enjoy the caveat, which she qualifies with some more self-depreciation; “I already think I am punching above my weight.”
I really wish that she didn’t feel like that and push back against this almost too obvious an answer, the answer so many women give when pushed to dare to say ‘yes I could be the boss’. Noting my frustration, she does what Angela Rayner seems to be able to do to members of the Labour party wanting her to be one thing or another and she appeases me. “I’ve been on a journey because now I say ‘yes I’m competent enough to run a department’. So that’s progress for me. The idea of running for prime minister is still a bit much, like I should know my place.”
Maybe she is right; the place I am asking her to strive for is not a place anyone like Rayner has ever achieved. Does she think we will ever have a woman leader? The doughty fighter comes out as she snaps, “It will be because we will make sure of it.” I’m not sure how we are going to do this, but I believe her.
As I leave her office for her to have her pictures taken, she laments that she was wearing the same top the last time she was in in the magazine. “People will think I’m a right scruff, with only one top.”
We laugh together about the fripperies and nuisances of being a woman in politics just as we did back in her house in 2015.
For the first time in over a year we have properly sat down and talked. It is amazing how quickly we can rebuild that bridge. Perhaps everything is going to be ok.