Angela Rayner interview: 'The Labour Party belongs to its members – we should remember that'
Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner (Photography by Ray Burmiston)
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner speaks to Sienna Rodgers about her childhood, relations with trade unions and the party’s focus at Conference
"I’m not sure about the plastic grass on the ceiling,” says Angela Rayner, peering up at hanging foliage in the “Winter Gardens” office in The House magazine’s HQ on the 11th floor of London’s Shard skyscraper. “I used to clean buildings and I’m just feeling for that cleaner. How do you clean that?”
Labour’s deputy leader is making a House call, having been discouraged from using her own office in Westminster during Queen Elizabeth II’s Lying-in-State. The solemnities surrounding the transition from one monarch to another – and the heavy involvement of Parliament and its politicians in those ceremonies – have meant a strange start to the new term, made even more unusual by the advent of a new prime minister.
“The disrespect shown for levelling up – it was another slogan on the back of a fag packet. It meant nothing to them”
After attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and a hastily re-arranged fiscal statement delivered during an accelerating cost of living crisis, Rayner will head to Liverpool for Labour’s annual Conference. To what extent will the extraordinary and historic events of the past few weeks have an impact on the gathering?
“It will influence Conference,” Rayner says. “It’s going to be more sombre than it would have been in that regard, and more respectful because we have lost our monarch.” She believes the dedication to public service represented by the late Queen chimes with Labour values and “people will be very respectful of that”.
As a member of the Privy Council, and in her capacity as shadow first secretary of state, shadow Cabinet Office minister, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow future of work secretary, Rayner had the opportunity to meet the late monarch, although only via Zoom.
“It was really quite funny,” she says. “It was like having a Zoom call with your grandma. And obviously, I’m a grandma as well. [Business Secretary] Jacob Rees-Mogg introduced me as the youngest grandma in Parliament – that’s how I was introduced to the Queen!” (Having been a mother at 16, Rayner became a grandmother aged only 37 in 2017.)
Conference will also very much be shaped by the cost of living crisis, inspiring policy motions and forming the basis of many speeches. Hardship is something Rayner understands in a deeply personal way. “There’s a practical issue: people are absolutely petrified about how they’re going to survive or how they’re going to get to work,” she says. “But what people overlook sometimes is the mental impact it has.”
Rayner is particularly concerned about the effect of poverty on children. “It doesn’t just impact on the adults today – it impacts on the next generation who are having to go through that poverty themselves. That’s the big difference from what I understand from my upbringing. I knew how difficult it was, and I didn’t ask to be born into poverty.”
With new Prime Minister Liz Truss at the helm, a clearer ideological divide has opened up between Labour and the Conservatives. The governing party is now happy to be seen making the argument that too much redistribution is bad, for example. Some are also worried that Boris Johnson’s defining mission of levelling up the country appears to have ended up on the Truss scrapheap.
“The disrespect shown for levelling up – it was another slogan on the back of a fag packet. It meant nothing to them,” Rayner says. “I’m really concerned about the direction she seems to want to take the Conservative Party.”
But on one level, at least, the Tories could be seen as more progressive: they are onto their third female prime minister, with a Cabinet that is characterised by a number of ethnic minority and women MPs in senior posts. In contrast, Labour has still never elected a woman as leader. Is she embarrassed?
“No, not really,” Rayner replies. “Keir is our leader. The next leader of the Labour Party, I think the membership do feel they want a woman, and they want to take that forward. But more importantly, we’ve got a [shadow] cabinet that is more diverse than ever.”
If members are keen to have a woman lead Labour next time, could that be her? “I want to achieve a Labour government and I want to achieve it next time around because I know from personal experience what difference that could make for people. That is my absolute focus. Who knows what the future holds? But for me, I’m hoping that at the next general election the future holds that I will be deputy prime minister. And that is completely mind-blowing.”
She is well aware there would be a downside to higher office. “I don’t see my children as much as I want to see my children because I’m here. I have to be in London to do my job. It will make it all worthwhile if I can say to my children and my grandchildren when they’re older that the way the country is now is because I had some direct involvement.”
Rayner makes the case that Labour is better than the Conservatives at putting working-class politicians to the fore. “If you look at the Cabinet now, and you look at the number of people that went to public or private school, it’s pretty stark compared to the general population.”
The paucity of working-class politicians at the top means Rayner is not surprised the public “feel like politicians are in it for themselves”, and she says the imbalance is reinforced by the media. “Every time I’m in the news in some of the papers that are less favourable to Labour politicians, it’s always: ‘pregnant at 16, left without qualifications’.”
“My childhood was blighted by being scared and feeling helpless a lot of the time”
Rayner expresses anxiety about the way Westminster toxicity could put off ordinary working people from entering politics: “If they see it as a bear pit where they’re going to get torn apart, people won’t want to do it.” And yet she was not discouraged – why is that?
“I grew up in a very challenging environment,” she says. “I was a ginger kid, the poor kid. I was bullied. I used to walk out my door and run the gauntlet to the shop, because my mum or dad had asked me to get a pint of milk and I knew I’d get leathered on the way to the shop if somebody saw me, one of the other kids would beat me. That was absolutely petrifying.”
She continues: “My childhood was blighted by being scared and feeling helpless a lot of the time. For me, I survived that through my teenage years and found a resilience in me. Having Ryan at 16 helped because then I had somebody who I needed to be there for… It also taught me I can survive things.”
Rayner is a survivor and a tough talker – when asked about facing new Deputy Prime Minister Therese Coffey, she shoots back: “I relish the idea; bring it on” – but there is huge vulnerability there too. She is subjected to unrelenting online abuse, including violent threats that have led to police involvement and a conviction. “My eldest son said to me once, ‘Mum, is it worth it?’. Because he sees all the abuse that I get. It hurts him. He’s an adult male, and his mum gets a tsunami of abuse constantly.”
Rayner was born in Stockport and raised in the trade union movement, reaching the ranks of Labour MP via the Unison trade union. With an autumn of industrial action looming, what does she make of Starmer’s ban on front benchers joining picket lines, which has disgruntled many MPs and trade unionists, even those who typically support the leadership?
“Keir made his position very clear that he thinks the shadow cabinet wouldn’t be on the picket line if we were a cabinet – we would be resolving the issues,” she replies carefully. But she is keen to stress that she sympathises with the plight of workers whose pay is not keeping up with inflation.
“These are people that don’t normally take industrial action. [Critics ] might want to say, ‘Oh, it’s a militant trade union’. It’s just so ridiculous. The trade unions of today – I know, I was a trade union official – you do not go on strike unless it’s an absolute last resort.”
“The Labour Party belongs to its members. We should remember that”
Asked about the unhappiness of some affiliated unions, she offers an impassioned defence of the Labour-union link. “It’s so crucial and important to our movement,” Rayner says. “The party doesn’t belong to Keir. It doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to the trade unions. The Labour Party belongs to its members. We should remember that.”
Another Labour sore spot right now is trigger ballots, which determine whether sitting MPs are reselected as candidates. Left-winger Sam Tarry – widely reported to be in a relationship with Rayner – is thought to be at risk of deselection, after every branch in his Ilford South constituency party voted to hold a full selection contest. Would she encourage members not to oust their sitting MPs?
“Local democracy is really important,” Rayner begins. This is the kind of answer Starmer would be expected to give: members are free to make their own choices. But the deputy leader veers off that line when she adds that she supported former Labour MP Luciana Berger against deselection efforts by the party’s left and does not like to see it coming from any faction.
“I don’t approve of us attacking each other. The more we do that, the more the public will see us as not a government in waiting. Actually, attacking each other proves to the public that we’re not fit to govern,” she says. “If we can’t be inclusive to members of the Labour Party, how are we going to be inclusive to people that are not members of the Labour Party, that have different views to us?”
Asked whether she is helping Tarry win his fight, Rayner hints that she is – and that she agrees with his claim there were procedural irregularities. “I want to see a fair process where people feel they’re supported,” she says, revealing that she has raised concerns with Labour’s general secretary about possible unfairness. “Sam served on the front bench and has done a sterling job for both Keir and myself, and for the labour movement. I think he’s been an excellent MP.”
As well as presenting an opportunity to capitalise on airtime and communicate the party’s vision to the country, Labour Conference is often a site of internal tensions. Rayner is determined, however, that it will prove a place where the party unites around a shared drive to see Labour back in power, saying this should be at the heart of events in Liverpool.
“Being in opposition does not change people’s lives. Being in government does have an impact on people’s lives. And that’s what the Conference is about for me this year.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.