Angela Rayner was on home turf, delivering a speech on Labour’s latest pledge to “poverty-proof” education, when it suddenly became obvious that the personal is the political.
Outlining a promise to deliver free breakfasts for primary school children, she described how as a youngster she would sit, hungry, outside her friends’ houses.
“I’d ask their parents if I could come in for dinner and they’d say ‘you can’t come in today, you were here yesterday’. And I’d sit on the kerb waiting, while they had their dinner.” A slight catch in her voice, she added: “No child under the next Labour government will be put under that situation.” The audience of Labour activists and students burst into loud applause.
Rayner was at Clarendon Sixth Form College in her constituency of Ashton-Under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, announcing a raft of measures from capping all class sizes at 30 pupils to providing new help with school uniform costs.
This was ‘education day’ on Labour’s election media ‘grid’, and after the speech she was whisked away to give mini-interviews to local TV and newspapers, pausing only to take a choc-chip cookie from the tea and biscuits table, popping it into her coat pocket.
Grabbing snacks on the fly is part of the life of a frontbencher in demand across the country and Rayner is one of the shadow cabinet ministers given a prominent role by Team Corbyn. Her day had begun at 4am as she prepped for a trip to Salford to do BBC Breakfast and ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Both interviews proved testy, with Rayner trying to defend Jeremy Corbyn’s remark that he sometimes watches the Queen’s Christmas message in the “morning”. She also hit back at BBC claims that her plan for new teachers were insufficient for the country’s needs.
Always happy to spar with interviewers, she nevertheless felt that both were unfair to her party. Sajid Javid was welcomed on the BBC Breakfast sofa with congratulations on his 50th birthday, she grumbled afterwards.
Rayner, who first became an MP in 2015, has served as shadow education secretary since 2016, when her loyalty was rewarded following mass resignations by Corbyn’s frontbench over his leadership.
The daughter of a mother with bipolar disorder, she got pregnant at sixteen and left school with no qualifications. She’s talked about how Tony Blair’s Sure Start programme helped her get her life back on track as she raised her son alone. After studying part time, she became a council care worker and then Unison union rep before being selected as a parliamentary candidate.
After meeting her husband Mark she had two more children, one of whom was born premature at just 23 weeks and is registered blind. When her grown-up son had a child of his own, at 37 she became a grandmother, or “Grangela” as she called herself.
Still only 39, Rayner knows more than most that her ‘backstory’, that glib phrase that tries to turn life experience into a political CV, is unusual at Westminster. And she wants to be judged on her merits, not her history.
In an aide’s cramped car on the way to Stockport train station, she gives a mini-tour of the now regenerated town centre that once dominated her youth. “That’s the Samaritans where I was the youngest volunteer...there’s the deaf club where I learned sign language...that was the dole house where I used to get my crisis loan from…”
At the station approach, she spots a homeless man sitting in the cold, dips into her pocket and hands him that choc-chip cookie she tucked away earlier. “Take care, love” she says, as he smiles.
Putting a smile on her staff’s faces is not hard either, whether it’s through her car karaoke or jokes about their suits. On board the train to Wolverhampton, she recalls how her Commons aides had never been to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant until she took them to one on a campaign trip to Truro.
“They were like ‘we don’t go to KFC’, I said ‘what?!’ And then none of them ordered gravy. You only go KFC for the gravy. None of them had ever tasted it! I mean this is like weird stuff,” she said.
There’ll be only healthy breakfasts on offer in Labour’s new primary school policy, but Rayner stresses that wholesome, free meals for all is crucial to attainment as well as social justice. She remembers well the social taint of having a free school meals ticket herself.
“I had my token. This is why I think it’s so important to have a universal offer on those things. I think it ends the stigma and it makes sure that every child, regardless of their background, gets that breakfast in the morning. They will do well academically as a result of that too.”
“My mum couldn’t read or write. My sons were all beyond her by the age of three, teaching her how to read.”
Similarly, her plan for wraparound after school clubs are aimed at helping children with no computers at home to do their homework and get extra support. Her ‘National Education Service’ also aims to open up schools for lifelong learning for their parents too.
“We see so many libraries and public services close that kids are not getting access to that. And the digital divide is actually quite significant. You struggle or you don’t do your homework and then your child gets a detention and is singled out again. And the child doesn’t want to tell the parent that ‘I’ve got detention because you’ve not helped me with my homework’. It’s a spiral of poverty.
“And again, with the homework, you know, some parents just completely can’t do that homework, it is too complex. They’re stigmatised as ‘poor parents don’t care about it, they don’t do their homework with them’. Actually my mum had that problem, she couldn’t read or write. My sons were all beyond her by the age of three, my kids were teaching my mum how to read. There’s no way that my mum could have helped me.”
Once off the train in the midlands, Rayner is picked up by the local Labour party that is battling hard to hold on to the seat of Wolverhampton South West. But the stop is an opportunity to also hear first hand from local teachers about what they really need from a government.
She spends more than an hour listening to James Ludlow, principal of the King’s Church of England school, and his senior vice principal Joy Langley, as they relate the challenges of being a council-backed secondary.
King’s has had the most improved exam results of any school in the area, but Ofsted still landed it with a label of ‘requires improvement’, a judgement the teachers felt was brutally unfair. And thanks to the government’s push for schools to become academies, it is technically listed for a change of status next year.
On top of all that, the school has literally 300 holes in its roof and a huge financial deficit for repairs, thanks to a botched rebuild by the collapsed firm Carillion. Badly-fitted doors have left a gap where the cold wind shoots through and the school has had to install emergency heaters to keep pupils and staff warm.
The heads are carefully non-party political, but Rayner tells them their story sums up just why a Labour government is needed to replace Ofsted and provide more capital investment.
The politics are more pressing than ever locally. Rayner visits a community hall to give a morale boost - and one of her many video clips - to local candidate Eleanor Smith and her campaign staff before a canvassing session. The regional GMB union official arrives laden with fingerless gloves and hoodies for activists to brave the winter streets.
One party member arrives laden with sustenance (“Greggs only had one vegan sausage roll left!”), with lots of meat and veggie samosas the main offering. “Not as good as Oldham’s!” Rayner jokes on tasting the Indian bite, before posing for the all-important selfie with the team.
Wolverhampton South West, like Walsall North where Rayner is heading next, is a key marginal that the Tories have their sights on in Boris Johnson’s bid to secure a majority. And in Leave-voting areas like these, it’s clearly a challenge.
So, how differently does this election feel compared to 2017? “Massively different on the ground,” Rayner replies. “The Tories talk about Hard Brexit, Brexit at any cost, of course the public are like ‘yeah, Boris he will get Brexit done, OK’.
“They don’t realise at all he’s offering is years of a withdrawal agreement and more negotiation but hey it’s a good slogan, it works on the side of a bus. So there are people persuaded by that. But he is more of a villain compared to what Theresa May was. And people have just seen the struggle [of austerity]. They’ve seen that our policies are popular, and [the Tories] have just about thrown everything and the kitchen sink at Jeremy Corbyn.”
Jeremy has sustained significant pressure and attacks and he continues to do the right thing.
As for Corbyn himself, she is a staunch defender of his leadership and style, while admitting that he is still an issue on the doorstep.
“People have realised actually, leadership is much more than just stomping your feet around and making shouting around. Jeremy has sustained significant pressure and attacks and he continues to do the right thing.
“He’s never lowered himself by being personal about anyone else. And he’s always lead by example, it’s a different type of leadership and I think it’s taken a long time for people to give that the benefit of the doubt.”
Why do some working class voters react badly to the Labour leader? “They think he’s unpatriotic. That he’s not for Britain. But I think that’s this drip feed from the media because he wants to provide peace, because he was against the war in Iraq, because he doesn’t instantly think let’s find a military solution to this problem. He looks at it pragmatically.
“Jeremy’s tried to say that and articulate that and the way in which some of the right wing media has portrayed it is he is a wet lettuce and he doesn’t want to protect this country. He does want to protect this country.”
Even now, with less than a week to polling day, she believes the public have seen what Corbyn is really like.
“And I think people are starting to think well, you know what, he’s not this great ogre that people are trying to paint him as. And they see him on the telly and even though he’s not the shouty type, he does get passionate, he gets passionate about getting rid of the inequality in the UK. So I think people are starting to give him a bit more credit. And people have had enough. They want to see investment in their communities again.”
Rayner admits that a key feature of the reaction of some Labour supporters is that the party’s radical manifesto plans - from free broadband to higher minimum wages - don’t seem “realistic”. “People have had 10 years of ‘you can’t have’. And I think they think ’well, you know, we can’t have these things.”
But what’s her reaction when she hears lifelong Labour voters say they are considering voting Tory? “I do try and understand that and I understand why people are upset,” she says. “But it does devastate me when people think that’s the answer to their problems in my area, where I grew up. They say ‘well, you we sent you there, you’re there to get Brexit done, we voted Out, why aren’t you doing that?’.
“I’m like, well, I haven’t changed who I am. I’m working class, they’re my mates. What I am trying to do though is to do the right thing. And it’s a question of, do I create a huge amount of self harm for my constituents [with Johnson’s deal]? Or do I do what I think is right by them and not necessarily what’s right by me as an individual [opposing Johnson’s deal]?
“And that’s been a challenge. And yet you think ‘Boris Johnson? Who’s had everything given to him on the plate?’ While I have had to worry about putting food on the table? And I’ve had to worry in the pit of my stomach like many of my friends have.”
It emerged this week that Johnson had written an article in 2005 in which he claimed single mothers were raising a generation of “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”.
He wrote: “it must be generally plausible that if having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby.” It’s a stance that particularly angers Rayner.
“I’ve been on income support, I’ve had to worry about these things. Boris has never had that. Boris has never been chastised for being a single mum. He’s the one that runs off and leaves them with the babies.”
“So I think ‘you really think he’s got your interests at heart, before me?’ That I find a bit upsetting because they’ve managed to create this environment, like they are somehow there for the ordinary person. They’re not. They’re laughing.”
“Boris has never been chastised for being a single mum. He’s the one that runs off and leave them with the babies.”
Rayner’s own constituency voted to Leave, so she’s acutely aware of the complaints of traditional Labour heartlands, not least that the party assumes they didn’t know what they were voting for when they ticked the Brexit box in the 2016 referendum.
“Part of that is because certain people in our party in particular have tried to paint us as just Remain at all costs, which has never been us,” she said. “The Lib Dems have been that. We were very pragmatic. We did respect the result, I never ever thought I’d try and hoodwink my constituents. I don’t. And I still believe we could get a deal. The Tories have been in power, we’ve not been given the chance to get a deal. We want to do that.
“Yes, our deal is closely aligned to Europe. It’s the pragmatic deal. That’s what I like to call it. Some call it soft Brexit. But it deals with the Northern Ireland problem, we won’t be dealing with for years on end, because we’ll be in a customs union with access to a single market. Yes, we’re out of Europe, but we’re close to them. We were always gonna have to be that. Boris Johnson will have to get real, we’ll have to get close to Europe.
Certain people in our party in particular have tried to paint us as just Remain at all costs, which has never been us.
“That is my message 100%. We are the only ones that’s going to offer you a pragmatic Brexit. Boris Johnson will have to offer it eventually, but he wants his five years, that’s why he called this election now.”
Rayner had said at the start of the year that if Labour adopted a second referendum, it could prove “disastrous” to public trust. She stands by that, though she now accepts it is party policy. “Yes, because as politicians we will have failed.”
“I feel like part of the reason why we got to that position is there’s a lot of members and a lot of people that are cross with what they consider to be lies that were told in the referendum.”
She also defends Corbyn’s approach to Brexit, even though it has not proved popular. “I don’t think any other [Labour] leader would have been able to deal with Brexit, because it’s a pragmatic Brexit. It’s hard sell. He’s trying to bring the country together. I think in the long run it will be proved to be the right thing.
“And I think we’ve come to a point where the nation is completely divided on the issue. The only way you get a chance to actually vote on an actual deal, decide what you want, a final say, is by going back to the people.
“I personally would have liked to have had the opportunity now to have dealt with it, had a Brexit deal that was right for us and then voted for it and gone through. It would have been a lot easier for me to have been in that position.”
Corbyn admitted he was ‘Marmite’ to the voters this week, and Rayner agrees.
“On the issue of Jeremy himself I think for every person that Jeremy’s switched off, he’s switched so many people on. The young people and the people that have engaged and think that is absolutely brilliant, you know. In 2017 for example, in my constituency, there was a lot of ‘I don’t like Jeremy Corbyn’ on my doorstep then, but my majority increased. And up and down the country majorities increased by significant amounts.”
The difference this time is an undelivered Brexit is much more of an issue in Labour heartlands, she said. “When you put Brexit and Jeremy together, then people are just frustrated. I mean, they don’t go ‘and we like the other side’. They think ‘you’re all a bunch of idiots that haven’t delivered what we want - and by the way, we don’t like Jeremy’.”
Pragmatism, whether on Brexit or anything else, is a Rayner watchword. She has little time for Marxists who believe the working classes vote ‘the wrong way’ because of “false consciousness”.
“I just think that’s laughable. You can theorise about where people come from, but ultimately, it has to apply to the real world. Ideology never put food on my table. It didn’t. It probably helped in some way. But I certainly didn’t come at it from an ideological position and never have done.”
Rayner has often had to suffer online abuse over her northern accent, her looks and her background. Even as she campaigned in the west midlands, a Tory activist tweeted she wasn’t qualified to oversee the UK’s education system. She hit back in inimitable fashion, tapping out a response on her smartphone.
But just as she refuses to patronise Leave voters as stupid, she is also careful not to demonise Conservative voters as heartless.
“I represent of course everybody when I’m the member of parliament. I think for the majority of politicians, it’s about allowing people to get on in life and do well. We just have different opinions on how you can do that.
“I’ve been talking to some Tories in Ashton, there’s not loads, but there are some really nice ones, and I get on really well with them.”
She’s also keen to stress that winning a Labour majority means converting Conservative supporters to the Labour cause.
“Regardless of what tribe people think they’re in, we don’t work in isolation as human beings, we want to do what’s right. Inherently I think the goodness in most people, we get a warm sense of satisfaction if we help someone, it makes you feel better.
“And when I was a home help, you know, when people were in the last weeks, days of life, they didn’t tell me about how much they’d achieved financially or academically. They talked about family, they talked about friends and things like that. I think inherently people want to do what’s good and fair.
“So you’ve just got to create the policies that are the fairest, that helps people the most, and people will sacrifice stuff for that. People will sacrifice their own wealth if they think that will create a better future for people around them, because people are kind hearted, kind natured and want to do the right thing. And that’s internationally as well, not just nationally.”
My kids... live in a house where they’ve got panic buttons.
Rayner dislikes the alienating rhetoric of describing Conservatives as “evil” or claiming that they “kill” the poor. “I think rhetoric like that is quite dangerous on all sides. I really do, because it’s alienating.
“I just think when you talk in very dangerous, emotive language like hatred and killing people and stuff, I think it’s, it’s not very helpful. It really isn’t. It’s like when people call us hard left. I’m not hard left, definitely not hard left.”
The vitriol thrown at politicians has led her to install panic alarms at home too. In the past week alone the parliamentary liaison service contacted her local police over a threat online. “Another one that just emailed me direct and said ‘the only good socialist is a dead one. And I hope you die’,” she said.
“People like Piers Morgan, they deliberately try and provoke, create this environment where all politicians don’t care, we’re all slimy and we are all in it for ourselves. And truly, it’s like the most difficult thing.
“My kids live in a different environment than I did as a child. They’ve got privileges I didn’t have as a child, but they have disadvantages. They don’t see their mum as much. They see the threats that one gets. They live in a house where they’ve got panic buttons, and I’ve had to teach them about safety. You know, my kids wanted to do like a little YouTube channel because that’s what kids do these days, my kids are 10 and 11. I’m like, ‘you can’t’.”
Rayner was 12 when Labour last lost its fourth general election in a row and Neil Kinnock who had led the party to two defeats, quit. After the arrival of Tony Blair, that defeat prompted a big shift in the party’s offer to voters. If Labour again loses a fourth election, will a similar soul-searching take place?
Rayner is adamant. “I think that people will see that our policies are on the right track. We’re not going back. There’s no going back. This magnolia triangulation of politics is not what people want. Our bold, radical stuff around the economy, making the economy more diverse, is what the country needs that investment in new technologies.
“Even if Jeremy didn’t win, he’s changed the landscape of this country. Is that leadership? Maybe it is. Maybe it’ll take a while for the seeds of Jeremy to grow, rather than just be a quick fix.”
She adds that defeat “would be absolutely devastating”. “Of course you’d have to reflect on that, I’d be absolutely devastated because I want to create the National Education Service. I’ve been in Parliament now since 2015. I feel like I know what I’m doing now. I’ve seen out four education secretaries.
There’s no going back. This magnolia triangulation of politics is not what people want.
“I’m ready. I’m ready for that opportunity to roll my sleeves up and transform Britain and say to my working class community ‘see, I told you we can do this, we just needed a bit of ambition, a bit of confidence, we can do this’.
“I’ve not lost any enthusiasm to deliver that. And Labour’s not going to go backwards on that.”
But if Labour loses, would that be because it was seen as too left-wing, or - as some on the left historically claim - because the party wasn’t left-wing enough? “I don’t think it’s because we’re too socialist,” she replies. “And I don’t think it’s because we’re not socialist enough.”
Which brings us to Rayner herself. She’s often touted as a possible successor to Corbyn, even though she once said she wasn’t sure if the British public could envisage someone from her background lead the country.
“I am more confident, but the difference between me and the posh boys like Boris Johnson, is I have to earn respect. I have to prove my worth. I think I’m getting there.
“I need the opportunity to be education secretary, and then I’ll show them exactly what I can do. But I think I have to earn it in a way that a guy in a suit from Eton can just bounce in, lie and just get believed. Whereas me, I have to earn the right to do that and I think that hasn’t changed. “
If her colleagues ask her to put herself forward for the leadership at some point, would she party it’s too soon or would she consider it? Her diplomatic answer suggests that perhaps she’s more than ready.
“I’d say that my ideal situation is that people give Jeremy the chance. And I go in and I’ll serve.
“It’s a scary thought, a girl from my background. I mean getting into parliament was quite an achievement in itself and then I have to pinch myself at the thought of actually running a department. But I’m confident I can do it now, because I’ve seen all the stuff that I need to do and I feel good about it because I’ve got that confidence that I know my stuff.
“And seeing the likes of Boris Johnson, quite frankly, jumping up there and lying I think, well, I can do a better job than that definitely. So in that respect, I’ve got more confident now I’ve seen how Parliament works in the last couple of years.”
So she wouldn’t rule out running for leader, would that be fair? “I wouldn’t rule anything in or out. I just think at the moment it’s about getting us over the line.”
Rayner has a chance to showcase her political skills in the final TV debate of the election campaign, on Channel 4 on Sunday. Her friend and shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey (pictured above), another future leadership contender, did well in a similar format last week.
“I wouldn’t rule anything in or out. I just think at the moment it’s about getting us over the line.”
The pair are so close they are flatmates and even go on holiday together. Have they agreed they would never stand against each other in a party contest? Is there a new Granita pact in the offing?
“Well, to be honest, we don’t we don’t even talk about it. We are just too knackered doing our day job that we genuinely don’t. We talk about stuff like what we are getting for tea. Becky tries to make me eat more veg. She literally does. I call her Mum. She’s very good, very responsible.”
And with that, Rayner was off to another campaign event, a primary school in Walsall singing Christmas songs. Soon afterwards, she joined Corbyn on his campaign bus and then introduced him at Labour’s big education rally in Birmingham.
She finally got into bed just after midnight, after a 20-hour day on the frontline. Next week the voters will decide whether the former council house girl from Stockport becomes Britain’s new education secretary. But win or lose, many in her party believe it won’t be the last the voters hear from her.