By Bella Robinson – Sub Editor
We may not all be Shadow First Secretary of State, but most women know what it’s like to walk into a room and be underestimated. None know this better than the current holder of the aforementioned role, first teenage mother in Parliament and self-proclaimed Star Wars fan Ashton-under-Lyne MP, Angela Rayner.
Speaking in a Guardian interview in 2012, Rayner said as a “pretty young woman” she is used to being underestimated, and that “everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I’m not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth”.
One of the most disappointing things about the current make up of Parliament is that whilst politicians make decisions that affect those most vulnerable in society, the majority haven’t experienced vulnerability. Those who have not continued education after secondary school still make up the majority in Britain today, but the political class doesn’t look like that. Whilst in 1945, half of the MPs in the House of Commons were former blue-collar workers, by 2017 only 3% of MPs had had blue-collar jobs, and half of those went on to be lawyers before becoming MPs. When the political decision-makers don’t come from the same background as the people who are affected most by their decisions, how effective can they be in creating an equal society?
Growing up with a mother who couldn’t read or write and leaving school at 16 to have her first son, Rayner says she owes her success to the Labour government. It was the Labour government that provided the council house she lived in, the minimum wage she lived on, the welfare state that helped her raise her kids and the sure start centre that helped her learn how to be a mother. As a care worker, Rayner was constantly questioning her management and first found out about trade unions when she was told she’d make a good representative of one and was recruited as a senior steward, representing her colleagues to negotiate pay and working conditions. She fought successfully to prevent the privatisation of the home care service, protecting the care workers from private companies that are less likely to meet minimum regulatory standards for their workers. Moreover, when companies compete for public sector contracts, they tend to cut down on the biggest cost, staff wages, to ensure maximum profit. The average care worker is currently only paid £8 an hour, despite the current living wage being £9.30. It is an industry that typically employs female workers but fails to invest in them, making it harder for them to gain the skills and qualifications needed to secure higher paid jobs. By 30, Rayner was elected as an assistant branch secretary for UNISON, helping care workers gain qualifications and ensuring that no social worker roles were cut in Stockport during her time.
She was elected as MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in the 2015 general election and after less than two years in Parliament, was appointed Shadow Education Secretary in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet, and was more than enthusiastic and ambitious to help children from backgrounds like hers get more out of school than she did. Her somewhat radical policy of abolishing Ofsted would have been a welcome relief for teachers, as an institution criticised by Rayner for measuring poverty and pitting schools against each other, rather than cooperating together. She was highly critical of the retainment rate of teachers under the Conservative government, due to teachers being overworked and underpaid, taking on additional burdens, from cuts to the welfare state and social services, as well as the closure of sure start centres that had, by her own admission, helped her raise her first baby. Her stance on education follows a long tradition in the Labour party of standing up for those snubbed in society out of poverty. They echo the sentiments of former deputy leader John Prescott who was scrutinised for his accent, with his malapropisms labelled as ‘jumbled up stupidity’, along with his famous use of ellipses. To Prescott, those who have come through a bad education system are resentful of the well educated in the House of Commons, and have an arrogance about their language. When they can’t go after the substance of an argument, they go after the speaker.
Now as Deputy Leader and Shadow First Secretary of State, she has also assumed the role of national campaign coordinator, something the former Deputy, Tom Watson, never had the privilege of getting. In the words of journalist Patrick Maguire, “Rayner is far more than a deputy in name only”. Whilst coronavirus takes policy priority it will be hard to see the long-term goals of Keir Starmer’s new cabinet, but what is clear is the dedication and commitment Rayner shows to making this country better, fairer and kinder to those that grew up like her to rise up with her. In her maiden speech in 2015, she joked that she was told at 16 that she would never amount to anything, and that “If only they could see me now”. Well now Rayner could go on to lead a different kind of government, listening to the people that the austerity government has done its best to neglect, and helping those who, like Rayner, were told they would never amount to anything, but like Rayner can achieve incredible success.
Mark King 2012 A working life: the union official, The Guardian.
State of the nation
Union: the public service union.
Why Angela Rayner is far more than a deputy leader in name only Patrick Maguire