Is Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, resting on her working-class laurels rather too much? She emerged triumphant from the recent byelection/reshuffle not only having avoided being demoted by Keir Starmer, but gaining more positions and power, with some claiming that she could win a leadership contest. Really? I’ve found Rayner’s behaviour snaky; if she’d thrown Starmer under the bus any harder, he’d be scrubbing tyre marks off the front of his shirt. It’s also said she’s been briefing against him. Still, that’s politics. Why shouldn’t she be ambitious, even ruthless? But there’s another big problem with Rayner: the relentless pushing of her backstory.
She is hardly alone in this: I’m no slouch when it comes to flashing my own working-class origins and impeccable council-house credentials. And Rayner’s story is powerful: she left school at 16, pregnant, without qualifications, becoming a social care worker and union rep, before entering politics. Impressive. Working-class visibility in Westminster is important; the insights gained from experience are hugely valuable.
Still, Rayner doesn’t half bang on about it or let others do it for her. If you believe the hype, she’s everything from streetwise Boudicca to factional Labour’s all-healing queen to a veritable red-wall whisperer. It has reached the point where I wonder whether people, by whom I mean overawed, middle-class politicos, have been cowed into unquestioningly gulping down Rayner’s self-mythology or whether she herself feels that her righteous background makes her untouchable.
That could be a dangerously overplayed hand: a working-class background doesn’t set Rayner apart (Starmer is also of humble stock). It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) give her a magic pass within the Labour party. Most importantly, it doesn’t mystically endow a politician with vision, ability or a hotline to working people. Rayner is so deep into her “Angie from the block” shtick that she has forgotten that the only people who are reliably underwhelmed by a “working class” origin story are… working-class people! It’s highly patronising to presume that this is all it takes to get their attention or their vote. Working-class people are like everybody else – they want credible, workable policies that benefit them. Stuff your backstory. The only people who lap that up are the middle classes or soppy former council-house brats like me.
Rayner prides herself on being a straight talker, so she’ll appreciate me speaking frankly. Whatever the short-term gains, and despite the whooping of her fan club, recent events outed her as untrustworthy and slippery, someone caught red-handed playing both sides who managed to bluster her way out of it. Likewise, if a chippy sort like me has wearied of her posturing, so, presumably, have others. Class credibility is always valid, but as a starting point. Sooner or later, the question will always be: what else have you got?
Harry, that’s enough of your self-pitying gibberish
Oh, that it has come to this. As someone who felt genuine sympathy for Meghan and Harry – and I still do, in some ways – it becomes increasingly difficult to defend them as they sink ever deeper into the bubbling Californian quagmire of therapy-speak.
Harry’s latest podcast outburst, talking to actor Dax Shepherd, was a toe-curler. Apparently, Meghan got him into therapy. Gosh, really – not Princess Anne then? He’s broken the cycle of “genetic pain and suffering”. Eh? He says “there is no blame”, but then says that his parents and grandparents suffered first and then dumped it all on him.
Hmm… when Harry, who was on the podcast to flog his Apple TV+ mental health series, says “genetic”, does he mean behaviour/conditioning? Also, now that he feels so wonderfully “free”, is he ever going to find work where His Royal Suffering isn’t the post-royal moneyspinner?
People with mental health issues shouldn’t be criticised or lampooned. However, isn’t this new-age gibberish (“genetic pain”) an insult to people who undergo therapy and to therapy itself? Time was when there was a distinct line between those who censured the Sussexes and those, like me, who felt that they had been given a raw deal. With every wallowing, near-unintelligible utterance, that line is blurring.
Making mums giving birth wear a mask is a cruelty too far
The reports about women being forced to wear masks while giving birth are horrifying. The charity, Pregnant Then Screwed, which supports those who suffer pregnancy or maternity discrimination, surveyed 936 women who underwent childbirth in December and found that one in five was made to wear a mask. This happened despite joint official health guidance from the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in July that women undergoing childbirth should be exempt.
You don’t have to have experienced giving birth to feel shocked at the inhumanity of this, but perhaps it helps. Women made to wear masks suffered breathlessness, claustrophobia, feelings of suffocation, asthma and panic attacks. One woman vomited into her mask; another felt she was dying. Which is all too easy to imagine. Childbirth involves a lot of breathing and not just in terms of natural labour. Mothers need to keep themselves centred and calm and readily available oxygen is crucial for that. Moreover, childbirth is hard work, women get hot and sweat and this can go on for some time. How does a mask work with that?
There’s a pandemic and NHS workers should be as safe as possible. Along the way, there may have been confusion as to what the mask protocol was at any given time. However, nearly a year after it was given, official guidance on masks in maternity wards must have been widely known. What happened in these instances – why were women in labour treated so brutally? When one woman became distressed and ripped off her mask, she was ordered to put it back on. While everyone else in these wards needs to be masked, mothers deserve to be excused.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist