Angela Rayner: 'Boris Johnson needs to get up off his backside and lead'

Pregnant at 16, no GCSEs, takeaway queen: Labour’s deputy leader is not your average politician – and that’s her big advantage

There are few more delicate subjects to raise with a new boss than the question of replacing him. So it’s lucky for Angela Rayner that Keir Starmer broached it first. Back in April, when they were crowned deputy leader and leader of the Labour party respectively, Rayner was still recovering from suspected Covid-19. (She didn’t get tested, but says she was “very poorly”, with all the symptoms.) Days later, Boris Johnson fell ill. What, they wondered, if Starmer were next?

“One of the first conversations we had was, if something happened to Keir, we’ve got to put the mechanisms in place for me to lead the party – and what happens if Boris doesn’t make it through the next 48 hours? Not what I expected to be discussing,” she recalls. But as she points out, it says something about the way Starmer treats people around him. “I didn’t have to ask him or say: ‘Can I just clarify…?’ He volunteered that. And that’s a different approach, it’s an approach of mutual respect.”

The new shadow cabinet has met throughout lockdown by Zoom call, which Rayner says feels “strange” but has its diversions. “We can all mooch round each other’s houses, get a good nosy.” Not for her the cliched backdrop of carefully curated bookshelves, though; when our Zoom call connects she’s in the lounge at home, TV flickering in the background, the family’s golden retriever Luna trying to scramble into her lap. When I ask if Starmer’s meetings are more orderly than Jeremy Corbyn’s, she says wryly that it helps “when you’ve got a mute button, and everyone has to take their turn”. 

When we speak for the first time, in late May, Rayner is fresh from a conference call with Johnson on easing lockdown. Given his patchy recent performance under interrogation from the Commons liaison committee, does she think he’s firing on all cylinders? “If he is, his piston’s misfiring,” she snorts. “He’s like those cars that look great, but you look under the bonnet and the engine’s not got any power at all. He hasn’t really got the detail.”

Still, she swears she takes no pleasure in the government’s problems, echoing Starmer’s strategy of constructive opposition in a crisis. “Johnson really hasn’t stepped up, and I wanted him to, because I need my constituents to feel safe and be protected. I wanted him to do well.” 

It is sentiments like this that make some on the left suspicious of the 40-year-old MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. Her politics are hard to pigeonhole, mixing staunch support for socialist policies such as nationalising utility companies, with praise for war veterans and police officers’ willingness to put themselves in harm’s way during lockdown, a stance that owes more to the old Labour right. 

But that’s not the only paradox. Running for deputy after only five years in parliament takes guts and ambition, especially at this critical point in Labour’s fortunes. (The Labour MP Jess Phillips, elected alongside her in 2015, once summarised Rayner’s strengths as “heart, a sense of purpose and a sturdy understanding of what she is here to do”.) Yet even now she says she occasionally holds back in meetings for lack of confidence; she’s open and friendly, but deep down there’s something more guarded. When I ask if she trusts people easily, she answers unhesitatingly: “No.”


Angela Rayner was born in Stockport, Greater Manchester, in 1980. As a small child, she would often go to her nana’s on Sundays for a bath. They didn’t have hot water at home, she explains, because heating was expensive. But her grandmother had an immersion heater and washing machine. “She’d do all our washing, and she’d iron it. My mum never ironed anything, so you can imagine – when my nana washed and ironed our stuff it would look new; when my mum did it, it was all wrinkly and grey.” Looking clean, she explains, reduced the chances of being picked on. “It’s those poverty problems, where you get battered at school…”

What’s striking is that she tells this story not with anger or self-pity but a smile, as if to reassure you it’s all fine now. Neither of Rayner’s parents worked, and their volatile marriage ended in her teens; at around 10, she became the main carer for a mother struggling with mental illness, who was occasionally suicidal. “I’d always looked after myself,” she says. “My mum had bipolar, so I’d always been the mum in our relationship.” 

Her mother had a difficult childhood of her own, never learning to read or write, which helps explain Rayner’s worries about the impact of school shutdowns on vulnerable children. “If it was me now – my mum couldn’t read to me. I worry about the kids that are from the background I was from.”

She went hungry sometimes, wheedling tea at friends’ houses. By her early teens she was sneaking into Manchester nightclubs, seeking affection from older men. As a young person, I just thought my mum didn’t love us and she was a bad mum. But actually I realise that my mum wasn’t loved, she didn’t know how to love. She didn’t have an opportunity to go back into education,” she says. “It’s about recognising that bad things happen to good people and it’s not something that they’re always in control of, and trying to help. I never want people to feel like my mum did.” They have a good relationship now and, while Rayner credits training as a Samaritan, aged 18, with helping her understand her mother’s problems, politics gave her a language to articulate them. In January, she launched her deputy leadership campaign on the Bridgehall council estate, where she grew up.

When she had her son Ryan at 16, Rayner worried about reinforcing stereotypes about “people from my estate” getting pregnant and going on benefits, when that was never her aim. “I don’t think that’s how most working-class people feel, actually. I wanted to be there for my son, I wanted to prove to him that I could be a good mum, so I wanted to work.” Her nana, holding down three low-paid jobs herself, stepped in again by minding the baby while Rayner worked nights as a home help. “My nana was hardcore. She’s my inspiration.”

That job was “the first time a person in a position of authority needed me as an equal”, she says. Suddenly retired professors and police officers were relying on her. “It was implied from the minute I went to school and was behind my peers: know your place. Even on the council estate, I had a place.” Yet now she saw that place might occasionally be transcended.

Initially Rayner worked for a private agency, and it was only when she got a job with Stockport council that she finally got training, sick pay and longer slots with needy clients. So when the council threatened to outsource their service, she protested. “The girls I worked alongside said, ‘You should be our union rep.’ And I was like, ‘What’s a union?’” She found out by joining Unison, ending up on a national board to negotiate equal pay for council workers while only in her 20s.


In Tory hands, this could become a tale of hauling herself up by her bootstraps, but Rayner stresses the transformative power of the state and the solidarity of unions instead. What saved her, she says, is that “I found a family. I found the trade union movement. I was dysfunctional before that. I didn’t care about myself… Suddenly I had a home, and felt that I was accepted for who I was. It nurtured me.” A decade ago she married her husband Mark, a Unison official with whom she has two other sons, Charlie, 12, and Jimmy, 11. Three years ago, Ryan became a father himself aged 20, making Rayner a 37-year-old grandmother.

Angela Rayner
‘I have a master’s in real life,’ Rayner told delegates at the 2016 Labour party conference. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Her leadership style now, she says, revolves around empowering others. She doesn’t stand on ceremony, despite confessing that she’d love to join the privy council, the body of senior MPs appointed to advise the Queen, “so that Tories who’d look down on people like me have to call me the Right Hon. Pregnant mum at 16, no qualifications: I’m the Right Hon and so are all other women in those circumstances, thank you.” 

Some days after our first conversation, I watch Rayner host a Zoom meeting with care workers, assembled by Unison and the GMB to discuss issues ranging from a shortage of protective masks to pay. When one woman suggests helping care workers progress into higher-paid jobs, Rayner says that this was happening under New Labour: “It breaks my heart that, in the over 10 years I’ve been out of the sector, that has really been decimated by the privatisation and the austerity agenda.” She nods sympathetically as another woman describes her daughter working more than 60 hours a week to make ends meet, while she herself does 70, juggling the children between them. She’s careful to make no promises on pay, although she later tells me that care workers are underpaid and care homes underfunded; Labour is in listening mode for now. 

She considered returning to care work during the pandemic but found her skills out of date, so has instead volunteered with the homeless and a telephone befriending service, while fretting that lockdown stops her seeing Ryan (furloughed from his job) and her toddler granddaughter. “I’ve not seen her for months – I just get little video clips,” she sighs. “I want to go to help them and I just can’t.” In spare moments, she’s training Luna as an assistance dog for her son Charlie, who is visually impaired.

Many MPs are using lockdown for voluntary work, but something about Rayner’s workload suggests she enjoys being needed. “It’s how I feel good about myself,” she admits. “It’s not like I’m Florence Nightingale: I get something from it.”

Talking to Jeremy Corbyn.
Talking to Jeremy Corbyn. Photograph: The Times/News Licensing

In some ways, her childhood has made Rayner resilient. She shrugs off the social media abuse that wears many female politicians down, having learned young to bring down the shutters. “I have a barrier when it comes to being accessible to people, because of what happened with my mother. Some people think that I’m just a really solid person, like ‘You’re well hard.’ But part of that is my old mechanism. I have an inner circle and I don’t go beyond that, and that protects me from people who don’t know me,” she says. But she still feels a burning need to prove herself.

For a long time, she felt unlovable. “Being a ginger kid on a council estate – Muriel’s Wedding, that was me,” she says, citing the Australian film about a woman who thinks she’s ugly and worthless. “No boys fancied me or anything – well they did, but they never said it – and I was bullied, so I had to find that inner peace about who I am.”


Barely a year after getting elected, Rayner was unexpectedly leapfrogged into the shadow cabinet, following an attempted coup against Corbyn and mass frontbench resignations in protest at his handling of the Brexit referendum campaign. Handed the shadow education secretary’s portfolio, she remembers panicking at the thought of meeting university chancellors when she’d never got her GCSEs, and swotting up furiously on policy detail. But she soon realised that people liked her not sounding too formal or overrehearsed. “I’ll talk about the attainment gap, life chances and what that means, and being school-ready – but that’s a lingo term, that’s not what people from my background say. I can put it into that emotional connection.” She first did it to eye-catching effect in what became the standout platform speech of the 2016 Labour party conference, using her own life story to dramatise pledges on childcare and further education. She might not speak with a “plum in her mouth” or have a degree, she told delegates, but “I have a master’s in real life.”

With Rebecca Long-Bailey.
With Rebecca Long-Bailey. Photograph: PA

Before long, she was being tipped as a future leader. Yet ultimately it was her friend Rebecca Long-Bailey who was groomed as the preferred successor, while she trod water in the same portfolio for four years. Excruciatingly for both women, someone leaked the contents of a Labour-commissioned focus group comparing them, in which Rayner was described as “charity shop-looking” and her friend “very smart”. Within Corbynite circles, Long-Bailey was seen as the more serious policymaker, Rayner as more unpredictable. Yet when she ran for deputy and Long-Bailey for leader, many MPs thought that the wrong way round. Didn’t she want the top job? 

“No, because I don’t like being the main dish,” she says. “Helping the leader achieve and helping our party achieve are things that make me mentally well.” Besides, she says, the tabloids would have had a field day: “I was clubbing instead of going to school! Even Jeremy had an allotment, for God’s sake. He could cook. I get takeaways for my kids three times a week!” She cackles: “They want working class, but they can’t handle working class.” It’s a joke, but a bittersweet one.

When I ask if it’s true that the two women’s version of the Granita pact – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s infamous 1994 summit over who should run for Labour leader – was a chat on a camping trip to the Lake District last summer, she hoots “No!” But there were clearly conversations about their futures. She and Long-Bailey barely knew each other before the 2015 election, but agreed to flatshare in London as new northern MPs, both with young children. It was the political storms weathered in the Corbyn years that really brought them together: “Within months this coup had happened, then we ended up in the shadow cabinet, doing all this mad crazy stuff we never thought we were going to do. ”

“There were conversations, joking, about what happens if we both end up the last people standing, like Designated Survivor.” (In the US TV drama, a politician played by Kiefer Sutherland is catapulted to power after a terrorist attack wipes out most of the government.) She even remembers a “daft” conversation about who would play them in a film: “I said the ginger one off Ab Fab.”

Still, it must have been awkward when she notched up a comfortable victory over MP and hospital doctor Rosena Allin-Khan in the deputy leadership contest, while Long-Bailey lost to Starmer? For once I sense Rayner choosing her words carefully, perhaps wary of how they might be interpreted. “We’ve been in lockdown so that’s a bit weird, to be honest. Nobody’s really seen anyone. So it’s a bit hard to say.” 

Her focus now is on turning the body blow of December’s general election defeat into a catalyst for renewal. “It was more than just a defeat, it went to the core,” she says of the night Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority. “We felt we’d disconnected from the people we were there to represent, and it was a real kick in the teeth.” The Tories made gains even in her own relatively safe seat of Ashton-under-Lyne, a former mill town on the edge of Manchester.

As part of a Corbyn shadow cabinet, she went “over and over” what they could have done differently. We’re speaking ahead of the publication of the Labour Together report on what went wrong at the election, which identified Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity, tensions over Brexit and a “toxic” culture of infighting in the party as key drivers, but it seems she has reached similar conclusions. She insists Corbyn wasn’t the only problem but surely he was one of them?

“He was one of the issues that people would raise… But I think there were some real faultlines, especially around Brexit which was a really divisive one,” says Rayner, who backed remain but whose constituency voted 61% to leave. “We had a number of catastrophic issues that were coming together all at once. Our voters had been pretty despondent and angry with us for some time.” The leader may have “antagonised” some voters in Labour’s former heartlands, but many had felt Labour was losing touch with them for a long time before, she says: “If people see it as, ‘Oh well, Jeremy’s gone, great, now we’re all right, then that’s a wrong conclusion to make. There’s a lot that we have to do as a party to regain that trust.”

Labour’s internal divisions were, she says “catastrophic for us”, as they meant voters saw the party as focused on each other, not the country. But she thinks defeat has changed the mood: “It did give us that jolt, regardless of what your view is as to why we were in that situation - people suddenly realised how significant it was. We don’t have a right to exist,” she adds. “My job as part of the leadership of the Labour party now is to show that we are not bickering. When Keir speaks, he speaks for me and him, and when I speak, I speak for him and myself.”

Some fear Labour betraying its young, diverse, big city supporters to win back mainly white, working-class, leave-supporting towns, but Rayner insists it can embrace both. “I grew up on an estate which was predominantly white working-class at the time. I know the vast majority of people who I grew up with, the vast majority of my constituents and people in this country would be absolutely appalled at the idea that they had to choose between standing up for everyone’s rights and standing up against racism,” she says. “This idea that, in order to be working class, you have to somehow pander to the rhetoric on immigration, I find it quite ignorant and offensive.”

We speak again in June, following an emotional weekend of Black Lives Matter protests across Britain sparked by the death in US police custody of George Floyd. Rayner is clear that “people shouldn’t rip down statues and take criminal actions” in protest. But she thinks Johnson only inflamed tensions by failing either to condemn President Trump’s response to the Floyd case, or to meet protesters’ deep-rooted fear and anger with detailed proposals for tackling discrimination in Britain. “I think the prime minister and some of his cabinet have misjudged that mood. I do accept and sympathise that people think violent protest is not the way, and that people are worried about social distancing. But that’s got to be put in the context of racism kills, racism is a virus in our community as well.”

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the US.
Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the US. Photograph: Twitter

What action should they have taken? “Dust down David Lammy’s report that he did four years ago – the solutions are there,” she cries, citing a review of discrimination in the criminal justice system that David Cameron commissioned from her frontbench colleague. “People don’t want to be out on our streets, protesting and pulling down statues – they want you to do something about it.” The new Labour regime has, she says, tried to be a constructive opponent but can only go so far: Johnson “needs to get up off his backside and lead on this”.

Before the protests erupted, Rayner had introduced unconscious bias training throughout the Labour party and recruited the BAME MPs Marsha de Cordova and Tulip Siddiq as advisers on inclusion and party development. She treads a fine line, too, on antisemitism within the party, with insisting that Corbyn “did want to deal with this” while backing her new boss’s promise to do whatever is necessary to root it out.

Despite swerving every chance so far to elect one, she thinks the Labour party is capable of choosing a female leader. “Keir Starmer can’t change his gender, but what he wants to do is deliver a party that delivers the next female leader – whether that’s me, whether that’s somebody else.”

So it could still be her? “I think never say never on anything. I’m really happy being the deputy leader – I stood because that’s where I think my skill set is.” Some leaders might find such ambition threatening, I say. “Keir’s not like that!” she protests. “Since I’ve been deputy leader, Keir’s treated me with the utmost respect.” That means, she explains, being treated as any man would be in her position: “a person with intelligence, with a remit to do stuff.’” 

On paper, the two politicians are chalk and cheese – the self-proclaimed “gobby northern lass”, and the more formal London lawyer – yet each reaches parts that the other can’t. Behind closed doors, Starmer is, she says, “very professional. But he’s actually a really kind-hearted, lovely family man who cares deeply about people. You get this real sense of wanting to do right and do good. You can work with that, even if you don’t agree with the decision that somebody makes.” 

Asked about speculation that Labour’s new general secretary, David Evans, who served under Blair, represents a shift to the right she says firmly: “What he is a flick to is winning. That’s the thing Keir wants: he wants to win.”

Does she have any Tory friends? “Me and Nicholas Soames get on all right,” she says of the former Tory MP, whose grandfather Winston Churchill was MP for nearby Oldham. But she has little time for the current regime. When it emerged that the Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings had breached lockdown to seek childcare, Rayner tweeted that both her younger boys have respiratory problems; she’d been petrified of giving them Covid-19 when she was ill, yet stayed at home. “The whole way in which Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings got into No 10 was on the basis of ‘They’re in touch with ordinary people.’ They’re letting people down massively. As someone who is from a working-class background in the north, I get that feeling of alienation.” 

Facing Boris Johnson in the House of Commons.
Facing Boris Johnson in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

If Johnson now fails to deliver his promised Brexit deal by December, she fears a backlash against the whole political process. “If they’re not able to deliver, I just think they’re going to leave my constituents feeling ever more disillusioned with politicians,” she says. “They made it sound like the only reason you’re not getting Brexit is that these bureaucrats don’t want you to have it, and that was wrong.” 

She worries, too, about a Covid recession damaging communities like hers, calling for a “resilient recovery, not just going back to how we make the quickest buck”. She wishes ministers would make Open University courses free for the furloughed – “give people hope and opportunity” – and end rough sleeping for good. “It’s about the political will to do something about it, instead of looking at cost.”

When she talks like this, it’s easy to see how Rayner prospered under Corbyn. But it’s her ability to bridge Labour’s winning past, present and still uncertain future that will serve her now. Rooted in the party’s working-class history but with a 2020 take on identity politics, she is as comfortable defending trans rights as reminiscing about colliery clubs and factory works outings; traditional values, as John Prescott might say, in a modern setting.

“People understand that life isn’t going to be as it was,” she says, of post-pandemic politics. “But we have a choice: to change it for the better based on our British values of looking after each other, or go back to consumerism and this neoliberal capitalist, ‘I’m doing all right, I can’t see the damage that’s being done so it doesn’t matter’ attitude.” When we turn off our Zoom cameras, the last thing I see is her waving madly with both hands, giving it everything she’s got.

• This article was amended on 29 June 2020 because an earlier version referred to Rosena Allin-Khan MP as a “former doctor”. In fact she continues to work some hospital shifts.


Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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