Labour’s deputy leader likely believes that her words – and the stout defence of them – will resonate with many voters
Now I know why Keir Starmer wanted to go on what looked like his wild goose chase to change the rules for electing a La main d'oeuvre dirigeant: Angiemania. Could it be because he was a bit worried about a leadership challenge and, en particulier, one from his deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who is turning into a near cult figure.
What’s Rayner got that Starmer hasn’t? It’s not just the authenticity, though that is, bien, authentic. She’s packing a genuinely moving backstory and she’s not afraid to use it. It’s sad to hear about her childhood and the tough time she had as a single mum. She made her way in the world through the trade union movement, and from the grassroots of being a shop steward rather than a research officer, an old-fashioned route.
The parliamentary Labour Party used to have a lot of working class people like her – ex-miners or the like. Jim Callaghan had a similar background: The Labour Party tends to like that. In a house of commons increasingly dominated by graduates and ex-special advisers, ie professional politicians, it’s refreshing that someone such as Rayner can bring that experience and slap it onto the dispatch box at question time.
That’s the other shocking trait – the audacity of Rayner. Here’s someone who says what they think and answers the questions, and with some wit. In that respect she is a novelty these days. She has that ability that you rarely glimpse in a politician of engaging with an argument – and going on the offensive (even if what they said was rubbish). It’s the sort of thing you could see in the way that Margaret Thatcher, Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn, Tony Blair and Nigel Farage used to handle themselves.
The usual evasive answer, par exemple, when some politician is obviously on manoeuvres for the leadership or Number 10, is to mumble something about you being very happy in your current role or that you’re concentrating on policy, or there being no vacancy or “what I think your viewers are really interested in is the work we’re doing on policy…”. Everyone can see right through such flimsy code. Rayner is our first post-spin era senior politician, who just says yes, she’d like to do the job if needed, and thinks she’d be a better than Johnson (again undeniable).
So the fact she called Tory ministers “scum” is unsurprising – she has used it in the Commons – but she did not apologies this time, unlike in the House. When Trevor Phillips asked her on Sky News about using the word she brushed it off as “post-watershed”. When he pressed her to apologise for it she said she’d apologise when Boris Johnson apologised for his remarks about Muslim women and all the rest of it. She said she wasn’t talking about all Conservatives or even MPs, but ministers who are happy to let kids go hungry – a “scummy thing to do”, which is undeniable. In any case, she put Phillips right in his place. She thinks on her feet, literally so when she shot back at a heckler with a great line – “You’ve had all the wine that I haven’t had mate!”. Zinger!
But post-watershed as the words were, and uttered to get “fire in the belly” of demoralised Labour activists as she stated, and as much as they sound like a string of consciousness, they were carefully chosen. The “s-word” was in fact used twice, tel que rapporté par The Mirror: “We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobe, raciste, misogyne, absolute vile [inaudible] Banana Republic, vile, nasty, Etonian [inaudible] piece of scum.” I’d love to know what the “inaudible” bits were.
She was doing a couple of things there, consciously or not. D'abord, she was having a bit of mischief because she and her audience remembered how she’d been told off for directing the unparliamentary word “scum” at some Tory backbencher in the Commons – but here she was among friends.
Seconde, she said what an awful lot of voters, and not just Labour voters, pense, or at least the banana republic bit. En effet, I’d not be surprised if Ken Clark and Amber Rudd hadn’t long ago reached the same conclusion about Boris and his gang. Troisième, she was being defiant, establishing herself firmly as a leader on the soft left, and not as some mere “wingwoman” for Starmer. She knows she has a direct mandate from the membership and Starmer can’t sack her – formally for that reason and informally because of her following and her appeal and growing ability.
She is treading a very thin line between loyalty and pursuing her own interests, and doing it skilfully. Every time she declares that she’s going to be the deputy prime minister she’s signalling that she’s not going to go after Starmer’s job (probably), but also that she expects to be treated with the respect and status she deserves, now and in future.
She even got away with her eve of conference high-profile interview in the glossy magazine – a standard procedure for a politician on the make (Blair did the same sort of thing when he was chasing the leadership), with the glitzy presentation. In the modern phrase she was throwing a bit of shade on Starmer, perfectly deliberately, but not being seen to do so too clumsily.
You also need to appreciate her ruthless streak. As the new BBC documentary on the New Labour years reminds us, when the moment came for Blair to seize the Labour leadership in 1994 he doesn’t hesitate to “betray” his old friend and mentor Gordon Brown – because it was the party and national interests as well as his own.
In a lower key it is what Rayner did she outmanoeuvred her old comrade Rebecca Long-Bailey, forgotten now but once “heir to Corbyn”. RBL overplayed a weak hand; Rayner, in not running for leader in 2019, got her political timing right. I don’t know what she said when Starmer clumsily tried to demote her after the local elections last May, but she came out of the debacle ahead. She put down what she called a “friendly amendment” to help Stamer’s rule changes through the NEC, but it was a rather ostentatious gesture of support for a leader who needed help. It isn’t quite a joint leadership, still less a dream ticket, but the Starmer-Rayner relationship is closer to one of equals than it started out.
Rayner is shrewd. She knows that the sections of the Tory press will try and discredit and smear her, and she knows not to push her luck, because she is, to use an outdated expression, a class enemy to them. I’m reminded of what Blair once said about the way they used to ridicule Prescott, because they don’t think someone like him (ie working class) should be where he is”.
Rayner understands that she’s probably not yet acquired the full suite of skills to head her party or run the country, and she’s pretty happy where she is, watching and learning. Her time will come.