Shadow education secretary ANGELA RAYNER tells our parliamentary reporter Lamiat Sabin all about the gender and class biases she has faced in Westminster
WHAT does it feel like to be one of the “new kids” in Westminster, someone that breaks the mould?
The Star caught up with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner — who has sprung forward to the front benches a year after being elected an MP. She is considered a rising star with a work ethic that has no need to be bolstered by a typical PPE from Oxbridge.
She said she did not feel like she was part of any group. “It was like being back at school with the cool kids, the nerdy kids and everyone had their gang. I wasn’t part of any gang. I didn’t know the rules — especially the unofficial rules of the old boys’ club,” she told me.
It’s no secret that being working class and a woman are both excuses that could be used to single a person out and hold them back in the eyes of the elitists. And since Theresa May has headed this Tory government, Labour has been criticised over its proportion of women in top jobs although Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is the first with a majority of women.
A lot of people from working-class backgrounds in Westminster don’t talk about their upbringing, she says, as there is a belief that you shouldn’t if you want to be professional. It’s as if they are considered to be automatic discounts against someone’s ability or understanding of politics.
Rayner cites Labour founder Keir Hardie as a prime example of someone without a formal education who could successfully apply political theory to the real world.
She continued: “I talk about my lack of education but people would just think you’re thick. ‘How can you be the shadow secretary of state for education?’ they say. There’s that snobbery. The more I talk about my background the more that some people would say I talk myself out of a position in leadership.”
It was the morning of International Women’s Day and the spring Budget on Wednesday. A fitting day for this sort of nitty-gritty discussion.
Rayner, who grew up on a council estate in Stockport, worked to the top over the last two decades since leaving school at 16 as an expectant mum without any qualifications.
Her lack of certificates has not stopped her from sitting on the front bench but has put her in the firing line of jeering from the other side of the house, put-downs by misogynistic TV presenters and severe trolling on social media.
With the public tired of “career politicians” and politics becoming more and more professionalised, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this gender and class shift within Western Europe’s largest party would be treated as a breath of fresh air.
Now there are more women in the shadow cabinet than men. But is it all for show? Angela says no.
“We are certainly the best out of all political parties. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, I’ve had opportunities to lead.
“I don’t have any men in the background telling me what I need to do. Jeremy and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have been very supportive in developing what our policies should be.
“I feel empowered and often that is not usually the case. Male politicians want the women in the room, they want you to front it but they don’t want you to be the one with the power.
“I’ve actually found it quite refreshing over the past 18 months in my job. Daunting, but refreshing that I’m not a token woman in the room.”
Angela has taken the helm in debates over schools funding, the grammar school system that is skewed against pupils from working-class backgrounds, converting schools to academies, and the lack of support offered to children in need by this government — despite the PM’s hollow words claiming that the Tories all care about social mobility and the rights of the working class.
Even with strong Labour women — including shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — it is not always smooth sailing for the women in Westminster, and this means support for them transcends party boundaries.
She went on: “The challenge is that a lot of my female colleagues still get told that we are wailing, being hysterical, they use anti-women rhetoric at us, and we get a lot more trolling on social media. We get a lot of stick.
“The sisterhood is quite strong across parties, some of our female colleagues in the Conservative Party have it just as tough as we do.
“Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Heidi Allen. All of these great women in the Conservative Party that are actually working cross-party to try and make a difference.
“We do have to band together as parliamentarians because us women do often feel that we are under siege. If you look at what Diane Abbott faced over the last couple of weeks.
“It was absolutely disgusting that these kinds of people think racism and misogyny is acceptable.
“And Diane Abbott is like a hero to the women who have come into politics after her. She was the first black woman MP and she’s been here for three decades. Can you imagine the ceilings that she has had to break through? She’s a real trailblazer.”
Rayner tells me her other hero is Australian politician Julia Gillard, who was subject to a shocking campaign against her orchestrated by knighted spin doctor Lynton Crosby — during which she was called a “bitch” and “barren” because she did not have children.
This is the same man who worked for former Tory PM David Cameron and was involved in linking Labour’s Sadiq Khan to terrorist groups when he was running to be Mayor of London against Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith.
Attacks like these are not always so in-your-face obvious. Rayner was this week subject to a media stitch-up by BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys, who was accused of patronising her and putting words in her mouth during a discussion on grammar schools.
She told me: “John Humphrys was particularly nasty to me and he gave [free school campaigner] Toby Young a really easy time. I got so much Twitter abuse for appearing, saying: ‘you’re thick, you should resign, you shouldn’t debate with Toby Young’.
“I didn’t go on social media all day and my staff filtered through the abuse. My 20-year-old son has to read that kind thing about his mum.
“John Humphrys had already designed how he wanted his show to be and he had already made presumptions about what he wanted to discuss — and how he was going to play me in that scenario.
“If it was a male secretary of state, then he’d have moved on. But because I am a woman and a northerner with a strong accent, he’s thinking how dare this young northern woman challenge me. He found it an audacity that I had this opinion.
“It’s not just my opinion, I’m there to represent my constituents, so not only does he snub me, he snubs my constituency Ashton-under-Lyne and the Queen’s official opposition on education so he should respect my role. I didn’t get it easily.”
Angela’s accent has been the subject of some discussion since her maiden speech in 2015, as if it was some shock that an MP of a constituency in Greater Manchester would not speak with Received Pronunciation.
Rayner remembers: “They hear my accent and know that I’m a woman so they decide that I’m inferior. It’s in the psyche; it’s not even a conscious thing most of the time.
“I sometimes think it would be easier if I dropped my northern accent. It does take a lot longer for me to get respect. I tried to get a coffee earlier and nobody could understand me. The server in the canteen gave me a coffee and a hot chocolate, when I asked for just a coffee.”
Slights and insults go beyond a botched coffee order too. Angela described situations in which men in meetings would shake the hands of her male advisers first.
“As a feminist you see subtle ways that the system kicks people down and it’s very frustrating,” she said.
Despite these setbacks, her primary goal is to consistently represent her constituency in the best way she can.
“I’m so different and talk different and some people don’t think I have the right to be where I am. If you do well, they think you somehow want to be the leader of the Labour Party,” she continued.
“Everything I’ve achieved I have done for my constituents and every day I wake up and worry whether I’m going to do a good enough job. I question myself all the time, like anyone from a working-class background would do.
“I have to pinch myself every time I walk in here and every time I stand in the dispatch box, I’m absolutely petrified. I had to prove to the outside world that I was good enough.
“Me being here is trying to prove to kids from my background that they should acknowledge the system. I don’t want any of them thinking that they’re not good enough.
“I failed loads of times in my life and I’d hate for people to think that seeing me here means the system is OK.
“My job is to say that the system is awful against working-class people. But you can’t lie down and take it. In history, we have always won.”
Lamiat Sabin is parliamentary reporter for the Morning Star.