Angela Rayner was born on March 28 1980, in Stockport, Greater Manchester. She is the youngest person to be the shadow education secretary, at the age of 36. Mrs Rayner went to Avondale School, but left aged 16 when she became pregnant, without any qualifications. She later studied part time at Stockport College, and qualified as a social care worker. She then joined Unison because of the conditions she saw during the decade she worked for in that profession. Mrs Rayner was once under fire for bullying a shopkeeper and misuising Commons notepaper, when she failed to get a special edition of Star Wars high heels.
Angela Rayner certainly has a powerful story, what Denis Healey liked to call a ‘hinterland’. She grew up on a Stockport council estate, brought up by a mother who couldn’t read or write. She left school at 16, pregnant. Her life was, she has said, heading in the wrong direction until: “Labour’s Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children, the support we needed to grow and develop”. And without the NHS, she proclaims her son Charlie, who was born prematurely, would not be alive today.
The challenges Rayner has overcome to make it to Parliament and represent the people of Ashton-under-Lyne (the first woman to do so), have given her a passionate zeal for Labour’s achievements in government.
Who is Angela Rayner?
“From the beginning of my working life I’ve always stood up for working people, first as a Trade Union rep representing care workers and then as a regional union official. Now I use the skills I’ve developed to represent the communities of Ashton, Droylsden and Failsworth.” – Angela Rayner.
Angela Rayner is not an Oxbridge-educated, former Special Adviser, professional politician.
She did not have a privileged upbringing and never went to public school or university. She was brought up on a council estate and left her local comprehensive at 16 with no qualifications and a baby already on the way, after being told she would ‘never amount to anything’.
Angela Rayner has spoken about how Labour’s Sure Start centres gave her, and her friends, the support they needed to become better parents and to grow and develop as young adults.
After a spell at the local FE College, Angela started working as a care worker for Stockport Council where she gained experience at the sharp end of public services. Much of her time was spent providing one-to-one care to elderly people in their own homes, looking after their personal hygiene, preparing meals, listening and showing empathy.
She was soon put forward by her women work-mates to speak for them as a union rep with UNISON. “I was mouthy,” she says, “and I would take no messing from management.”
She rose through the ranks of the trade union movement with her direct experience of low pay, long hours and zero hours contracts, to become the most senior elected official of UNISON in the North West of England.
In 2015, Angela Rayner became the first woman MP in the 180-year history of her Ashton-under-Lyne constituency. She was soon promoted to the shadow whip’s office by the new Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and then went on to hold the position of Shadow Pensions Minister, before becoming a member of the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Her approach to education policy is driven by frustration that the school system abandons so many young people. “I am not OK with the system that allows certain people to fail or be chucked out. I don’t accept that.”
Her difference has been dragging Labour education policy more towards the centre, softening its hostility to free schools and prioritising nursery-care spending before subsidising university tuition fees. She has been one of Corbyn’s most effective shadow cabinet members while keeping her distance from him — refusing to sign a loyalty pledge demanded by Momentum, his personal campaign group. She’s making her own progress on her own terms: Tories talk about her as the party’s most effective shadow education secretary for a generation.
In May 2016, she spoke out against the government’s plans laid out in the Queen’s Speech. Although Labour lost the vote, she won plaudits from commentators and education professionals for her speech, where she outlined how grinding poverty and deprivation had affected her experience of school, saying:
“I was a NEET – not in education, employment or training – and I had no GCSEs at grade A to C; and, as I said, I had a baby at 16. School, for me, was not a place where you went to be educated, but a place where you got away from your parents for a couple of hours while they got some respite from you, and where you were able to see your mates…
Her politics are shaped not only by the opportunities extended to her, but those denied to her friends and family, especially her mother, who dropped out of school aged 12. ‘She followed the fairground wherever it went. She was almost feral, and her mum and dad didn’t care. Two of her siblings were given to a Christian couple down the road and just never came back home.’ Had government intervened, she says, things might have been different.
‘My mum’s had learning deprivation and mental health problems; she is economically not viable. That’s the penalty on society for not investing in my mum and putting those interventions in place.’
For Rayner, this is the point about welfare: failure to support people leads to greater economic and social cost later. She’s almost evangelical while talking about it, presenting her life story as proof. The system worked with her, she says, but it failed her mother — and both of their lives were defined by it.
Her own schooling ended when she was aged 16 — an experience, she says, that shaped her whole political outlook. ‘I was pregnant when I left school, so I needed income support. I didn’t even have functional skills, not even GSCEs in English and Maths, so I needed to go back to college.’ She was in the same position as her mother a generation earlier but the difference for her, she says, was that by 1997 the welfare state was big enough to step in. She had her firstborn Ryan and once said that she “felt she was worthless”.
‘I would have been seen as a scrounger, a scally unlikely to make anything of my life. But without those interventions I wouldn’t have been able to have my son, who is having a great life and has done really well for himself. And I wouldn’t now be a taxpayer who pays their way in life, no longer on any benefits. I wouldn’t be supporting my other two wonderful children. Sometimes you have to invest in people to get the best out of them. To me, that is socialism. That is why I’m a Labour member rather than a Conservative.’
Mrs Rayner responded to Boris Johnson’s ill-comments of single mothers, saying: “I think it’s absolutely disgusting. I remember people like that making those comments about me.
“I might be the shadow education secretary, but inside I’m that 16-year-old that didn’t think I was worth anything. And people like him make women who are already vulnerable feel that they’re the problem. They’re not the problem.”
Next Labour Party Leader?
Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was standing down as leader in the wake of Labour’s crushing defeat, when the party won just 202 seats – its worst election performance in more than 80 years. Angela Rayner has been identified as a runner and rider in the Labour leadership race – should Jeremy Corbyn resign. Mr McDonnell named shadow education secretary Ms Rayner as a possible successor to Mr Corbyn in an interview with former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell for GQ magazine, saying whoever comes after Mr Corbyn “has got to be a woman”.
Away from Parliament and politics, Angela Rayner is married to Mark, who is also a UNISON official, and has three sons.