September 14, 2023

Listening to Angela Rayner this week has felt like real-time evidence for Karl Marx’s quip about the past weighing “like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. Even before she had addressed the TUC conference, Rayner was fending off questions about whether she was a modern-day John Prescott or, as she preferred, Barbara Castle. And long before this week’s comparisons to Prescott and Castle, John McDonnell was hailing her as the “Nye Bevan of the Jeremy Corbyn government”.

For Marx, of course, the point was that such historical cosplay was just that, a distraction, covering up the reality of grinding historical change — of new worlds coming into being, not old ones being resurrected. With Rayner, though, the historical comparisons themselves are revelatory.

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When she described herself as “Prescott in a skirt”, for example, it was an attempt to showcase her loyalty. When she recently said she prefers to think of herself as a Barbara Castle, it was an attempt to showcase her independence. And when McDonnell hailed her as a new Bevan, it was not simply a way of paying her a compliment, but to stake a claim over her, declaring her as a figure of the Left at the very time many on the Right were beginning to think she might in fact be one of theirs.

Back in 2017, it did not seem so ludicrous that Rayner might actually prove to be a kind of stealth member of the Labour right. This, after all, had long been the traditional role played by the trades unions in the Labour movement — a pragmatic check on both the wishy-washy Fabianism of the soft Left and the radicals on the hard Left (and, indeed, the Blairite Right). The old Right is the tradition that gave us Ernest Bevin and James Callaghan: hard, patriotic deal makers who got things done and were uninterested in ideological purity contests. As one Labour shadow cabinet member put it to me, this is also Rayner’s self-image: the union organiser who cares little about indulgent Left-wing manoeuvring.

I distinctly remember the moment the Labour Right was most excited about Rayner — in large part because I, too, had convinced myself that there was something in this idea. I had seen her in the little-used “Barry Room”, tucked away in a quiet bit of the House of Lords, dining with one of Tony Blair’s closest allies — Lord Levy, then known as “Lord Cashpoint” for his success at raising donations for the party. Had the Blairites seen something, I wondered, and were they courting her, looking for ways to support her as their last best hope against the Left?

The little lunch meeting I witnessed came around the time Rayner had gone into battle with McDonnell over the issue of scrapping tuition fees. According to reports, Rayner — then shadow education secretary — was dismayed by the party’s decision to prioritise such an expensive policy choice over spending more on the kind of early-years care that she had once depended upon. Scrapping tuition fees largely helped middle-class children, while funding Sure Start centres helped the poor. At the time, Rayner even had the bravery to praise Tony Blair. As she said: “Ideology never put food on my table… I talk about Tony Blair’s tenure because it changed my life.”

This is one important way of understanding Rayner, then. At 43 she is from a new generation of MPs who came of age in Blair’s Britain — not Major’s, or Thatcher’s, or Callaghan’s. While she was brought up in a council house in the Britain of late Tory decay, she became a mum and joined the workforce under Blair.

It is not hard to see why she might feel defensive about the last Labour government, for this is the period in her life when she dragged herself out of poverty. Raised by a mother who could not read or write, she left school at 16 after getting pregnant. From this point she became a care worker and a Unison rep, eventually rising to become the union’s most senior official in the north-west and from there, the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in 2015. She is, within the next 18 months, likely to become Deputy Prime Minister. The defining political forces in Rayner’s life, then, are the Blair governments and the trade union movement. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that she is so difficult to pigeon hole.

“The Labour party is always trapped by analysing things through its own past,” one shadow minister put it to me this week. “But the best way to think about Angela is not as hard Left or old Right, but as an operator.” This MP — an admirer — said that when Rayner was at Unison, she was the type of person who would have been against the hard Left and any indulgent motions “about Latin America or whatever”. Similarly, while her language and policy ideas might be reminiscent of the Seventies, with its talk of corporatist partnerships between the state, business and labour unions, they are also, in large part, just a reflection of today’s world, influenced more by Bidenomics, “net zero” and Brexit than Tony Benn.

On one level, the historical comparisons are beneficial to Rayner because they downplay her potential. Being likened to big characters who never quite made it to the top make her seem unthreatening. And yet I’m told she is outspoken on the NEC — Labour’s ruling body — though prefers to thrash out issues with the leadership before votes are taken to avoid exposing divisions with Starmer. And in the last reshuffle she insisted on taking responsibility for the workers’ rights agenda, which few think Starmer wanted her to have. So while Starmer has asserted almost total control over the party since 2020, Rayner has worked to consolidate her position as an independent power of her own, one of the very few Labour figures to have survived both Corbyn and Starmer — and been prepared to stand up to both. She is a significant contemporary political force.

She is, though, a changeable force. Happy to be “John Prescott in a skirt” one moment, she’ll rail against the comparison the next. She can be hailed as the last leading representative of the Left willing to talk about “Tory scum”, while also going on the radio and saying the party cannot tax and spend its way to prosperity — a line which Tony Blair would himself use a day later in the Financial Times.

As she prepares for government, it would be a mistake to underestimate her intelligence, cunning, ambition and unpredictability. Whatever the result of the next election, Angela Rayner’s influence is only likely to grow. To what end remains less clear.