Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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The irresistible rise of Angela Rayner

The youngest-ever shadow education secretary takes a more pragmatic stance than other Jeremy Corbyn backers and is increasingly spoken of as a future Labour leader.

At Labour’s manifesto meeting on 11 May, there was one exchange that dominated the conversation as participants left. Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, had challenged John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn’s longtime ally, over the draft document. In her broad northern tones, Rayner expressed dismay at the lack of attention for child protection and early-years funding.

“She wasn’t very pleased that there was more on protecting animals than children in the manifesto,” I was told. While early-years funding benefits the neediest, McDonnell’s focus had been on abolishing university tuition fees, which would benefit undergraduates, and thus middle-class families.

After a side meeting – the only one held with a shadow cabinet minister – the dispute was resolved. McDonnell later talked down the disagreement and declared that Rayner would be the “Nye Bevan of the Jeremy Corbyn government”. Not for the first time, Rayner had demonstrated her independence.

Although the 37-year-old did not join the rebellion against Corbyn, she has differentiated herself from the party leadership. The day before the manifesto meeting, she made a speech in which she praised Tony Blair despite the Corbyn team’s misgivings. “We’re going to see a generation of our children being held back,” she warned about the Tories’ plans. “It never used to be like this under Labour . . . Tony Blair spoke of the need to build an education system fit for a new millennium.”

When Blair entered office in May 1997, the red-haired Rayner had recently turned 17. She had left school the previous year, with no qualifications, after becoming pregnant.

Raised on a council estate in Stockport by a mother who could not read or write, “I wasn’t school-ready,” Rayner said recently. “Books weren’t a thing in my house. Mum couldn’t help me with homework.”

It was a signature New Labour achievement – Sure Start – that “rescued” Rayner. “Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people,” she said in her first party conference speech. “The direction of my life was already set. But something happened. Labour’s Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children [she now has three], the support we needed to grow and develop.”

Rayner’s personal experience and her knowledge of her brief prompted her intervention at the manifesto meeting. Research shows that it is during a child’s earliest years, rather than secondary or higher education, that funding can make the greatest difference.

Her route into Labour politics was a familiar one. After becoming one of the youngest careworkers on the staff of Stockport council, she was elected as a Unison representative. She originally “didn’t know what a trade union was” but Rayner was encouraged by colleagues, impressed by her harrying of management. After becoming Unison’s most senior official in the north-west, she was elected in 2015 as the first female MP for Ashton-under-Lyne.

“I lay claim to being the only member of this house to have ever worked as a home carer,” she said in her maiden speech to the Commons. “Perhaps, too, I’m the only member of the house who, at age 16 and pregnant, was told in no uncertain terms I’d never amount to anything. If only they could see me now.”

After the party’s June 2016 crisis in which 63 frontbenchers resigned, she was promoted from shadow pensions minister to shadow for women and equalities. A week later, she became the youngest-ever shadow education secretary after the resignation of Pat Glass (who lasted 50 hours in the post).

It has proved the right brief for Rayner. Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools has united Labour in opposition, allowing Rayner to build alliances across the party and exploit Tory divisions. In the Commons on 12 September 2016, she told the Conservatives to “stop your silly class war”. As Tory MPs jeered, she remarked that it was the reply David Cameron gave in 2006 when asked what he would say to any backbencher who supported grammars.

Rayner has spoken of how her accent and appearance have led her to be “underestimated” (one email labelled her “as thick as mince”); she now uses this to her advantage. “A lot of better-educated people have come off worse against her,” an ally told me, citing a Channel 4 News exchange with Michael Gove.

Though loyal to Corbyn, Rayner has cast herself as non-factional. “Ideology never put food on my table,” she said in January this year. “I talk about Tony Blair’s tenure because it changed my life.”

Among Labour politicians, Rayner, whose journey is recognised as remarkable, is increasingly spoken of as a future leader. “She’s very ambitious,” a source said. “A leader of the party in the future? Who knows,” Rayner said of herself in February. This council estate girl, one senses, is determined to keep defying expectations. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear