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20 September 2020

Angela Rayner sets Labour’s tone for the months ahead

Opening Labour Connected, the party's virtual conference, Angela Rayner fleshed out Labour's strategy for recovery.

By Ailbhe Rea

Angela Rayner opened Labour’s virtual party conference this morning, and pulled off the feat of delivering a rousing speech to an empty room. 

Her opening address has set the tone both for the rest of Labour Connected, the party’s virtual conference, and offered the fullest sketch yet of how Labour’s message will take shape in the coming weeks and months.

The strategy for Labour’s recovery, most agree, is to tell a bold, unifying story of economic change, rooted in family and community, in order to unite a fragmented electoral coalition of young progressives and older cultural conservatives over their shared economic concerns, while reducing the emphasis on the cultural issues that divide them. The question and difficulty, so far, however, has been how that strategy would work in practice. 

[see also: Keir Starmer’s quest to reshape Labour]

Angela Rayner’s speech gave some sense of what that strategy could look like. A former home carer herself, she rooted her remarks in the daily lives of carers and their wages (£8.10 an hour, on average), their centrality to the fight against coronavirus, and a commitment to fighting any government freeze of the minimum wage. It was based on the problems that people face in their everyday lives: the low wages that have prevented some from self-isolating, the clapping for carers that hasn’t put food on the table for those workers, and the concerns people have about keeping their jobs as the economic impact of the pandemic worsens. 

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“We will be campaigning on three economic priorities,” Rayner announced: “jobs, jobs, jobs. We will speak with one voice as one labour movement.”

With a message of unity for a party where some remain dissatisfied by Keir Starmer’s more restrained approach to cultural issues, she fleshed out the latent theme of most of Labour’s interventions in previous months: a focus on sorting out problems on the ground, whether they be testing shortages, food poverty or PPE in care homes, while ignoring cultural hot topics as much as possible.

Despite the initial strangeness of making a speech alone to camera, with its unfortunate resemblance to a hostage situation, Rayner gave shape to the narrative that Labour hopes to create in the months ahead.

She told the conference the story of a girl called Angela, born 40 years ago. “She was born into poverty, and grew up in a Britain that was broken. Scarred by mass unemployment and hardship. The odds were stacked against her. But a Labour government changed that.

“The Sure Start centre, the council house, the minimum wage and further education that Labour governments and councils built and provided – they changed that life.” 

“That is what a Labour government does. That is what our movement does. It takes a girl from a council estate with no qualifications and no prospects. It gives her a chance, gives her a voice. It makes her a trade union rep, sends her to parliament and elects her deputy leader.”

Labour knows the divides it is trying to plaster over are deep, and that weaving a compelling narrative is easier in an election review than to do as events unfold and divisive issues come to the fore. But Rayner gave us a first taste of what that narrative might look like in the future.

Above all, it was a reminder to the party that one of the most powerful stories it can tell is the one of Angela Rayner herself.

[see also: What happened when Angela Rayner took on Boris Johnson at PMQs]