“Let’s face it – sometimes it’s tiring being a woman in this world,” Angela Rayner told an audience of Labour women, the day before the party’s annual conference began in Liverpool. “Especially under a Tory government!”
But being Keir Starmer’s right-hand woman can’t be easy either. Zhooshing up the chronic Peroni Dad’s public appearances with her straight talk and steely glamour. Just look at the two of them arriving at this conference, like a couple turning up to a Christmas party having squabbled in the car over their very different interpretations of its dress code – Rayner in a long-sleeved ankle length scarlet dress, Starmer in a navy collarless shirt and quilted gilet. Adele and her roadie. Kat and Phil.
Since she was elected deputy leader three and a half years ago, Rayner has been on a remarkable journey from the awkward leftie within – an internal antagonist who was too close to the unions – to today’s ever-promoted shadow minister and an injection of character into Labour’s rather airless brand. “Basically, Keir mainly listens to [his shadow chancellor] Rachel Reeves and once in a while takes the time to get shouted at by Angela,” is how one Labour MP characterised their dynamic. The woman who was briefly for the sack in a botched 2021 reshuffle is now shadow deputy prime minister and the face of one of the party’s most radical remaining policies: a dramatic extension of workers’ rights.
And a lot more besides.
In her keynote speech to open the party conference on Sunday morning (8 October), the now shadow levelling up secretary (having replaced Lisa Nandy) was also the one to announce a major new policy – freeing up grant funds to build more affordable and social housing, and tightening housing developers’ obligations to build it. Only Rayner could attract a hall of applause for tweaking Section 106 agreements.
Again, she played the role of zhoosher-in-chief, standing tall with her auburn curls tumbling over a black, gold-buttoned military jacket, shoulders raised, mocking the Tories (Jacob Rees-Mogg has “refused to hand over his carrier pigeon” to the Covid inquiry; Rishi Sunak is “just Ken” in Liz Truss’s “Barbie world”) and reminding the room full of Tintin-tufted neo-Blairites what it’s like to actually rely on Labour policy: “It was a Labour government that introduced the minimum wage that improved my income. A Labour government built council houses: I got the keys to my first home, to security. A Labour government introduced equal pay: I started saving money. The Labour government took me from a council estate to the parliamentary estate.”
Two years ago Rayner mildly derailed the Labour Party conference by calling Tories “scum” in a rant that left the rest of the shadow cabinet in a sheepish cringe. “Ange is Ange” was the line they settled on – an echo of Tony Blair’s “John is John”, when his deputy, John Prescott, punched a protester. (Indeed, Rayner has described herself as “John Prescott in a skirt”.) Since then, she has found the language to channel her street anti-Toryism into a story of aspiration. “The Tories look down on people living in social housing. Well, I say, let’s stare right back,” she told the conference hall. “And never be ashamed. A council house changed my life.”
While they have their differences, Starmer with his famed pebbledash semi and Rayner as a housing spokesperson who grew up in council housing have found a neighbourly formula that finally works.