Angela Rayner on roots, rough edges and being ready for power: ‘You can’t go through the childhood I had and not have any fallout’

<span>Angela Rayner: ‘People are my super power.’</span><span>Photograph: Sebastian Nevols/The Guardian</span>
Angela Rayner: ‘People are my super power.’Photograph: Sebastian Nevols/The Guardian

Angela Rayner’s office in Westminster is part walk-in wardrobe, part sixth form common room. An inflatable karaoke mic is attached to a bust of Keir Hardie by the fireplace; glitter shoes line the fleur de lis carpet. There are iced doughnuts, a crystal pint glass, a grinning photo of two freckled schoolboys. I’m reminded of that 2022 craze, “bring your whole self to work”. Labour’s deputy leader – Ange, as she refers to herself – is at the centre, arms raised in greeting like a cheer. She’s in Lincoln green, a military-style dress with epaulettes. “The Tories accused me of being in camouflage because I blended in with the colour of all the stuff in parliament,” she roars.

Nothing about Rayner blends in. Not only is she 5ft 10in, broad Manc, hair the copper of a tarnished coin, but she was raised in abject deprivation on a Stockport council estate, left school with no qualifications, was pregnant at 16, a grandmother by 37. She compliments my bag, thanks her adviser for the tea (“Most of us take oat, but Angela always insists on real milk,” he’d told me in the kitchen) and indicates for us to sit. What’s the kitten’s face cushion on the sofa? “That’s a sensory pillow for MPs who need a bit of love,” she says. “If they’re feeling anxious, they come in here, play with the soft furnishings and have a good rant.”

We’re match fit. We’ve gone from second division to premiership. We’ve been training for it

If Labour gets elected, Angela Rayner will be one of the most powerful women in Britain. As well as deputy leader, she is shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities. In her brief are some of the party’s most radical pledges, including an end to zero-hours contracts, restoring power to trade unions and building 1.5m homes within five years. Speculation over a spring election is feverish when we meet and Labour – still more than 20 points ahead – are on high alert. Rayner’s attitude? Bring it on: “I think it should be in May.” She’s unmoved that Jeremy Hunt swiped two of their tax rise pledges for his budget. (“They’ve discovered nom-doms. Who knew, eh?”) Since Sue Gray has joined the team as chief of staff from Whitehall, “we’re match fit. We’ve gone from second division to premiership. We’re ready because we’ve been training for it.

“You’ll get bored of seeing me in the first 100 days of a future Labour government,” Rayner says. “I’m committed to ensuring I get our housing [policies] and New Deal for Working People over the line very quickly. That sets out a framework which includes repealing some of the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation.” She scoffs at the suggestion that there will be more strikes. “The Tories brought in the most restrictive legislation on trade unions in any European country, yet we’ve had more strikes than ever! The idea that we’re going to make it easier for strikes is completely untrue.”

Is there a danger Keir Starmer will dilute these plans under pressure from business, the Tory party and the rightwing media? After all, he scrapped their promised £28bn a year on green projects after Rishi Sunak accused him of risking public finances. “That makes me laugh. Of course, some businesses will be frightened by it, like they were when the last Labour government introduced the national minimum wage and they said lots of businesses will go bankrupt. That never happened. But the idea that Rachel [Reeves, shadow chancellor] and Keir are somehow in the business corner, and I’m in the worker corner, is for the birds. We’re all pro-worker, pro-business, and we’re all signed up to that.”

She runs through a whole host of other plans, from new towns to flexi-working and condensing hours. All in the first 100 days? “We haven’t even touched on levelling up yet. Or community cohesion. Faith. Or local government.” Does she plan to sleep? She laughs: “The good news is I’ve always suffered from insomnia. It’s genetic. My nana didn’t sleep. My dad doesn’t, or my eldest son.” An average night is “three or four” hours.

Deputy leader is an elected position in the Labour party, which means Rayner can’t be sacked. Tensions boiled over in May 2021 when she learned from a reporter that Starmer was moving her from the post of party chair and national campaigns coordinator after Labour lost Hartlepool in the byelection. She leaves it for us to imagine what was said during the hours she was locked in an office with Starmer. What we do know is that she emerged with a promotion.

Rayner fully accepts that she and Starmer are in striking contrast. He is the restrained former director of public prosecutions (stored as “Mr Darcy” in her phone because he was said to be the inspiration for the Bridget Jones character), a technocrat in sombre suits. She likes loud footwear, can operate a tow truck and a hoist, and could service your car. She says if I were to record them with a “secret camera”, sitting on the sofa discussing what they’d seen after a day on the road, their comic interaction would be like “Gogglebox”.

“Actually, we kind of complement each other. He smooths off my rough edges, I bring him out of his shell.” They are quick to locate each other’s “blind spots … because we look at things so differently”. Is he teasable? “Yeah! Because I understand the human now. At the beginning it was a bit like … he probably thought I was a bit overbearing, I probably thought he was a bit quiet.” The relationship took some “building”: “It’s like when you go to a party. It’s all a bit stiff for the first half hour. By the end everyone’s like, ‘Yay, love you!’ That’s me and Keir.” She quickly adds Rachel Reeves: “Because it’s me, Keir and Rachel. It’s not the duo, it’s the trio.”

Certainly, you could not accuse Rayner of being quiet. She talks in unspooling, multiple-clause sentences. Words are reordered and run again, so at times I am faced with a wall of dense talk. She doesn’t allow for interruption, riding over my words by raising her voice, the conversational equivalent of a monster truck with bullbars. That said, her use of blunt, simple language is effective. She reads as direct and honest. She says she was always like this. “My nana used to say I could talk a glass eye to sleep.”

Tories, she told this paper last year, can be “quite scared” of her. “They don’t know how to interact because they don’t often meet people like me and it’s almost a bit awkward.” Rayner, on the other hand, is unfazed by people. “People are my super power,” she says. “I just love people. You can’t make that up.” We discuss her tattoos. She has four, including a Manchester bee and Labour’s red rose. She won’t rule out another, or more surgery. She told the Financial Times that after losing six stone of baby weight in 2010, she’d got a £5,600 loan for a breast uplift: “You can’t be 30 and have a chest like an 84-year-old granny.” Today, she says, “I do not want to grow old gracefully. I never want somebody, when I say I am a grandma, to not look shocked.”

This post-bullshit, post-shame candour is perhaps what feels refreshing to voters desperate for change. Her adviser says she’s mobbed for selfie requests and people shout compliments wherever she goes. Earlier this month, she was a surprise guest at Letters Live in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The 5,000-seat venue erupted as she stepped up to the podium. She read first a recent letter to the editor of the Guardian about Rishi Sunak and later one on the topic of fear from the author Shirley Jackson to a fan in 1962.

Could all this popularity explain the angry sexism and snobbery from Tory ranks? Remember the bizarre smear that she crossed and uncrossed her legs “Basic Instinct-style” to put them off in the chamber? The derogatory nicknames? “Ginger Growler”; “Slapper Ange”? A trip to Glyndebourne as the guest of a violinist from Stockport prompted Dominic Raab to tell the Commons: “She talks about working people… [while] sipping champagne, listening to opera.” She was compared by the Telegraph to Lauren Cooper, Catherine Tate’s bolshie not “bovvered” teen, and recently deployed by Conservative party central office in fundraising emails to trigger members to donate.

Today, she defends herself over an accusation by former Conservative deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft in his unauthorised biography, Red Queen, that she has questions to answer over the sale in 2015 of the former council house she bought in 2007. Rayner should have paid capital gains tax on the property, Ashcroft says, because when she married in 2010, her husband Mark Rayner owned another property close by. Rayner says “this is completely untrue”, that she has taken expert advice and owes nothing. “If I had owed any tax, I would have paid it. Did I know the ins and outs of principal private residency and capital gains tax back when I was a home help – because I was a home help and a single mum [when I bought it]? No. But I took advice from the estate agents and my solicitor when I sold my property.”

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But Rayner is not infallible. In 2021 she delivered a wincing tirade describing Boris Johnson and his cabinet as “homophobic, racist, misogynistic … nasty Etonian … scum”. Eventually she apologised: she did not want to inflame abuse and anyway it was not all Tories. She gets on “extremely well” with Jo Johnson, Boris’s brother, and says Michael Gove, her opposite number in levelling up, is “very competent” (despite her astonishment that he “gave back nearly £2bn of affordable homes grant because he couldn’t face down his backbenchers on planning reform”).

And while a proud socialist, she is clear that first and foremost she’s a pragmatist. “Ideology never put food on my table,” is one of her top lines. Another: “We can’t fix everything overnight.” She has also said she is “hardline” on law and order, and pro-security (her brother served in Iraq). When I ask how Labour will handle the accusation from Tories that “Keir doesn’t know what a woman is”, she says, without acknowledging any shift, “Yeah, sure. We have biological women and we have trans women. And they’re both women: one is a biological woman through sex, and one is a trans woman who has transitioned. Most of the public can get that.”

Won’t the Tories continue to pelt her for having sat on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench? “Well, who knew Rishi Sunak was there when Boris Johnson was partying during lockdown?” she retorts. “He even got a fixed-penalty notice. Who knew he had been around for the last 14 years of the Conservatives’ failure? But never mind. I was just part of the opposition that was putting forward fresh ideas and trying to challenge the government of the day to improve people’s lives.” Her voice strengthens: “I will not apologise for being there for the people of this country who needed an opposition.”

Nonetheless, she’s clear she long thought Corbyn indecisive and lacking in leadership skills. What stopped him apologising for antisemitism in the party? “An inability to see the problem. There were also people around him saying, ‘Hang on a minute, you’ve got to stand up to this’ and in his mind he stood for a movement. I don’t think it was to cause harm, just a genuine flaw.”

Attacks on Rayner come from all corners. George Galloway, the new MP in Rochdale, who campaigned on a pro-Palestine platform, cited her specifically as someone he wanted his Workers Party of Britain to oust. Rayner will say only that he “has been elected democratically. But when Labour hadn’t fielded a candidate.” Labour withdrew support from Azhar Ali after it emerged he had said the Israeli government had “deliberately” allowed the deadly Hamas attack on 7 October. It gave Galloway an open goal. Rayner says Labour have since “tightened up vetting” of candidates.

I was very aware of what people thought of me when I was 16. They saw me as dirty

There is a widespread perception on the left that Labour is still not critical enough of Israel’s actions in Gaza. What did Rayner make of the comments by US vice-president Kamala Harris that there should be an immediate ceasefire? “Her intervention was really important. What the Labour party have tried to do is bring about a humanitarian ceasefire for the release of hostages, and to make sure aid gets to the Palestinian people.” A Labour government wants to play a “crucial role” in “rebuilding Gaza and bringing about the two-state solution”; it would recognise a Palestinian state “and make sure Israel feels safe and secure, because Israel has a right to exist, and Palestine has a right to exist”.

She notices on my flashing phone that my daughter is ringing and insists I take it. “Mine always call, too. You panic, thinking something’s wrong. And they’re, like, ‘I was just wondering why Netflix isn’t working.’”

Although Rayner is open about the extreme neglect and deprivation she faced growing up – “so people can relate to it”– she is cautious of what she calls the “poor Ange” narrative. She doesn’t want to sound as if she’s peddling victimhood because she had to care for her bipolar mother from the age of 10, or because her mother was illiterate and gave them dog food thinking it was stewing steak. But here’s the snag: her background is her politics. It’s what underscores her central belief, that “it’s really hard to fix people once you’ve broken them”.

* * *

Rayner was born Angela Bowen on the Bridgehall estate, Stockport, in March 1980, the second of three children. Her mother Lynn was one of 12 kids born to out-of-work parents. Lynn had never been to school. “I followed the fair,” was how she described her upbringing to her daughter. Beyond the fact that her mum was from Wythenshawe (“like Marcus Rashford”) and her dad from Stockport, Rayner has “no idea” of her family’s background. “I don’t want to go on Who Do You Think You Are? I dread to think who I am! I just think: I know what I know.”

It’s worth noting that former Tory chancellor Sajid Javid’s mother was also illiterate, but regularly marched young Sajid to the local library to study. Lynn, by contrast, was in spirals of suicidal despair. For long periods she was unable to get out of bed. Rayner became her carer: feeding her, washing her, once even sleeping at the end of her bed, “in case she did something”.

Their house was a tip. The children were covered in dog fur, tidemarks of dirt visible on their skin. Food was sausage with chips; chips with chips. On Sundays they traipsed two miles to their nan’s high-rise for a hot bath and to have uniforms washed in her twin tub. “We used to play on the old disused railway lines aged five, and that was eight streets away from where I lived. I’d be nervous about my 14-year-old going eight streets away, let alone a five-year-old.”

Their father was largely “out” – sometimes overnight, sometimes having “walked out” – his mood unpredictable on his return. Rayner remembers the slam of the front door and mimes a frightened gasp, zipping her mouth in fear. “As a child, little things are big. Your dad’s come home and he’s angry. How do you not breathe so they don’t see you hiding?” She doesn’t analyse her parents’ relationship: “That’s for them.” But watching her mother’s collapse each time her dad left made her feel “a byproduct of their relationship. We weren’t, like, wanted. I don’t really feel like I’ve ever been loved, or needed love, because I’ve never had it, in that way.”

In one family photo, seven-year-old Angela is jutting her chin forward with a determined grin. A tour de force even then. There’s the trademark fringe, hair firecracker orange. “They used to joke about me being the milkman’s because I was the only ginger in the family. I was quite happy with that.” She developed “weird” rituals to cope with a crippling fear of the dark. “Do you remember toilets with the pull chain? So loud! I used to go as far as I could with the chain, pull it, then think, ‘You’ve got 10 seconds to get back in bed, pull the cover over so that nobody can see you.’”

In the estate hierarchy, their family was the lowest of the low. She would run the gauntlet of bullies on the way to the shop. She badgered friends to stay at theirs for tea. Other kids’ parents, tired of feeding her, told her to wait on the kerb until their kids were done. “I remember one friend moaning, ‘I’ve got to eat Sunday dinner again.’ I was like, ‘Sunday dinner! That is Christmas for me. Christmas.’”

She was in nightclubs at 14. By 15, she was out at all hours, drinking cider, riding buses. As she got older, she began to feel more and more furious with Lynn. Why couldn’t she be like other mums? Why couldn’t she just get up? Why was she so lazy and selfish? Today, she recognises the debilitating nature of her mother’s condition. Of the effect of mental illness on a family, she says, “It’s like the sun, it’s a constant. Everything gravitates around it, it penetrates everything. It sets the environment, the tone. You feel the heat. You either get burnt or you don’t.”

Bowen now lives in supported tenancy. In an interview with ITV in 2020, she said if it wasn’t for Angela’s decision-making as a child, she probably wouldn’t be alive. “I cut my wrists, took tablets … they had to get the police and the ambulance. Angie were at the hospital. They said, ‘You can take your mum home now’ and she said, ‘Over my dead body. You section her now.’”

Rayner shifts position on the sofa, turning away from me so that I can see the curl in her spine. She wasn’t the first of her cohort to get pregnant, but at 16 she was the youngest to keep the baby. She has described her boyfriend, 19-year-old Neil Batty, as “twenty B&H and a Ford Fiesta”. But she wants to be clear about one thing: it was her first time. “I’ve never gone into detail, but when you lose your virginity, the last thing you’re thinking is, ‘Hey, where’s your contraception?’ You should be thinking that. I wasn’t.” This matters, she says, because “I’m not promiscuous. I was very aware of what people thought of me when I was 16.” She has no problem with other people having multiple partners, she adds hastily, but “I felt people saw me as dirty. Actually, I’ve pretty much always been in good, solid relationships.”

She was showing “a bit” when she sat her GCSEs, she says, then ballooned. Returning from school one day, her 13-year-old sister saw her sitting on the stairs and was horrified. “Ange, you’re putting me off having children. You’ve literally took up the whole staircase.” Rayner makes a round shape with her arms. “I’d gone from, like, this stick insect to this.” Throughout the pregnancy she’d told herself that she was going to be a good mum, the opposite of her own. At 34 weeks her back began hurting and “I just thought, ‘That’s how it is.’” The pain persisted for two days. By the time she realised she was in labour, her blood pressure was “two hundred and something over a hundred and something”.

Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport was known locally as Step In Ill, Step Out Dead (“A joke until one of the nurses was putting saline into drips and killing everyone”). When she arrived on the maternity ward with dangerous hypertension, Rayner was “very scared”. The midwife took one look and said, “My daughter’s your age. Have you done your GCSEs?” Rayner says: “It felt so loaded.” She vomited after gas and air, then felt too self-conscious to ask for more. “I decided to grin and bear it. I didn’t want to do it wrong. I didn’t have much pain relief at all.”

She didn’t see herself as a child. “I thought I was an adult, 10 men – like, ‘I know how to look after myself.’ But I was a child.” Her son, Ryan, is now 27. She points at the photo of her two youngest, from her marriage to Mark Rayner. Charlie will turn 16 next month and Jimmy is 14. “There they are, the little cuties. I call them pampered pooches. They’re both over 6ft now.”

* * *

After Ryan was born, Rayner’s life changed. She lived for a while with Batty, working first washing pots, then overnights in palliative care. She took her NVQ level 2 in social care, learned British Sign Language, passed level 2 in counselling and volunteered for the Samaritans at 18 (“I’d seen the pain people go through”). She also took evening classes in cookery. “I can bake, which is more than my mum could do. I don’t just throw things in a deep-fat fryer. I don’t own a deep-fat fryer. I can do you a good dal, which is hard, bear in mind.”

Her work in the care sector introduced her to the trade union Unison, and from there to politics. She was elected as the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in 2015, and within a year was on the frontbench as the shadow minister for education. I ask how she would describe her intelligence and she says, “My capacity to learn is as good as anybody else’s.”

The notion that there are people out there today who don’t have what she had in the late 90s is devastating to her. During the Oldham byelection in 2015, she saw baby food and nappies laid out at a food bank. “I went into the toilets and had a bit of a cry. The idea that I’d have had to go and ask for food and nappies – I completely get how that could dehumanise and demoralise a parent who’s trying their best. If you’ve never been in that situation, it’s hard to understand. I’ve heard ministers say it’s a lifestyle choice. It isn’t.”

She sees Tony Blair’s New Labour as having laid, with income support, tax credits and Sure Start, the stepping stones that led her out of the chaos of a dysfunctional family. She recognises both that her mother was the product of long-term deprivation and that the consequent neglect in her own childhood will haunt her entire life. She knows echoes will be felt by her own children. This is why she bangs on about Sure Start. It was the setting in which she was able to see mothers properly engaging with their babies, playing with them, encouraging them. She realised with a thump the complete absence of this in her own childhood and what that meant.

“Your childhood shapes who you are,” she says. “For me, becoming deputy prime minister is about what I can achieve to unlock the potential of people like me. I feel pressure to ensure people don’t get that knocked out of them.” Too often she meets young girls who say, “‘I couldn’t do what you’re doing, Ange.’ But they could, because they’re inspirational and strong.” She tells them: “Even though the system feels against you, you can do it.”

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There have been other challenges since. Charlie, who is about to take his GCSEs, was born at 23 weeks weighing 465g. He is epileptic and registered blind. “Four times they wanted to switch off the machine,” she says. Nonetheless, when an MP tried to use his case as a reason to reduce the 24-week abortion limit, “I was upset. I don’t think people should use my example to make a decision one way or another.”

She and her ex-husband are still “best friends” despite separating in 2020. Last year she split from Sam Tarry, the Labour MP and former shadow transport minister who was sacked from his junior ministerial role in 2022 for joining rail workers on the picket line in contravention of a ban by Starmer. Rayner says, “I’ve been incredibly lucky because all my relationships have been very good ones, even when we’ve parted. I have a very constructive relationship with all my exes, and I can name all of them as well!” In 2017 Ryan had a daughter of his own. “I said, ‘You’ve made me a grandma at 37!’ He said, ‘Mum, there’s a reason you’re a grandma at 37. I’m not the problem, I’m 21.’”

Might her busyness, her piling up of responsibilities, her three-to-four hours’ sleep a night, also be avoidance of uncomfortable feelings from her past? “Quite possibly – I do wonder what being on the trajectory the other way will do to me,” she says, meaning when her career in politics takes a downwards turn. “You can’t go through the childhood I went through and not have any fallout from it.” She’s happy to admit she has “issues”. She veers away from questions about therapy, but afterwards her adviser tells me she’s talked about the odd bad day. “Hippo days” she calls them, when she can’t face getting dressed or applying makeup.

“If I wanted to psychoanalyse myself, I might ask: why am I never content? If you look at my career, at what I’ve done, I’ve been incredibly successful. But I’m not content. I want to achieve so much more.”

• This article was amended on 24 March 2024. In an earlier version, we said Sam Tarry lost the Labour whip. He was in fact sacked from his junior ministerial role but remains a Labour MP. This has been corrected.