Angela Rayner shines in Labour leadership audition as Jo Swinson falters in Channel 4 debate

Rayner is not a fully-paid up Corbynista, and so potentially more able to unite the party’s soft and hard left

Andrew Grice
Sunday 08 December 2019 21:43
Angela Rayner: 'The Tories have failed'

Angela Rayner has become one of “the beautiful people” allowed to be the public face of the Labour Party. The phrase was coined by Labour left-wingers when they were kept off the telly by Tony Blair’s spin doctors. In this election, the tables have been turned, reflecting the left’s supremacy.

Northern accents help too in an election where Labour’s working class heartlands are under attack from the Tories. The shadow education secretary had her chance to shine in a 90-minute Channel 4 debate, which proved another uncomfortable outing for Jo Swinson over the coalition’s spending cuts.

Rayner passed the test, which many in Labour’s ranks will see as an audition for the party’s leader or deputy. The deputy’s post will be vacant on Thursday when Tom Watson departs. Everyone knows the top job could also be vacant soon if Jeremy Corbyn does not become prime minister, though no one inside Labour wants to talk about that.

Channel 4 was right to stage an “everything but Brexit debate” on issues eclipsed in a Brexit-dominated election. A poll for the programme found that 67 per cent of people believe there has been too much emphasis on Brexit, while 15 per cent did not. The wide-ranging debate made a refreshing change from Boris Johnson answering a question on climate change with “get Brexit done”. The questions covered the NHS; crime; the environment; the economy; social care and trust and honesty in politics.

Rayner and Swinson were joined by Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Greens; Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru leader and Philippa Whitford, the SNP’s health spokesperson. The Tories, prolonging their rather childish feud with Channel 4, declined to take part, as did Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and they were replaced by an empty podium. That was less controversial than the melting ice sculptures used in the channel’s climate change debate, provoking a Tory complaint of bias that was swiftly rejected by the media regulator Ofcom.

Cathy Newman, the moderator, did her best to inject some balance by listing the Tories’ and Brexit Party’s policies. It would, of course, have been much better if they had been there.

Tellingly, Rayner won applause from the studio audience of undecided voters in Leeds, when she asked: “Why are they [the Tories] not here to defend their record?” In contrast, Swinson was met with stony silence when she said “they should have turned up”.

No wonder she wanted the Tories there. As she clashed with Rayner over their parties’ rival plans for childcare, a woman in the audience told Swinson: “You are a Tory in disguise. Say what you are.” Deputising for the absent Tories was not exactly what Swinson had in mind, but she was left to carry the can for the coalition’s austerity measures. She stuck bravely to her thankless task, but was inevitably outgunned. She echoed Blair’s “masochism strategy” when he faced hostile audiences after the Iraq War, volunteering: “We got this fundamentally wrong on tuition fees.” She made a good point at Labour’s expense about making “long wish lists” that could not be delivered. The lesson she had learnt from being in the room when the tuition fees decision was taken was not to keep quiet but to speak out. But the audience was in no mood to let her spread the blame.

The combative Whitford joined Rayner in giving Swinson a hard time. When the Lib Dem leader said she had been honest about “things we got wrong”, Whitford told her sharply: “The things you did in coalition were not wrong. They destroyed lives and families.” Ouch.

Rayner has a brilliant backstory, and deployed it well at various points in the debate without over-egging the pudding. At 10, she was a carer for her (bipolar) mum, who could not read or write; after becoming a mum at 16, she was helped by Labour’s Sure Start scheme; later she was a home help who was made redundant. She intervened well and showed she could think on her feet.

Intriguingly, her performance follows a similar audition for her friend, London flatmate and potential leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey, who also passed the test when she appeared in a seven-way BBC election debate last month.

The shadow business secretary is a protege of John McDonnell, who will be influential in the Labour succession when it comes. Some of Corbyn’s close allies favour Laura Pidcock, the party’s employment rights spokesperson. Rayner is interesting as she is not a fully-paid up Corbynista but more independent-minded, and so potentially more able to unite the party’s soft and hard left. Tonight she showed she has the ability to take on one of the party’s top jobs. We will be seeing a lot more of her.

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