Angela Rayner: Labour offers back-to-school approach

8 Jun

Angela Rayner would use her first day in office on Friday, if Labour wins the general election, to send a clear statement to England’s schools, reassuring them they won’t need to make further spending cuts.

“Day one is to reassure the schools, please: you don’t have to make any teachers, or any support staff redundant. That’s day one for me. It’s that that money will be provided for schools, so do not feel that you have to cut the curriculum or cut school staff. That would be my first thing that I would do.

“Day two is Sure Start centres: making sure that we put that early years programme into place and 30 hours of free childcare.”

Rayner has only been an MP, for the constituency of Ashton, in Greater Manchester, since 2015, but the mass exodus from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet last year propelled her into the prominent frontbench role. The permanent secretary for the Department of Education travelled to her constituency yesterday to discuss her priorities, as the civil service carries out its constitutional job of preparing for the possibility of a change of government.

And while even the most optimistic polls for Labour don’t point to the party clinching a victory, Rayner insists she is feeling more confident than at the start of the campaign, helped by a radical manifesto and Theresa May’s sometimes shaky performance.

“As the campaign’s gone on we’ve been able to provide an alternative – a bold vision for Britain,” she says. Asked about Corbyn’s leadership, which has come under relentless attack from the Conservatives, she says: “I think he’s less of a problem now than he was at the start of the campaign. I think some of the criticisms people had placed upon Jeremy had led to this bogeyman approach, that somehow he’s stuck in the 1970s and he’s for everyone who’s against Britain.

“Actually, throughout this campaign he’s shown that he’s a sensitive, compassionate, caring British politician, that loves his country.”

Of May, by contrast, she says: “She hasn’t been strong and stable, she’s been weak and wobbly. There’s no substance: it’s like one of those cheap Santa Clauses that you get from the pound shop – it tastes awful and it’s all hollowed out in the middle. There’s no substance to it at all.”

She believes Labour’s radical manifesto, promising a sharp increase in public spending, large-scale renationalisation, and tax increases for the rich, has helped sketch out a clear alternative for voters. “I felt that actually, this time round, we’ve given them that opportunity to build on what the 1945 Labour government did, which was around making sure we built a country that looks after everybody and can mean everybody does well.”

It helps that one of the Conservatives’ central manifesto pledges on education – boosting schools budgets by scrapping free school lunches and providing cheaper breakfasts instead – has been widely criticised. Rayner cites new calculations by the GMB union, based on a real pilot scheme in Blackpool, which saw a takeup of 70%, rather than the 20% that would make the Conservatives’ promise viable.

If the government’s breakfast offer proves that popular, the GMB, whose members make up many of the staff who serve school meals, calculates the total cost could be up to £600m a year. That would absorb all but £50m of the £4bn in extra funds the manifesto says would be freed up to plough back into schools budgets.

“Their breakfast programme doesn’t add up, and it’s not going to replace the benefits and the nutrition that the free school lunches do,” Rayner says. “We’ve made our policies based on evidence of what would work and would help parents and help people. They’ve made it, arrogantly, on the basis of what they think will be best.”

Rayner, who is regarded as a potential leadership candidate by some of her colleagues, speaks readily about her tough upbringing, with a mother with mental health issues, and her experience of being a single mother at 16. At 37 she is about to become a grandmother.

She fought for Labour’s manifesto to include substantial help for early years education – including halting the closures of Sure Start centres, and boosting nursery provision – as well as the costly abolition of tuition fees, which tends to benefit higher earners.

“I’ve said right from the start, and Jeremy agrees with it, if we have an extra pound, it goes where the evidence says it would make the most impact, and we’ve done that.”

Asked about the Conservatives’ argument that the support provided by Sure Start centres was not well targeted, because many middle-class parents made use of their services, she says: “That’s rubbish because that just makes you feel like you’re even more downtrodden. I’ve been that parent and I didn’t want to be stigmatised. Actually, I’ve also been that parent that’s just about managing, where I’ve worked really hard, and I’m told that I don’t get anything because I’m just above the threshold for being poor.”

Similarly, she defends Labour’s decision to maintain free school meals for all infant school children, because universal benefits avoid the stigma of means-testing and contribute to community cohesion. “They sit down together, and nobody’s thinking, you’ve got a better meal than me, you’ve got the best biscuit and you’ve got an Asda’s own one and you’ve got the Club. I make no apologies for that, it’s really important.”

Rayner contrasts her own plain-speaking approach with what she calls “magnolia politics” – inoffensive, slick, soundbite-friendly.

“I’m not your average politician, and for every person that thinks I’m wonderful, there will be other people that completely switch off, and think actually, she’s not my cup of tea at all – but you know where you stand with me. And I think that’s like John Prescott, Boris Johnson, those kind of figures.”

Asked if she believes voters will really take the plunge and back Labour on Thursday, she says: “At times I worry that people will go with ‘At least I know what I’m getting’ rather than make that leap of faith. It’s having that leap of faith to say, actually, we’re worth it and we can have it – it’s attainable.”

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