When Angela Rayner was growing up she went to her gran’s house for a bath on Sundays because her parents couldn’t always afford hot water.
She lived in a council estate in a home with no books and both her parents were on benefits. Now she’s shadow education secretary, and her inspiring story shows that ordinary women can both make it into politics and can make change happen.
She recently gave a speech at UNISON’s women’s conference and we caught up with her to find out how she went from a council estate to the heart of Westminster.
If you’ve ever seen Angela Rayner speak, you’ll know that she’s bright, bold, warm and very, very northern.
Angela’s description of her childhood shows she didn’t have it easy. In the playground, she was the poorest of the poor, and for her, school was a chance to get a hot meal at lunchtime because she didn’t have breakfast. On the council estate she was bullied for her red hair.
Angela’s mum couldn’t read or write, and was diagnosed bipolar. Angela felt like she lacked love in the home, and says her mum has even told her that she didn’t know how to love her. Inevitably, she says, she went looking for love, and that’s how she ended up pregnant at 16.
She was six months pregnant when she collected her GCSE results, and Angela remembers people looking and judging her.
“They all said that I’d amount to nothing, and I’d be on benefits all my life and have kids with different dads and live in a council house. Which I was upset about. Everyone just thought that I was a write-off, but I wanted to be a good mum, and I wanted to prove them wrong.”
When her son Ryan was born, Angela wanted to work and had to figure out a way to do it: “My nana said that as long as I put him to bed she’d have him in the evening.”
Angela saw an advert for an evening shift as a homecare worker with a private company. She got the job. She wasn’t paid for travel time and she wasn’t treated well (an issue for many homecare workers, which UNISON is campaigning to change).
So, when a job doing homecare employed by the local council came up, she took it. It was then that Angela became a member of UNISON.
Equal pay and the outsourcing of public sector jobs were the issues that inspired her to get more involved in the union, and she ended up holding various senior positions in UNISON.
She was regional convener for the north west, helping support 200,000 public sector workers. She was also on UNISON’S National Executive Council (NEC).
At one point the union had a meeting with the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and Angela was invited along. She says instead of calling him Prime Minister she called him Gordon, and her mum was horrified. “He was quite chilled about it though,” according to Angela.
Eventually Angela saw that to make more change she would have to be involved in government, and from there she got involved in the Labour party. In 2015 she became the first female MP for Ashton-under-Lyne.
So, where did she find the confidence to enter Parliament? Angela says she used to feel like she wasn’t good at anything, but helping people has given her confidence.
“Being able to help somebody makes me feel better about myself, so that’s where I get my confidence. I’m standing up for other people, which makes me feel much better.”
And her advice to others who may be considering politics? “Stop maybe-ing and just do it.”
Angela thinks that working class people, and women especially, think that if they can’t do 20% of a job then they shouldn’t do it at all, “but blokes, especially blokes from privileged backgrounds, even if they only know 20% of the job they wing the rest of it.”
“You have the skills to do the job. All you need to do is have a passion for making a difference and to care about the people around you and you can do it. You can be amazing.”