“Angela Rayner, Stockport local government branch and first-time deputy Labour leadership candidate!” said the member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne, when she took to the rostrum at the opening of UNISON’s annual women’s conference in Brighton this afternoon to loud cheers.
Taking a break from the campaign for the Labour Party deputy leadership, she described how two decades of activism had seen her start out as a care worker in the union’s young members’ group, alongside current UNISON president Josie Bird and junior vice president James Anthony.
“My story is your story. I’m here today – not because of me, but because of us,” she told a packed hall.
Ms Rayner noted that her first experience of a conference was something of a shock – “In those days, I thought that a standing order was what I had at my local!” – before noting more seriously that “our values” are every bit as valid today as at any time before.
And quoting a classic phrase, she said that the idea of the labour and trade union movement’s core aim being “to secure for the workers the full fruit of their labour” was not a thing of the past.
But the movement also had to be about more – and that was a lesson that the Labour Party had to learn in the wake of December’s general election defeat.
Tell a better story
We need to “tell a better story”, Ms Rayner said. Not just about economics, but one that understands that, for many people in the left-behind places where industries were lost, that had a devastating impact on identities too.
Another of those lessons revolved around analyses of the history of the party. “You won’t hear me trashing our time in government,” she said, pointing out that, as a young single mother, the government of Tony Blair had made major improvements to her life.
Continuing to look back at the election, she noted that “Labour had the policies, but people felt we were offering them ‘free things’” – or a bribe, as people in her own constituency would call it. The manifesto might have been fully costed, but many voters simply didn’t believe it.
But as shadow education secretary, Ms Rayner had education at the heart of her message.
Her own belief in a national education service remains and the conversation needs to shift from only talking about university education to one of “lifelong learning for all”.
Vital for a changing economy
Challenging journalists to report on education and educational experience as being more than “a Cambridge college”, she pointed out that the idea of “free education, from cradle to grave,” was not ‘free things’, but would be absolutely vital for a rapidly changing economy.
“We cannot afford not to do it,” she stressed.
And doing it involves vocational education being “a cornerstone of our economic policy”, directly related to the new skills that are needed – digital and green among them.
“We aren’t being utopian – we’re living in the real world.”
Ms Rayner emphasised the need for early-years investment too – “it pays the greatest educational dividend” – while reminding delegates that “further education and adult education have suffered the most under the decade of Tory austerity”.
But education is not just about skills for work or being able to earn more because you’ve learned more. “Knowledge belongs to the many – and not the few. In today’s society, knowledge is quite literally power.”
Poverty, she continued, is “not just about being poor, but about being powerless. A society where education is free, is a society where people are free.”
Citing her pride in one of Labour’s finest legacies, the Open University, she reiterated that “education is “not ‘spending’ – but investing in our society as a whole. We all gain from it.”
“My union found me as a rebel – and it made me a rebel with a cause” she told them. And education – lifelong education for all – is a cause she’s passionate about.