Angela Rayner is catching up on her ironing. Dressed in skinny jeans and her youngest son’s sky-blue jumper, her trademark red hair tied back in a ponytail, the deputy leader of the Labour Party is squeezing in some housework between her Vogue interview and taking the train back to her Greater Manchester constituency this afternoon.
“It’s a constant battle to get clean clothes,” the 43-year-old jokes from her brightly decorated London flat, where a five-foot pink flamingo statuette towers over the small living room.
A motivational quote painted on her bedroom wall (“Today will never come again,” it begins), Rayner juggles her day-to-day as a frontbencher, nationwide campaigning duties ahead of the yet-to-be announced general election, and looking after her boys, Jimmy, 14, and Charlie, 15. (Her eldest son, Ryan, is now 26 with a child of his own, making Rayner a grandmother or, as one front-bench colleague fondly dubbed her, “Grangela”.) “Don’t miss parents’ evening,” she says, washing machine beeping for attention in the background, “do your pressured job. I’m sure a lot of people feel like that.”
Naturally, they do. And it might be her greatest weapon. A child carer by six and a single mother at 16, Rayner’s life experience has, she says, informed her politics. She knows firsthand, for example, how hard it is to parent alone, that childcare costs are “eye-watering” and, as the mother of a Disabled son – Charlie, born at 23 weeks, is blind – understands that support for Disabled children in particular is “a minefield”. “You feel like you’re having to fight the system constantly. Even getting a statement of educational need is hard these days and then fighting for provision is a constant battle for most parents and schools. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there.”
Though there are many working parents up and down the country who can identify with this balancing act, the truth is she stands in a position only a handful of women in British history have ever experienced. Promoted to shadow deputy prime minister and levelling up secretary in the autumn, if the current opinion polls hold and the Labour Party oust the Conservatives at the next election, this time next year Rayner could become the most powerful woman in the country.
For a girl who was told she would never amount to anything (“Finding a man and having children was the only option instilled in me,” she recalls), it’s been a remarkable journey. Brought up on a Stockport housing estate in the 1980s, Rayner’s childhood was characterised by extreme deprivation. Her mother had bipolar disorder and a developmental disability that meant Rayner was a child carer before she reached junior school. Unable to read or write, her mum once gave her dog food because she couldn’t understand the labels on tins. “From the age of six, I was more articulate than my mum,” Rayner says in her strong Mancunian tone. “We swapped roles. I was her carer. It’s not like there’s an interview. You just take it on. That was normality to me.”
Every Sunday, Rayner and her siblings would walk the one and a half miles to their nan’s high-rise flat to have their weekly bath – they couldn’t afford hot water at home. “I had tide [dirt] marks. We used to try and scrub them off my neck,” she recalls. Once she hit puberty, she experienced period poverty before there was even a name for it. “We didn’t really have sanitary products at home. If there were any, it was those huge ones [they had in the early 1990s], these bad boys that were way too big for my tiny frame. We called them surfboards. I used to go to school and get loads of toilet paper and just stuff that in. I made it into a ball.”