My, but Angela Rayner is a canny political operator.
Early on a Sunday morning, not a high point for crowd engagement, even at party conferences.
The delegates had been whipped into a fervour by discussions of motions from the conference arrangements committee, and then a fairly somnolent speech from the leader of Welsh Labour. The stage was bathed in a sort of, er, Liberal Democrat yellow.
And then she strode to the podium to begin the debate. Eyes flashing, curly tresses bouncing, she started with a bang.
The genius of a magician is that even when you know how the trick works, you’re still baffled when you see it
Her first line mentioned Tony Benn, unions, and beating back outsourcing. She didn’t even know what a union was until she was 19. “The labour movement gave me an education and a vocation”. Double bang.
She then went for the hattrick with a great line – which I’ve heard several times before, but is still a great line – about how her success doesn’t show that everyone can succeed if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but how all the institutions of the state helped her, and that’s what she wants for everyone.
The next few minutes were a hitlist of Labour popular announcements, old and new.
Scrapping Ofsted – cheer. A price cap on school uniforms. Cheer. No tuition fees. HUGE Cheer. SureStart Plus – a new announcement. Cheer. (Even though I could wager good money not a single person in the audience could explain what was ‘plus’ about it. Still, like the iPhone 11, it sounds expensive, but they all wanted it). A new comprehensive university – another new announcement and introduced without much explanation. Still, cheer that one too.
There’s a concept in magic called prestidigitation. It’s a variant on sleight of hand, and it basically means – look where the magician isn’t pointing. Watch for the pattern by what you don’t see.
Back to Rayner. The media had been full of stories about the nascent anti private schools movement putting forward a motion at conference to make abolition of such schools Labour policy.
And then said: “We will set [the Social Justice] Commission to work on making the whole education system fairer through the integration of private schools. John McDonnell and I will set out the further steps a Labour government would take. But I can say today, that our very first budget will immediately close the tax loopholes used by elite private schools, and use that money to improve the lives of all children”.
Mmm. I mean, obviously the hall went wild. Except, what was it that she had said?
The tax policy is a restatement of existing policy. Was she saying they’d be abolished – sorry, ‘integrated’? The audience thought so. I’m not so sure.
It’s like a street game of Three Card Monte. Watch the Red Queen!
And then, with a few other flourishes – adult learning, SRE – she ended. To, obviously huge applause.
Much as the audience member who’s just watched a magic display, it took me a few minutes to realise what I hadn’t seen
And again, much as the audience member who’s just watched a magic display, it took me a few minutes to realise what I hadn’t seen – there wasn’t a single mention of academies in that speech. Nothing on grammars. The National Education Service was mentioned, obviously, but was there any more detail as to what it meant? And just what is the plus in Sure Start plus?
And the genius of Angela Rayner is that she manages to continually give speeches, and interviews, and present policy positions, that are so cleverly woven that different groups all take out of them pretty much exactly what they want to. She brings together a coalition that spans the modern Labour party: the left, the far left, the hard left, the moderate left, and the Blairite left – both of them.
I remember watching her speech last year, and saying – as I probably did in 2017 and in 2016 – this can’t go on. She needs to choose. She needs to set out policy in more detail, and then her coalition will fracture. But she doesn’t, and it doesn’t, and it works. It’s like the party’s Brexit highwire, except much more skilfully done. It’s incredible to watch.
A canny political operator indeed. In this game of political Three Card Monte, we’re all following the lady.
Rating: 4 stars. A virtuoso magical performance
Simons is Schools Week’s occasional parliamentary sketch writer. He was reviewing Rayner’s speech on Sunday at Labour’s party conference in Brighton.