In a speech last night to the Institute of Public Policy Research, Angela Rayner revealed that, ‘the reporters for Hansard have a bit of a nightmare sometimes transcribing the way I speak in parliament into their house style. But I don’t compromise on it, because it’s who I am.’
It is, admittedly, refreshing to hear a Labour voice in parliament not adopt the condescending, explaining-very-slowly-to-the-back-of-the-class tone exemplified by Emily Thornberry, or the sorrowful, never-been-so-appalled-by-sheer-Tory-heartlessness-in-all-my-life bleat most notably employed by Ed Miliband. And Rayner has certainly conducted herself with considerably more aplomb at the dispatch box than her party leader, who has the voice of an expiring corncrake.
But Rayner’s schtick, as the authentic woman of the people, unbesmirched by political careerism, rough edges unplaned, would be a lot more convincing if she hadn’t been an enthusiastic supporter of every bourgeois Corbynistic fad going. As it stands, I suspect much of her popularity in the contemporary Labour party is because she fits into a middle-class leftist’s idealised vision of what a working class person is – or perhaps more accurately, what they think a working class person should be like.
The ‘house style’ of Hansard is there to tidy up the ums, errs and misspeaking that everybody, no matter their class, does when they talk on the fly, and to serve as a public record that needs to be as clear as possible. On this occasion the Hansard reporters apparently queried the use of ‘less’ to mean ‘fewer’ – a minor quibble that is hardly confined to Rayner.
But it was her drubbing of Tory opponents as ‘scum’ – in a speech to staff, and sotto voce in the Commons – that has really defined her. The writer Paul Mason even claimed – astonishingly – that this is how working class people address each other.
And this is where the Rayner myth crashes into reality. It is somewhat irritating when she confuses her personal style with her social class, as if she can’t be expected to follow pretty much universal codes of basic politeness or grammar because she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. This is nonsense, and what’s more it’s patronising nonsense.
It’s all the more puzzling because, in fact, Rayner is an excellent communicator, clear and direct. People come away from hearing her speak with a variety of opinions, but there is never the least bit of confusion about what she has said.
The idea that, as Rayner stated elsewhere in her speech, the ‘working class background’ of politicians ‘almost gets taken away’ because ‘people grow up thinking that in order to be something you have to speak a certain way or you have to hide it away’ would have been a very pertinent observation, in 1926. In the era of Lee Anderson and Jess Phillips – and after decades of Commons figures such as Austin Mitchell or John Prescott – it’s a ludicrous claim. Jacob Rees-Mogg is the oddity now.
Despite her much vaunted opprobrium for him, Rayner reminds me of Boris Johnson. They give similar turns – while she play-acts the council estate rough diamond, he serves up the ‘snakes alive! I say chaps! Crumpets in the quad!’ Billy Bunter routine. They are both performances based around ancient stereotypes. Both are apt to lose their appeal quite quickly. And I imagine Hansard have much more of a ‘nightmare’ putting his words into order than hers.