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POLITICS 

Angela Rayner’s accent is not up for scrutiny

Pick on flawed policies by all means, says Gaby Hinsliff – but to pick on the way a female MP sounds or looks is definitively stupid 

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

Thick as mince. Dumb-arse. Can’t take her seriously.

Those are just the politer versions of the abuse heaped lately on shadow education secretary Angela Rayner – not just on social media, but also from people emailing her office, because nothing’s too much trouble in the very urgent business of telling women they're wrong about things – for the way she talks.

Shock, horror – woman born in Greater Manchester, representing seat in Greater Manchester, has a broad Manchester accent. Worse, she sometimes makes grammatical mistakes when in full flow. And she wants to be in charge of children’s education! Imagine.

Such pointless snobbery is, of course, nothing new. John Prescott was remorselessly mocked for mangling his words, but it didn’t stop him getting to be deputy prime minister, chiefly because his colleagues recognised that what occasionally came out of his mouth didn’t properly reflect what was going on in his head.  

But in Rayner’s case, there’s an extra challenge, as there depressingly often is with a female MP. Public life for women is all too often an exhausting process of having to earn the same credibility as a man – to prove yourself, over and over again, to people who refuse to accept they could possibly know less than you.

Shock, horror – woman born in Greater Manchester, representing seat in Greater Manchester, has a broad Manchester accent

Female astronauts get “corrected” online on their grasp of physics by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. People who googled “supply and demand” five minutes ago mansplain economics endlessly at female professors of it. Men of a certain age, background and bearing are still often subconsciously taken on trust because they look like they know what they’re talking about, but women don’t always get the same free pass. And that applies perhaps especially to women like Angela Rayner, because it’s not just the accent – it’s the fact that, like John Prescott, she left school at 16 with no qualifications, although unlike him she was pregnant at the time.

She’s a fast-enough learner that, having only been an MP since 2015, Rayner is now one of the shadow cabinet’s strongest performers, but apparently that’s not enough. What some people just can’t accept is that a girl who dropped out of formal education might one day end up in charge of education, even though that’s an amazing, magical story that should be shouted from the rooftops.

When Angela Rayner was growing up, her mum couldn’t help her with homework, because she couldn’t read and write properly herself. Books, she has said, were “not a thing” in her house. At 16, she was told she’d never amount to anything and, who knows, that might have come true if it weren’t for Sure Start, the system of children’s centres set up by the last Labour government. (Rayner has credited them with helping her become a good mother to her own oldest son, now at college.)

But perhaps it might also have come true without her colleagues in the public-sector union UNISON, who, when she got a job as a careworker, encouraged her to become an elected union official, which would become her route into politics. That’s a story not just about raw talent or determination, but about the safety nets and second chances in life which, in practice, make a difference in succeeding against the odds, and which are all too often overlooked in the education debate.

It’s no accident that Rayner has fought in the shadow cabinet for more investment in early-years education, which helps prepare small children properly for school when their parents can't or won't. It’s no accident she’s also proposing a commission on lifelong learning, so that adults can come back later and fill in the blanks of a school career that went off the rails.

None of this makes her perfect, or immune from criticism. If Labour's hopes of eventually being able to write off student debt (at a cost of up to £100bn) don’t make economic sense, or if the money could be better spent than on scrapping tuition fees for middle-class graduates headed into the City, she should be held accountable, just as anyone else would be.

But the key words in that sentence are “just as anyone else would be”. It’s fine to pick flawed policies apart. But to pick on the way a woman sounds, or looks, or on what she's overcome to get where she is? That’s the definition of stupid. 

@gabyhinsliff

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