Pregnant at the time, she was told she would “never amount to anything”. But now, given the formal title by Sir Keir Starmer of shadow deputy prime minister, with the hefty brief of levelling up and housing, the outspoken 43-year-old is again proving the naysayers wrong.
The Labour leader tried to demote his elected deputy in 2021. She fought him off, emerging strengthened with an array of titles. Her portfolio has now been given sharper focus ahead of an election next year, despite - or because of - her propensity for ruffling Conservative feathers.
At the 2021 Labour conference, she branded the Tories as “scum”. She apologised for that remark, but is unabashed about her no-holds-barred approach. “The Tories fear me because I say it how I see it,” she said last year in the wake of the conference controversy, refusing to be daunted by threats of murder and rape that saw her given police protection.
She has also been dogged by political attacks laced with class prejudice, and misogyny. In one notorious instance, she was accused by an unnamed Tory of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract Boris Johnson opposite her in the House of Commons.
Described as “feminist with a capital F”, she has been calling attention to the problem for years. She made headlines in 2019 when she declared the Conservative party “infected with sexism from top to bottom”, after Mr Johnson defended a Tory candidate who once told women to “keep your knickers on” to avoid being raped.
Ms Rayner has also been on the receiving end of another line of attack for her northern accent - including one email that said “you sound thick as mince”. Tory MP Michael Fabricant accused her of “squawking on” and claimed she wasn’t “capable of holding down any job which requires intellect”.
Her growing CV says otherwise, and shows a repeated ability to overcome the odds. Her childhood in Stockport, she has said, was “full of fear”. She was a carer for her bi-polar mother, who would accidentally give her dog food or shaving foam to eat because she could not read the labels on the tins.
A single mother after leaving school, Ms Rayner’s first job was working as a carer for the elderly in Stockport. She was constantly questioning managers, and a colleague suggested she would make a good union rep. Despite “not knowing what a trade union was”, she was soon a senior steward, fighting against the privatisation of the home care service.
In 2015, she was elected as the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. Shortly after she attracted a blaze of media attention when she tried to order a pair of R2D2 themed high heels and ended up threatening the store on official House of Commons notepaper when they sold out. (The affair was dubbed “Shoebacca-gate”). Despite the bumpy start her rise was swift.
When 63 frontbenchers resigned in summer 2016 in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she was promoted from shadow pensions minister to shadow for women and equalities, and then a few days later to shadow education secretary - the youngest ever to hold that role.
The education brief was personal. In her maiden Commons speech, she credited Labour’s Sure Start centres for “rescuing” her. She earned her own mandate when elected by party members as deputy leader in 2020, giving her the standing to fend off Sir Keir’s abortive plan to sack her from the role of party chair.
She says she is “quite hardline” on law and order, saying once she wanted police to “shoot your terrorists and ask questions second”. Rather than seeing Ms Rayner’s outspokenness as a hindrance, Sir Keir has now decided to exploit it to the full as he takes the election attack to Rishi Sunak’s Tories in Labour’s old Red Wall heartlands.