Humza Yousaf is “a poor Nicola Sturgeon tribute act”. Keir Starmer’s Labour is “a 1990s tribute act”, or “a Blair tribute act”. You can see why the insult is having a moment in politics. As a way of calling someone an absolute duffer it is seemingly lighthearted yet brutally effective.

It was Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, who fired the barb in the direction of Starmer, but she is hardly alone in accusing Labour of backing down from the promises it has made. From the TUC conference in Liverpool to the campaign trail in Rutherglen, the concern is the same: can Labour be trusted to deliver in government?

Yes was the unsurprising answer from Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, when she addressed the conference yesterday. She was among friends and comrades, being introduced by the chair as “one of us” and “Labour’s finest”. For many Labour members, and among people outside the party, Rayner would make a better leader than Starmer.

But is she the real deal, or is Rayner, in turn, just a John Prescott tribute act? Nick Robinson, interviewing her on Today, did not frame the question quite so starkly, but he arrived at the same destination. Was she the John Prescott to Tony Blair, a “great end of the pier show” but someone with no real power? Ouch.

“I think I’m more of a Barbara Castle,” countered Rayner. She is fond of comparisons with the Labour legend. Who wouldn’t be? The pair have a lot in common ideologically, particularly in Castle’s later years. Both are stylish, impeccably turned-out women, although I would bet the house that the Labour minister never wore Doc Martens or some of the other shoes Rayner favours. Castle did not do clumpy.

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Both strong women not afraid of a fight, the list of similarities goes on. Yet there are so many differences, beginning with their lives before politics. Castle was the daughter of a tax inspector. She was brought up in a comfortable home by steady parents who believed in the power of education (and socialism). The grammar school girl went to Oxford, read PPE, became a journalist and then an MP.

You might say Rayner’s story was the stuff of soap opera, but no telly drama would dare to be that bleak. Born and brought up in a council estate, mother bipolar, Rayner was her mum’s carer from the age of 10. Pregnant at 16, she left school with no qualifications.

Just when it seemed the doomsayers were right about her not amounting to anything, her life began to turn around. She was allocated a council flat, went back into education, became a carer for elderly people, joined a union and rose quickly through the ranks. At the age of 35 she was elected the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. The rest is headlines.

A home, a job, a chance - these are the bones of Raynerism, and the delegates in Liverpool liked what they heard, especially the bit about how joining a union changed her life.

She had some meat to add to the bones, including “a cast-iron commitment” to bring in a workers’ rights bill in the first 100 days of a Labour government. Zero hours contracts banned, an end to fire and rehire, a right to flexible working, a “proper living wage”. Labour would also bin the Conservative anti-strike bill with its minimum service guarantee.

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Taken together, this “New Deal for Working People” was not nothing. TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said it amounted to “the biggest upgrade in workers' rights in a generation".

The Conservatives said “the mask had slipped” revealing the same old anti-business Labour.

So what is it to be? Labour is selling out workers or giving them too much power? It is in the pocket of business or in thrall to the unions? The reality sits between the extremes, which is as it should be this far off from a general election. Parties are in the business of winning friends and convincing voters, not alienating vast sections of society.

Even so, Labour had already jettisoned or watered down some of its promises before Rayner got to her feet yesterday. The £28 billion green prosperity plan is to be scaled back. Tuition fees in England will stay. Most controversially, Labour will not lift the two-child benefit cap - a Conservative austerity measure rightly described by Rayner as “obscene”.

Every time a Labour spokesperson is asked to commit to any spending outside the core business of keeping the country going the answer is the same - we can’t, because we don’t know what state the economy will be in when the Conservatives leave. In place of education, education, education, the mantra is stability, stability, stability, and it is becoming just as tiresome.

You can see why people might be unsure about where Labour stands. The voters are clear about what they do not want, and that is the Conservatives. In a YouGov poll published yesterday, 54% said they would “definitely” not back the Tories. That is sea change, can’t stand another minute of them, potentially landslide, stuff. But there is no guarantee where disillusioned voters will go, or if they will even vote at all.

At such times it is crucial that the leadership of the main opposition party keeps its nerve. If Labour is not going to change anything, or very little, why should people bother voting for them?

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Rayner knows from experience that it is practical help that changes lives. But there has to be some hope there as well, a belief that things can change for the better and it will not take forever. Barbara Castle was, and continues to be, held in such high regard because she got things done. Be it introducing speed limits, breathalysers or compulsory seatbelts, she made promises and kept them, even when it was far from easy.

Angela Rayner is an inspiring figure. She would be an asset to any party. If by some weird magic the SNP had elected her as their leader, independence might have been here by now.

Joking apart, Labour needs more can-do Rayners and Castles and fewer people saying no to everything, all the time. If there is one constant in the months ahead it is that voters don’t want business as usual - from Labour or any other party.