Is ‘refreshingly untribal’ Lisa Nandy Labour’s best hope? | Politics

On the Monday after Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to its worst general election defeat since 1935, Lisa Nandy headed to Ashfield in Nottinghamshire to stand outside a Co-op in the December gloom. There, alongside Gloria de Piero, the local Labour MP between 2010 and 2019, she asked shoppers why so many voters had deserted Labour – the constituency now had a Conservative MP with a 5,733 majority.

The women took a pasting. They were harangued by nurses and ex-miners who had voted Tory for the first time, believing it was their “patriotic duty” to stop Corbyn from getting into No 10. Nandy made a promise to one of them, a pitman called Keith: “I’m going to make it my mission to win you back.”

Keith probably didn’t know who she was. Despite serving as shadow minister for children, then charities and eventually energy, the now 40-year-old Mancunian only came to national prominence in 2016, when she was one of 20 Labour frontbenchers to quit in protest at Corbyn’s leadership, going on to chair Owen Smith’s doomed attempt at the top job.

A few weeks after meeting Keith, Nandy wrote a letter to the Wigan Post announcing she was standing for Labour leader, warning that unless the party changed it would collapse into irrelevance.

She began as the underdog and three months later she still is. By all conventional metrics, she is going to lose. She was endorsed by fewer MPs, fewer constituency Labour parties and fewer affiliate organisations than her rivals. The bookies think Keir Starmer will win by a landslide. So do the polls.

The first stage of the contest was for potential contenders to get the backing of 22 fellow MPs by 13 January. Five MPs passed this threshold: Keir Starmer (88 nominations),  Rebecca Long-Bailey (33), Lisa Nandy (31), Jess Phillips (23) and Emily Thornberry (23).

The second stage required each contender to win the support either of 33 constituency Labour parties (CLPs); or of three affiliates, two of which had to be unions, and which between them accounted for at least 5% of the affiliated membership. This had to be achieved before 14 February. Jess Phillips withdrew from the contest on 21 January. Emily Thornberry failed to attract the required number of members.

The ballot of members and registered supporters was due to open on 21 February, and closes at noon on 2 April. To be eligible to vote you must have been a Labour member on 20 January, or have applied to have become a £25 registered supporter by 16 January.

Corbyn’s successor – Starmer, Long-Bailey or Nandy – will be announced at a special conference in London on 4 April.

Many Tory MPs are hoping the bookies are right. Paul Bristow, the new MP for Peterborough, knew Nandy when they were both councillors on Hammersmith and Fulham council in London between 2006 and 2010. The Conservatives controlled the council then and she soon stepped up to be opposition spokesperson on housing. He found her “refreshingly un-tribal”. He thinks she might be the biggest threat to Boris Johnson.

“I think she’s more relatable. She’s got personality. She understands where Labour have gone wrong. I’m certainly not scared of going out on the doorstep and competing against Sir Keir in seats like Peterborough. He’s not ruled out wanting to rejoin the EU … I don’t think he’s got the personality that will connect with people in Peterborough. I’m not in any way worried about Rebecca Long-Bailey. People have rejected that ideology once and they will reject it again.”

Keir Starmer

Ambitious former director of public prosecutions has led the charge for remain in the shadow cabinet. He was instrumental in shifting Labour’s position towards backing a second referendum

Pitch Launched his campaign by highlighting how he has stood up for leftwing causes as a campaigning lawyer, and unveiled the slogan “Another Future is Possible”, arguing “Labour can win again if we make the moral case for socialism

Robert Largan, who beat Labour in the marginal Derbyshire seat of High Peak after also serving on Hammersmith council, agrees. “She is the one who seems to have done the most thinking about why they lost. She’s not tainted by Corbyn and has been critical of him. I think the fact she is a northerner has a lot more cut-through.”

Plus there’s the fact she is a mixed-race woman who held on to Wigan (63.9% leave) despite being overtly, unapologetically pro-remain and pro-immigration – albeit on a majority cut by almost 10,000 to 6,728 – and holding a world view that manages to mix hyperlocalism with internationalism with a healthy dollop of pragmatism.

Largan cited her “reasonableness”, which he thinks would be welcomed by a public fed up of adversarial politics: “I think having a more consensual politics is what the public would quite like. They are fed up of these really toxic divisions.”

After she was elected to the (then) safe seat of Wigan in 2010, some Labour bigwigs were less impressed. Her experience as a London councillor, and previous work with Centrepoint, the homelessness charity, and then for the Children’s Society, did not cut much ice with Sir Peter Smith, who ran Wigan council for 27 years, until 2018.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer at a hustings event.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer at a hustings event. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

He has endorsed Starmer, saying Nandy “has never been tested in a real job. Being a leader, particularly if you want to be prime minister, you have got to show you can take difficult decisions.”

Nandy was brought up in a family that pushed for change: her Kolkata-born father, Dipak Nandy, helped write Labour’s Race Relations Act; her mother, Luise Fitzwalter, produced hard-hitting documentaries for Granada; and her maternal grandfather, Lord Byers, was the leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords. She insists she was the non-academic one of the family – her sister, Francesca, went to Oxford, while she went to study politics at Newcastle – but home was always a fulcrum of debate.

Balbir Chatrik, who is still Centrepoint’s head of policy, said Nandy had been “really passionate” in trying to change the rules on homeless 16- and 17-year-olds stuck in bed and breakfast accommodation.

Kathy Evans, who was head of policy at the Children’s Society, gave Nandy her next job, in 2005, and remembers she was “very good at building relationships with people she disagrees with”.

“She’s got great spirit. I think I probably spent more time disagreeing with her on matters of policy than most of the rest of the team. But disagreeing well, if that makes sense; disagreeing in a way that was always thought-provoking.”

In Wigan town hall, Smith and Nandy disagreed often. Now, he thinks she’s got her priorities all wrong. He despaired when she became mired in controversy after signing a pledge from the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights that vowed to expel members of some feminist groups from the party. “She’s made it clear during this election what she thinks about LGBT rights, but not HS2 … HS2 is much more important,” said Smith.

She also irritated him by saying Tony Blair had perpetuated “the consensus that Thatcher built”. “All that stuff attacking Blair – we are not going to win if we write out Blair from history. People in Leigh [Wigan’s neighbour, which went Tory in December] were better off in a Blair government.”

Donna Hall, chief executive of Wigan council until last year, said Nandy had a “laser-like bullshit detector”.

“She was able on our first meeting with politicians on Wigan council to cut right through through the rhetoric, the excuses, and get right to the heart of the issues facing communities. She didn’t have it easy with some of the older male Labour councillors who thought she was a young woman out of her depth. How wrong they were.”

However, support from other Greater Manchester grandees is conspicuous in its absence. For instance, Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh from 2005 until 2017 and now the mayor of Greater Manchester, has not endorsed anyone and says he is “unclear where Lisa stands on devolution”.

A Nandy trademark is admitting she doesn’t have all the answers. During her BBC interview with Andrew Neil, she was asked what in her CV would equip her to deal with an international crisis, after the US had assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“I have the humility to know that one individual can’t deal with an international crisis,” she said. “I’m not claiming for a moment to be a greater expert than someone who has spent the last 20 years working in foreign affairs. But nor do I think that it’s the job of a prime minister to pretend to have all the answers.”

It was a typical Nandy response, one which shows either a refreshing ability to admit her own fallibility – or a frustrating tendency to pass the buck, depending on your opinion.

Last Friday teatime she was addressing a meeting in Blackburn, hastily convened by local councillors campaigning to erect a statue of Barbara Castle, the town’s former MP and long-serving Labour cabinet minister. Nandy launched her leadership bid in Dagenham, where female Ford workers went on strike for fair pay in 1968. Their fight was taken up by Castle, then secretary of state for employment, who pushed through the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

“The way [Castle] conducted herself in politics, the way she heard those women and opened the door to change – that’s the sort of politics that I believe in, not the sort of politics where, Churchill-like, when you get yourself elected to parliament, you decide you have all the answers and pronounce to people from the dispatch box about what those answers are,” she told the Blackburn gathering.

It didn’t persuade everyone. One middle-aged man stood up and introduced himself as a “disillusioned Labour supporter”. “The way I see it, this is all about electability. I’m all for equal rights and women’s rights and all that, but the people out there, the public, they need specific things,” he said. “You need to be a bit more specific about what my kids are going to get, in their schooling and hospitals.”

It was a remark that cut to a common criticism of Nandy. As one Labour MP in the north-west puts it: “The question is: is she a commentator or is she a leader? She’s done really well and built a good profile for herself around towns. But what are her solutions to the problems she has diagnosed?”

Nandy insists she has a plan to rebuild the Labour party and win back “red wall” seats such as Ashfield and Leigh, by embedding Labour members in every community. She wants Labour to set up creches, credit unions and food banks to show people that Labour is a party that cares about their wellbeing rather than simply their vote. It is a laudable plan but a difficult one to execute, and many Labour members may prefer to believe that top-down policy-making will win a general election rather than hard slog on the ground. But maybe a hard slog is the only way out of the quagmire?

Potted profile

Born: 9 August 1979

School: Parrs Wood high school in Manchester and sixth form at Holy Cross college in Bury

University: Newcastle University, studied politics

Career: Worked for the Labour MP Neil Gerrard, as a researcher at the homelessness charity Centrepoint and then as senior policy adviser at the Children’s Society, where she specialised in issues facing young refugees.

Family: Husband Andy Collis, a public relations consultant; one son, aged four.

Lives: Wigan, Greater Manchester.

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