Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy: "I’d love to see what [Boris Johnson would] do with a bolshy northern half-Indian woman."

Lisa Nandy Wants the Labour Party to 'Change or Die'

The Wigan MP believes that radical transformation is needed to drag the party back to electability. Will people listen?
March 9, 2020, 10:31am

Lisa Nandy thinks she can win back the north. She may be right. The 40-year-old was one of the few northern MPs to retain her seat as Labour’s once-solid Red Wall crumbled in the 2019 general election. Around Nandy, the seats fell. Six miles to the east, Leigh – a Labour stronghold for nearly 100 years – swung Conservative. Sixteen miles south, Warrington South did the same. Bolton North East, Bury South, Bury North, Heywood & Middleton, Hyndburn – all turned blue.

But Lisa Nandy held Wigan, which voted to leave the European Union, albeit with a hugely reduced majority. The seat, which comfortably piled up 20,000-plus Labour majorities in the 90s, was kept by just 6,728 votes. “We were really up against it,” sighs Nandy as she greets me in a nondescript conference room at Wigan Town Hall. “It was literally the worst election I’ve ever been involved in.” She even recruited priests to the fight. “We had local vicars doing sermons saying, ‘God says vote for Lisa Nandy!”

It’s a lonely thing now, being a Labour MP in the north. Winning back the Red Wall will be critical if Labour – a party which has been out of power for a decade – wants to avoid extinction at the next general election. Lisa Nandy knows the stakes for the next Labour leader are high. She thinks she’s the woman for the job.

“I’ve spent 10 years trying to deal with the disconnect between national Labour, and towns like mine,” says Nandy, who grew up in nearby Manchester and Bury. “Seeing if it was possible to build a bridge from one part of our electoral coalition: younger graduate voters, largely based in cities, to older voters in ex-industrial towns around the country. I’m absolutely convinced that it is possible and despite the challenge we can win a general election again.”

Can Nandy convince Labour party members to give her a crack at the top job? Probably not. At the time of writing, frontrunner Keir Starmer is set for a decisive victory in the leadership contest, predicted to win in the first round of voting with 53 percent of the vote. Starmer is positioning himself as the unity candidate, the person capable of uniting the left and right wings of the party, whilst Momentum-backed Rebecca Long-Bailey is the person to keep Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist dream alive.

Nandy would have you believe that she’s the candidate of radical transformation – the person most willing to admit where Labour went wrong and drag it back to the centre-ground. (She is the most right-wing of the remaining candidates, reluctantly identifying herself as “soft left.”) "Change or die,” Nandy says cheerily, as an aide hands her a mug of tea.

It’s not always clear exactly what Nandy would change. For all her talk of cleansing fire, her vision for the party – greater investment in the regions (Nandy famously loves towns, so much so there are memes about it), moving power from Westminster and a shift to the centre-ground – isn’t that dissimilar to Starmer’s.

Lisa Nandy at Brighton leadership hustings

Lisa Nandy at a leadership hustings in Brighton. Photo: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

There is of course, the fact that Nandy is a biracial northern woman (she is half-Indian), rather than the white, southern, middle-aged male politician from central casting that Starmer represents. “There has never been a leader of the Labour party that looks or sounds like me,” Nandy points out. “And there’s certainly never been a Prime Minister that looks and sounds like me before.”

Optics aside, probably the biggest point of differentiation from her challengers – and the one least likely to win her fans in Momentum quarters – is Nandy’s stance on immigration. After saying that she “would have the courage to listen” to voters’ concerns on immigration, Nandy was the subject of a critical Guardian op-ed, and was accused of pandering to xenophobia on immigration.

Nandy believes this characterisation was unfair, and suggests that it might have been caused by hostile briefings from rival leadership teams. “I had a bit of this at the beginning of the campaign, where there was some briefing going around saying that I was pro-Blue Labour and anti-immigrant,” she says. She points out that she herself is from an immigrant background: her father, Marxist professor Dipak Nandy, moved to the UK from Calcutta in the 1950s.

Her stance on immigration has been shaped by her constituents. “When I hear people in towns like Wigan telling me that immigration is a problem, the obvious answer is, why would you think that, when we have very low levels of immigration here?” Nandy says. “It’s usually to do with economic factors, because the jobs just aren’t here that provide opportunities for young people.” Nandy backs freedom of movement, but insists that it needs to go alongside investment in skills.

She uses the example of nurses coming to Wigan from EU member states to work in the local hospital, while the nursing bursary had been cut. “People couldn’t understand how we’d allowed a settlement to grow up where people [from abroad] could come here to work in the local hospital, but their kids had just seen the nursing bursary abolished.”

It’s a neat example, albeit one that flattens the complexities of the immigration debate – who doesn’t want to see more bursaries for nurses? Unfortunately, it’s also a familiar one – Nandy has deployed it frequently in interviews throughout the campaign trail.

This becomes a bit of a recurring theme during our interview. Nandy delivers rehearsed anecdotes – about visiting a deindustrialised German town or how the people of Wigan ran the far-right out of town – to cultivate an image of herself as the straight-talking politician in touch with the public. It’s testament to her ease as a political performer that Nandy manages to make these stories sound fresh when they’re anything but.

Soundbites aside, Nandy is genuinely likeable and authoritative, as capable of facing down a foaming Piers Morgan (“there is something just so weird and obsessive about how he talks about Meghan Markle”) as she is at taking chunks out of Boris Johnson (“I’d love to see what he'd do with a bolshy northern half-Indian woman”). Her appearance on the Andrew Neil Show – which Johnson ducked out of during the 2019 election campaign – was widely praised.

Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy: "You’re trying to present the best of what Labour has to offer the country."

“He’s a difficult interviewer,” says Nandy of Neil. “[But] you can’t be wound up by the tricks and the games, because you’re trying to present the best of what Labour has to offer the country. We’re a positive, ambitious party with a story to tell about the future. That’s how we win.”

In person, Nandy is a chatty, upbeat presence who gossips about the Tories (May was a robot whose “head would explode” if you asked her a question she hadn’t prepped for; Johnson’s weakness is “he likes to be liked”) and makes frequent references to her love of 90s pop. If you sat next to her at dinner, you’d have a good time. A former charity worker, Nandy worked for the Children’s Society, where she specialised in issues facing refugees, and at the homelessness charity Centrepoint.

Fresh out of university, Nandy also worked as a researcher for Labour MP Neil Gerrard, then a backbench Labour MP. She credits her time working for Gerrard – who was on the left of the party during the Blair and Brown years – with teaching her the damage that intra-party factionalism can cause.

“It was in an era where if you were even vaguely seen on the left of the party you were kept off the front bench, you weren’t allowed on a select committee, you couldn’t get a decent office in parliament,” Nandy says. “A couple of times when Neil broke the whip he was threatened with being chucked into a portacabin out back.

“I think what has happened over the last few years [with Momentum] has been the reaction to that. One faction had so comprehensively dominated through that time that, when the other faction won, there was an attempt to crush the other side.” (It’s a good point, but one Nandy made on Matt Forde’s The Political Party podcast in January.)

Nandy wants Labour to leave the infighting and bickering of the Corbyn years behind. “Almost everything has been seen through the prism of Jeremy Corbyn,” she says. “Are you for or against Jeremy Corbyn? …It’s been miserable for everyone involved.”

Any leadership contest is exhausting, regardless of whether your opponents make nice: the endless hustings, interviews, and cross-country trips would take it out of anyone. “It’s like being repeatedly run over,” jokes Nandy of the experience.

She was surprised by the level of sexism she’s encountered during the race. “You get people writing things up, saying, ‘Keir is very authoritative, he’s very decisive,’ whereas Becky and I are brittle, or angry.”

When Nandy first started reaching out to MPs to ask them to support her bid, some told her they’d be backing Starmer as he was more experienced – even though Nandy has been in parliament for twice as long. (She was elected in 2010, Starmer in 2015.) “You’ve just got to call it out,” says Nandy. “This is misogyny, pure and simple.”

Nandy secured the backing of the GMB Union, but she’s received only a fraction of the donations of Starmer and Long-Bailey. (Starmer had, at the time of writing, refused to disclose his donor list; Long-Bailey and Nandy have.) Her only hope lies in picking up enough second-preference votes after the first round of voting is completed.

Although she talks a good game – when I mention that I’m meeting Starmer later in the week, she tells me to ask him what post he’d like in her shadow cabinet – it’s unlikely Nandy will win. She probably knows that. But for the most part, Nandy’s played a blinder: she’s boosted her profile and angled herself for a choice front-bench seat. (Both Starmer and Long-Bailey have promised her roles in their shadow cabinet.)

If Nandy’s campaign has come unstuck at any point in the last three months, it’s over her support for trans rights. Along with Long-Bailey, Nandy signed a pledge card from the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, calling for the expulsion of party members who hold transphobic views, and labelling Women’s Place UK, a group that seeks to ban trans people from the bathrooms that correlate to their gender identity, a “trans-exclusionist hate group”.

After signing the card, Nandy was blasted by trans-exclusionary feminists within the Labour party, and she appeared to walk back her comments to Sky’s Sophy Ridge. Does Nandy regret signing her pledge on trans rights?

“I don’t regret signing it, and I would sign it again,” Nandy says firmly. “The response to it gave me just a small inkling of what trans men and women have to put up with on a daily basis in this country, and it’s horrendous.”

Leaving my interview with Nandy I think: it would have been nice if she’d said some new things. But then again, I could have asked better questions. Either way, I’m charmed. Lisa Nandy almost certainly won’t win the leadership race. But we’ll be seeing much more of her in the years to come.

@thedalstonyears