Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan.
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Lisa Nandy: “The forces in British politics at the moment are all on the right”

The Labour MP for Wigan talks about the need for her party to appeal to people who feel “very insecure” and “lack control over their own lives and communities”.

Lisa Nandy is not Parliament’s biggest fan. After four years as an MP, she is “pretty much as frustrated as I was before”.

Enjoying a sumptuous day on the House of Commons terrace, there would seem much to be cheery about. But the Shadow Minister for Civil Society isn’t sitting too comfortably. “I used to think Parliament should move to Wigan (her constituency) but then I realised I’d be at work all the time,” she jokes. “The problem is wherever we are we spend too much time together.”

As one of only six female Asian MPs in the Commons, Nandy is well aware that Westminster still does not do a good job of resembling the outside world. She was selected as Labour candidate for Wigan in 2010 from an all-women shortlist and still believes that such shortlists are necessary. “Look at the difference they’ve made to the Labour party,” she says. The Labour frontbench in Prime Minister’s Questions often contains as many women as men.

While women still only make up 23 per cent of the House of Commons, at least the direction of travel is positive: the figure has never been higher. But the opposite is true of working-class representation. Nandy says that extending the principle of shortlisting to class type “becomes more problematic with working class because it’s self defining, so that’s quite difficult.”

And, as Nandy admits, even MPs born into a working class background are far removed from it in the halls of Westminster. “I was talking to Ian Mearns, who’s the MP for Gateshead, and he was certainly born into a working class family and had a very working class upbringing, but he now earns £65,000 a year and wears a suit to work and commutes to London. Is he still working class? Probably not.”

Labour’s relationship with the wonk world has come under increased scrutiny with the Guardian’s finding that the majority of candidates in marginal and incumbent seats in 2015 come from political backgrounds. Nandy, who was a policy adviser for The Children’s Society and elected to Hammersmith and Fulham council at the age of 26, could be considered part of it. But she believes that the problem is less Labour’s reliance on those with political backgrounds than the “real lack of routes, for many of the young people that I represent, to be able to get involved in politics,” she says. Nandy cites the familiar problem of unpaid internships, and the lack of apprenticeship schemes in political parties.

Championing localism and giving power away from Westminster is fashionable among all parties, and Nandy shares this enthusiasm. She describes the IPPR’s recent Condition of Britain report as “the most interesting thing in British politics” because “what that recognises is there are a lot of people across this country who lack control over their own lives and communities.” Nandy’s solution to restore trust in Britain’s institutions, who have taken such a battering over the past five years, “is to involve people in them, so they can see for themselves that things are getting better and to open them up and make them much more transparent and a voice for when things are going wrong.”

Her faith in the power of people volunteering in their communities is a little reminiscent of David Cameron’s in opposition. “The government talked a very good game before the 2010 election, with the big society agenda,” she says. “Government is a partner with people, it’s how you built a stronger society. You don’t do it too them, but you do it with them.” The problem with the Conservative approach, she contends, is “they’re so ideologically blinkered they don’t see any role for the state at all.”

She takes particular aim at Chris Grayling’s war on ’elf and safety. “Actually the biggest barriers to volunteering are not litigation, they’re time. People need the confidence and capacity to be able to make changes in their own community,” Nandy says. “It’s a lot to ask people to give up time to make change in their communities and that’s why the economic agenda Labour has around extending free child care and boosting the living wage, all of those things are hugely important because time is the biggest barrier to get them involved. “

Yet while Labour has a small, but stubborn, lead in the polls, there has not been any great surge on the left during the Coalition. “If you look at the forces in British politics at the moment – leaving aside the Greens, who after Caroline Lucas have largely collapsed – but if you look at the forces that there are, they’re all on the right,” Nandy admits. She attributes this to people feeling “very insecure” and “not knowing what their lives are going to look like, not knowing what their opportunities are going to be for their kids in the future.”

What Nandy describes as “the shrill, sour, hopeless politics” represented by Ukip is what Labour must fight against. “They set up straw men and knock them down. ‘You can’t get a job because of immigration, you can’t get a house because of immigration.’ Well actually there are much bigger issues around that, around building houses and demographic change, and creating meaningful career paths for people and fixing the economy.” Labour’s challenge is to articulate this without being to seen to promise the world: “I’m a bit sceptical about words like radical and bold.”

Yet Nandy believes that Ukip have been a positive force on British politics in one way. By making more seats competitive at the general election, Ukip ensure that “votes are actively sought and not taken for granted”. They have contributed to the end of what Nandy calls the “old election model” of “fighting for a diminishing number of votes in a diminishing number of seats”.

One effect will be to place a greater burden on creaky party machines. On one level, that should gravely concern Labour: it is likely that they will be outspent by a margin of at least two-to-one by the Conservatives between now and next May. But Nandy believes that the involvement of the American community organiser Arnie Graf means that Labour should not be fearful.

After next May, she says, “the most important thing that Ed Miliband will have done in relation to the Labour party was the decision to take on Arnie Graf, to completely redesign our organisational structure and hardwire it into the DNA of what our party does.”

If that proves to be right, Nandy will become a minister at the age of 35 – and have the chance to make good on the frustration she feels today.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit