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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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