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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories