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28 January 2016

Lisa Nandy: “The debate that we’re having in Labour is too small“

The shadow energy and climate change secretary on the party's "oppositional" mentality, Trident and why she doesn't want to be leader. 

By George Eaton

On the wall of Lisa Nandy’s Commons office is a painting of a red elephant, suggested by her as an alternative logo for Labour in 2014. The animal, she told the Daily Politics, who set her the challenge, was chosen to represent how the party wouldn’t forget that the financial crisis was caused by “too little regulation, not too much”.

For the Wigan MP, appointed shadow energy and climate change secretary last September, there is another lesson she won’t forget. “Our job in Labour is not just to be an opposition to this government but an alternative – and we can be an alternative, we just have to think much more carefully about how we’re going to do it.” Throughout our conversation, Nandy repeatedly warns that the party’s debate has become too “oppositional”. Too often, she says, discussion is reduced to binary choices: “Are you pro-market or pro-state, are you about helping the most vulnerable or are you concerned with the middle?” Relative to the UK’s economic and social problems, she says, “the size of the debate that we’re having in Labour is too small. Too often focused on ourselves, too much about our own structures, changes to our standing orders, whether we have meetings on Saturdays. None of these speak to the real challenges that we’ve got.”

Instead, Nandy continues, “We’ve got to start thinking about a plan that is going to support people and also give them the opportunities to really thrive. That’s the debate that I hoped that the leadership election would bring. But instead what we ended up with was quite a major focus on personalities. There’s been some welcome focus on the way that we do politics because of Jeremy [Corbyn’s] candidature but that can’t be allowed to collapse into a debate on whether we have meetings on Saturdays.”

Nandy’s promotion to the shadow cabinet meant an early return to the frontline from maternity leave. On the afternoon I meet her she has been up since 4:30am, owing to her nine-month-old son, and apologises in advance for any incoherence. But Nandy, 36, is in confident and fluent form, declining an offer from her political adviser, Joss Garman, to sit in on the interview (“I’ll shout if he asks me anything horrible”).

Of her frontbench role, she tells me: “It’s a huge challenge but it’s also potentially a very exciting one. The challenge in the brief is that we are quite clearly moving away from an energy system that’s dominated by fossil fuels to one that’s dominated by clean energy. The world is making that transition and Britain’s no exception … The impact is going to be enormous and Mark Carney gave a speech last autumn in which he talked about climate change and global warming being the biggest threat to our financial security because of the sheer investment in fossil fuels and the shift that we’re going to have to make, this is potentially ordinary people’s savings and their pensions”.

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The frustration, she adds, is the inability to “shape that transition” from opposition while the Conservatives “dismantle our investment in clean energy, particularly at a time when other countries like India and China are investing to try and make sure that they’re at the vanguard of those jobs for the future.”

But Nandy, one of Labour’s most ardent devolutionists, points out that “although we’re not in government nationally we are in government in most of the major towns and cities around the country. One of the first things that I’ve started to understand in this brief, especially when I went to Paris for the climate change conference, is that the leadership on climate change and that transition to clean energy is actually coming at a much more federal level than national. It was the mayors of Rio and Paris and New York that were really making an impact in Paris when Sadiq [Khan] and I went there. As the UK moves towards a much more federal system, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be the mayors of Greater Manchester and London and Sheffield city region that are leading the way on this agenda.”

One of the first announcements Nandy made after taking on her current brief was that Labour wouldn’t renationalise the energy sector (as Corbyn had pledged to do during his leadership campaign) but would “democratise” it. She offers three reasons for the decision. “Firstly, because of the sheer cost, and you have to think whether that money could be spent in a better way. Secondly, because it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. If I’ve learned anything in the time before I was elected to parliament [in 2010] and since, it’s that states can be as indifferent to people’s needs as markets. Big national monopolies don’t necessarily serve the interests of people across the country.

“Finally, because the reason that I came into politics was about power. It’s about the fact that wherever I looked, whether it was children in the care system or young refugees, young homeless people, you could see that power was so fundamentally imbalanced in this country, that far too many people were shut out of having not just economic power but actually voice and influence around the country”.

She adds: “If you look at countries like Germany, where they’ve been really successful is in giving people public control rather than public ownership. Much more control over being able to establish their own sources of energy, much more control over the way that’s used. If you look at the work of some of the Labour councils who’ve led the way on this, Nottingham setting up their own Robin Hood energy company and therefore being able to structure the pricing so that they can safeguard some of the most vulnerable customers, whether it’s Plymouth who’ve backed community shares so that people are involved in owning and running their own clean energy, or Oldham where they went door-to-door and did a collective switch. It’s about empowering people to find solutions to the problems in their own lives and that for me is the future of energy and the future of this country. When I made the speech Amber Rudd dismissed it and said it can’t be done but she ignored the fact that it already is being done right under her nose.”

Nandy confirms Labour’s support for nuclear power, while deriding the estimated cost of the new Hinkley Point C station (“I think George Osborne’s own father-in-law said it was the worst deal he’d ever seen. It is now on course to become the most expensive nuclear power station ever built anywhere in the world”). She says Labour supports a moratorium on fracking until the party’s proposed safeguards are written into law.

It is on the policy issue that most divides Labour – Trident renewal – that I am keenest to hear Nandy’s views. During Corbyn’s recent reshuffle there was speculation that she could be made shadow defence secretary (a post she says she was never offered). Ahead of a possible House of Commons decision on Trident renewal this spring, Nandy tells me: “I haven’t made up my mind yet how I’m going to vote”. Unlike some of her shadow cabinet colleagues, she welcomes “a real debate” about “whether this is the right way to spend such a significant proportion of the defence budget”. That global terrorism is now the biggest security threat, she argues, weakens the case for Trident renewal. But she sets a test for unilateralists, asking “what the proposal is for the skills that currently exist in the UK workforce” and the thousands of jobs that would be lost were the programme scrapped. “That is a security issue; if we were to lose those skills that would be a real problem.”

Shortly before I interviewed Nandy, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock suggested to me that Corbyn would have to resign or face a leadership challenge if the party’s performance did not improve. I ask Nandy, who supported Andy Burnham’s candidacy, whether she believes Corbyn should be leader in 2020.

“I think he’s got a massive mandate from the party,” she replies, a loyal but far from fulsome response. “I also think that his support is drawn from quite a broad cross-section of the party. Many of my members who voted for Jeremy voted for David Miliband in 2010. They voted for Jeremy, they tell me, because they wanted to see politics done differently. I think there is an opportunity there to do what Tom Watson said during his deputy leadership campaign, to stop mobilising a shrinking number of people and start organising in communities.”

Nandy adds: “He [Corbyn’s] made a good start and he’s got a solid base but now it needs all of us in the party to build on it. It isn’t really good enough to sit back, as it wouldn’t have been under Ed, or under Gordon Brown, or under Tony Blair, and say we’ve got a leader, the leader’s going to solve everything and we’re going to sit here and watch.”

Following Labour’s general election defeat, some sought to persuade Nandy to run for the leadership. Having given birth to her first child a few days before, she unsurprisingly declined the opportunity of months of hustings. But I cannot resist asking her whether she would stand in the future. Nandy is currently the third favourite to succeed Corbyn (behind Dan Jarvis and Hilary Benn) and is privately spoken of by MPs as a “soft left” candidate who could unite the party. She would also be Labour’s first female leader and, the daughter of an Indian father and English mother, its first Asian one.

Nandy grimaces at the “difficult question at the end” but quickly regains her composure. “It’s not difficult actually. In May, that would have been the moment to stand, wouldn’t it, for any of us that were interested. It wasn’t my ambition to do it, I don’t want to be leader of the Labour Party. I love the job that I have now, I love the fact that I can work with a broad range of people, that I have freedom and space to try and make things happen and make things work and try and solve one of the biggest challenges that we have. I don’t have my eye on Jeremy’s office or No.10”.

She echoes the message of Labour’s clause IV: that we have achieve more together than we do alone. “It’s only through collaboration, collective enterprise, organising and solidarity that we’re actually going to change this country, which is in the end why you want to do it. There’s lot of different ways you can play your part in that and where I’ve ended up right now feels like the most exciting place to be.”

I press her: is she saying she would never stand for the leadership? “I genuinely don’t want to do it, that’s not what I’ve got in my mind.” She jokes: “I haven’t got a secret plan to go and kick Jeremy out of his office, I think he can rest easy – for now. We’ll see, see if I pull out a secret plan in a few years’ time.”

But she doesn’t completely close the door. “My generation of politicians were the first who came in who didn’t think of this as a job for life but thought of it as an opportunity and a platform and a way of changing things, potentially for a limited amount of time. It gives a dynamism to this place that I think is very different. It’s quite exciting because everywhere you look there are people using different tools to change things and that’s what I’m going to do wherever I end up. But I haven’t got my eye on being leader, you can underline that, just to be clear.”

Should Nandy have any leadership ambitions she may be wise not to reveal them. As David Miliband and Andy Burnham can testify, “the next leader” doesn’t always become the leader.

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