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15 January 2020

Lisa Nandy is close to making the Labour leadership ballot but unresolved tensions remain

The Wigan MP’s pro-immigration pledge sits uneasily with many of her leading supporters’ views.

By Stephen Bush

Lisa Nandy has bagged the endorsement of the National Union of Mineworkers. A surprising but symbolic boost to her campaign is the consensus among the commentariat – an assessment that is, I’d say, almost precisely wrong. It is not surprising because of the candidates in the field, Nandy’s towns pitch is the closest to that of Yvette Cooper, who the NUM backed in 2015. It is not symbolic because there is no great caucus of voters among the teachers, librarians, charity workers, and guilty financial services employees who make up the bulk of Labour Party members waiting for the symbolic endorsement of the coal miners to guide them. It is a real and tangible boost is because it puts Nandy within touching distance of the ballot paper and thus the contest proper. 

Under the rules of Labour’s new nomination process, candidates need either to secure the nomination of five per cent of the party’s grassroots or at least three affiliate organisations, two of which must be trades unions making up at least five per cent of the total affiliation. The grassroots route means picking up the support of 33 Constituency Labour Parties, which is a big and expensive ask as campaigns need to get their message out to the hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members, and one that is particularly difficult for a candidate like Nandy, whose profile outside of the most politically engaged and well-informed part of the Labour membership is low. 

Reaching the ballot via the affiliate route means that you have to woo the top layer of elected officials – a much less tricky task in terms of cost and time, though one that has plenty of its own challenges. In practice, that means that to reach the ballot via the trades union route, candidates need the backing of one of the mega-unions, whose support clears the five per cent threshold on its own (that’s Unison, Unite, the GMB, Usdaw or the CWU) plus one of the smaller unions, such as the Fire Brigades, the Musicians, or the Bakers. (Regrettably for any candidates looking for small unions to back them, the butchers have long since been merged into Usdaw while the candlestick makers are now part of the GMB.) 

Keir Starmer has bagged the support of Unison while Nandy has the backing of the NUM: that both puts them one more trade union and any other affiliate away from the ballot. The general consensus is that Starmer is likely to pick up the support of Usdaw while Nandy is likely to gain the backing of the GMB. Rebecca Long-Bailey is certain to reach the ballot by the trades union route – she will definitely get the backing of at least one of Unite and the CWU, plus a plethora of small unions who have consistently backed Jeremy Corbyn. 

Jess Phillips’ best route to the contest proper probably lies through Scottish CLPs – remember that because the Labour Party in Scotland organises at a Holyrood level, there are 73 of those available – thanks to her uncompromising position on a second independence referendum, but neither she nor Emily Thornberry can be certain of making it on via that route. 

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As for Nandy, she and Starmer are tantalisingly close to making it to the final stage of the contest. But can they go all the way? Starmer’s slick campaign is based on an effective presentation of his tenure as director of public prosecutions and leveraging the fact that if you asked someone to draw an e-fit of the prime minister, it would look a lot like Starmer. He hasn’t said much on policy, but it’s easy to see swathes of issues, free childcare, say, or action on the climate crisis, where he can announce plenty of detailed policy without upsetting anyone in his broad coalition.

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Nandy, who is running as the candidate of listening to towns, has a trickier task. There’s an obvious disconnect between what many of her supporters in the PLP and atop the trade union movement think listening to towns is about – a move towards the voters they have lost on at least one of crime and immigration – and the Lisa Nandy who told party members in Lewisham yesterday that her biggest frustration with the Miliband years was that controls on immigration mug. There is an obvious incompatibility here, and if her opponents are astute they’ll find a way of exploiting that.