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14 January 2020

Lisa Nandy has launched her leadership campaign five times. Here’s why that’s smart

The Labour leadership election has been marked by US-style perpetual launches. One candidate is using them better than the others. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the interesting quirks of this Labour leadership election is quite how many times the candidates have launched their campaigns. The five candidates who have qualified for the next stage – in which trades unions, affiliated societies such as the Socialist Health Association, and Constituency Labour Parties will put their nominations forward – have all announced at least three times.

They’ve all had a “well, I’m considering it, maybe, who knows?” interview on the BBC – and at a time when behind the scenes their recruiting and cultivating of MPs was pretty advanced – a second “yes, I’m actively considering it” launch in the Guardian, and a third official “yes, I am in fact running” launch, usually also in the Guardian. (The exception to this being Rebecca Long-Bailey, who launched in Tribune, and Lisa Nandy, who launched in the Wigan Post.)

That’s pretty sensible: the leadership election will ultimately be decided on the BBC and the Guardian’s website. The ideal Labour leadership election campaign will have a media strategy that runs roughly like this: they’ll launch in the Guardian, do a big set-piece interview on the BBC, do their first print interview in the Mirror (read by very few Labour Party members but a relationship they’ll need to cultivate as leader).

One of the many advantages that Keir Starmer and Long-Bailey have over the rest of the field is that they are more well-known. I don’t think it’s a surprise that Nandy has had more launches than the rest of the field (she has, by my count, had five launches: her first on the Saturday after the election, her second, the obilgatory “where do we go from here?” piece in the Guardian, the third while speaking in favour of Lindsay Hoyle’s re-election as Speaker, a pitch-rolling piece for the New Statesman, her official launch in the Wigan Post and a follow-up piece in the Guardian): she is the least well-known candidate in the field and needs to seize any opportunity to introduce herself to them.

As a result of that, her launches all have broadly the same theme – there’s a problem in Labour’s coalition and it can only be fixed by offering a radical devolution of power to local communities: roughly the same pitch that Liz Kendall offered in 2015. Because she’s not as well-known, she can’t use her launches to broaden her base. She just needs to hammer the same theme over and over again. A similar dynamic is at work with Jess Phillips (who has launched her leadership bid four times): she, too, starts with low name recognition among the public as a whole, which she badly needs to turn around as her path to victory runs partly on convincing existing Labour members but also on recruiting new ones.

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What’s intriguing is that the candidates for whom that is not true are not using their extra launches particularly well. Given that every scrap of data we have suggests that Starmer is winning the contest, it makes a degree of sense that he wouldn’t want to do much more than talk about the need to deliver a Labour government, but to make sure it stays radical: he is leveraging the fact that he looks like the picture most people would draw if you asked them to draw “a British prime minister” and leveraging it well. But his slick campaign has, so far, been pretty one-note. He hasn’t taken the opportunity to further squeeze Long-Bailey’s territory, or to limit Phillips’ space to his right.

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Long-Bailey has done the same, and given that – if all of the available evidence is right – she is not ahead, she may have cause to regret that.