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8 January 2020

Lisa Nandy won the first Labour leadership hustings – but her bid is still vulnerable

The Wigan MP’s eclectic strategy risks winning her more enemies than friends.

By Stephen Bush

The first hustings of the Labour leadership contest – the closed-door hustings for the Parliamentary Labour Party – has taken place, and the winner is Lisa Nandy. I use that term relatively speaking: Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jess Phillips can all be pretty certain of getting enough support among MPs to make it through to the next stage of the contest – the hunt for nominations from constituency parties and trade unions – while Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry have a fight on their hands to get the 22 nominations they need from MPs/MEPs. 

Thornberry and Lewis face an uphill battle to make it onto the ballot. Thornberry’s leadership campaign is the victim of the fact that Labour politics has changed – Corbynites no longer need the support of outsiders to reach the ballot, and pragmatic Corbynsceptics no longer believe that Thornberry represents their most viable route back – while Lewis is the victim of the fact it hasn’t changed enough – there aren’t quite enough MPs from the party’s left for two candidates from that wing to make the ballot.

Nandy’s strong performance yesterday means that her hopes of getting to 22 have been given a considerable boost. But what about the next stage? There are two routes onto the ballot: with the support of trade unions or the support of ordinary party members. Nandy is in a dangerous zone as far as name recognition is concerned: she isn’t that well-known among the average Labour Party member but she is well-known enough among political journalists and hyper-engaged Labour members that no-one is rushing to commission a “who is Lisa Nandy?” profile. 

But growing familiarity has other risks, too. Nandy had an interesting line last night: “how dare we tell working class people what’s good for them?” What does that mean in practice? Does it mean a stand-off between the party’s leader in parliament and its leader in the Senedd about the latter’s plan to ban smacking? Does it mean promising to repeal New Labour’s smoking ban? Does it mean meeting the voters Labour has been losing since 2005 on immigration? Does it mean focus group testing how the party talks and acts in order to win power? You might agree with all, some, or none of those but they are deeply divisive within Labour’s electoral coalition in the country and, more importantly in terms of how the next few months play out, the half of Labour’s electoral coalition which dislikes the idea of rolling back on the smoking ban, becoming more authoritarian on migration and so forth is the half that votes in Labour leadership elections. 

Nandy’s is an interesting position in that stylistically she’s running on the same “change or die” platform as Phillips. Historically she, like Starmer, is from the middle of the party. And in terms of her critique of the last manifesto she is close to Long-Bailey in that the implicit argument is that the economics were fine – it’s just that the cultural position was off. That could mean she takes votes from supporters of all three. She could also end up with all of their enemies and none of their friends.

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