Lisa Nandy is pivoting to win. Will it work?

The Wigan MP has generated a buzz as the candidate of ideas. Now she has to maintain that and build support. 

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The reason why Lisa Nandy is generating more excitement among the press than any other Labour leadership candidate is that she is actually saying something.

She’s managed to do that while successfully navigating a route to the ballot that runs through power-brokers in the Parliamentary Labour Party and trade union movement, who think that listening to the concerns of voters in towns means a tougher position on crime and control over immigration, while retaining the support of Labour members who think that she means it when she defends free movement. (I don’t know which one of these groups has got the wrong idea about what they’re buying, but it is clear that one of them hass.)

One reason why her campaign is attractive from a journalistic perspective is that because she is putting out ideas at a stunning rate: you can write about her campaign for longer than the time it takes to say, “Keir Starmer is doing a skillful job using his record as a barrister to appeal to both wings of the Labour Party without saying much about the future” or “Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign has yet to find a dividing line with significant purchase among the rank-and-file membership”.

Today, for instance, Nandy has a major speech on welfare. It also has a really skillful bit of framing: she’s pledging to reverse cuts to welfare by increasing corporation tax to “at least the basic rate of income tax”. This sounds very radical because of the steady backdrop of cuts to corporation tax under the Conservatives, and will appeal to Labour members. But the reality is that we are talking about a two per cent increase to match basic rate, and one that would still leave the UK with a low corporate tax rate by global standards.

Nandy is well-placed to win over members because, like Keir Starmer, she is genuinely from the middle of the party, which usually provides the swing group in internal elections. 

But to make the transition from “campaign generating media buzz” to “campaign that wins over Labour members in large numbers” – something which all of the evidence we have suggests she is not doing – it’s tempting, perhaps necessary, to shift approach. Nandy has already begun to soften on policy – at the start of the campaign she was openly talking about things she’d scrap, and now she’s, like the rest of the field, communicating in nudges and winks about which policies are heading for the scrapyard.

Today she tells the Today programme that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t deserve to be “trashed”. At the start of the month he was the head of a party whose “collective failure” had given “the green light” to anti-Semites to think the Labour Party was a welcome home for them. You can think that much of the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn was overwrought and unfair. But if your leadership provides the green light to anti-Semites to join your party, it also deserves to be trashed.

What’s changed? The answer is that she has a serious chance – a small one, yes, but a serious one – of winning the Labour leadership. So she’s pivoting slightly.

Can it work? Well, first impressions count for a lot: Starmer has started putting policy out, particularly on issues like climate change, where he can meet Labour members without having to worry about the electorate. But the perception that he is not talking about policy means that the press still treats Starmer as a candidate without much of a concrete analysis. It may be that Nandy has done enough to be seen as the candidate of ideas and that no amount of soft-soaping her message will dent that.

My instinct is always that whenever a candidate shifts from “candidate of ideas” to “candidate of what you want to hear” is that their old voters dislike it and the voters they are targeting don’t buy it. But it’s another reminder that Nandy is seriously aiming for victory – and has a chance of achieving that aim.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.