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“Identity is not a zero-sum game”: Who is the real Lisa Nandy?

The Labour leadership outsider on her heritage, the “overblown culture war”, and how Labour “offended everybody”.

“I’ve never heard of a Manchester tart and I was born here!” Eschewing an otherwise “too healthy” menu for a mid-campaign pit stop, Lisa Nandy tucks into the slice of cake. (It’s custard on shortcrust pastry, for the equally unacquainted.)

After a chilly morning on the picket line with striking university staff, the Labour leadership candidate is taking shelter at the Milk and Honey community café in central Manchester – all hanging plants, book swaps and students poring over laptops. Dressed casually in jeans and a purple top, Nandy cradles a coffee while attempting to answer questions about herself, which she admits is “excruciating” and “like pulling teeth”.

Life on the road has been “fairly relentless”. We meet on week eight of the leadership election, and the three remaining candidates – frontrunner Keir Starmer, Corbyn-friendly Rebecca Long-Bailey and town whisperer Nandy – have spoken at more than ten hustings so far.

There’s another one coming up that evening, and Nandy has joked to her opponents that they should start swapping slogans and completing each other’s regularly recycled punchlines.

“The format involves a lot of us going from conference centre to conference centre, shouting slogans to each other, which is probably not the right way to conduct a leadership contest after your worst defeat for 100 years,” she says.

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As a backbencher who hasn’t had nearly as much airtime as her opponents through the Jeremy Corbyn years, Lisa Nandy is something of a wild card.

Her position on Brexit was unfashionable – as a vocal opponent of her party’s support for a second EU referendum, she hinted that she would back Theresa May’s deal last spring, and voted for Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill at the end of last year.

Yet her campaign gained surprising early momentum. She picked up influential nominations and gave a number of assured media performances, impressing viewers by gently dressing down the unholy trinity of interviewers for politicians: Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan and Nick Robinson.

And then there are all the town memes. Nandy co-founded the Centre for Towns think tank in 2018, and her leadership pitch centres around more funding and powers for local authorities in an attempt to revitalise towns. Despite being born in Manchester, she eventually settled with her family in the nearby town of Bury, where she went to college.

Having lost a “red wall” of constituencies across the Midlands and North of England, Labour’s problem is often diagnosed as “detachment” from its post-industrial voter base. It is therefore obligatory for profiles to mention that Nandy has a northern accent. “A lot of my friends think I sound southern now!” she laughs. “But I get more Manc when I go down south.”

Nandy, now 40, began her political career a decade ago when she became the first woman to be elected MP for the Lancashire town of Wigan. A lot has happened politically in those ten years – the coalition-era austerity programme, three further general election defeats for Labour, the party’s collapse in Scotland, and Brexit – but Nandy’s message has remained largely consistent: Labour’s leadership is losing touch with heartlands such as Wigan; English towns desperately need reinvestment and empowerment; buses, high streets and proper job opportunities are what voters like hers really care about. Still, she’s only polling at 16 per cent, according to the most recent YouGov poll.

Since the era of Ed Miliband, who Nandy backed for the leadership in 2010, the party has watched its delicate coalition of so-called traditional, working-class voters and socially-liberal city dwellers disintegrate.

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Over the years, Lisa Nandy’s name has recurred as a potential leader to guide the party out of its mess. But it’s an opportunity she’s declined, until now.

After the Conservatives won a majority at the 2015 general election, a grassroots campaign endorsed by the left-wing Guardian columnist Owen Jones calling for Nandy to succeed Miliband was disappointed. She and her partner Andy Collis – a PR consultant she met while working at The Children’s Society charity before she was elected – had just had their first baby, Otis, a few days before the election. Now aged four-and-a-half, he’s started school, and “he’s got a lot to say for himself”, Nandy grins. “Very unimpressed with this contest. As is most of the country!”

The next opportunity came the following year, during the failed “coup” when a number of shadow cabinet members resigned – including Nandy, who quit her post as shadow energy secretary – in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But she instead co-chaired Owen Smith’s unsuccessful leadership challenge.

“I think every time you’d asked me if I was going to do it, I was like ‘hell no’,” she says, recalling probing texts asking if she would stand. “It was like the opposite of Ed Miliband’s ‘hell yeah’. This hasn’t been a long time in the making for me.”

What has been a long time in the making, however, is her analysis of her party’s problems, which goes back far beyond Corbyn or Brexit to the New Labour years. When I first interviewed Nandy in Wigan in 2015, she was saying much the same thing – her town had been neglected, and voters were turning to other parties (back then, Ukip) for answers.

[See also: “Why sanction children?” – On the road in Wigan]

“We’ve got to be honest about the fact that for a long time we’ve been a party that has shrunk to a small group of people, mainly men, in central London, who commission reports and focus groups, who then go out into areas of the country that they don’t know or understand, tell people what their problems are, tell people we know better than them how to fix them, and tell them that we’re the right people to do it, and it just won’t wash anymore,” she says.

All the talk of civic pride sounds suspiciously like “Blue Labour” – the old-fashioned, socially-conservative strand of the party that accuses Labour of lacking patriotism, detachment from community, and an off-putting preoccupation with identity politics.

One former representative of a Labour town in the north-west is derisive of this thinking, calling it “a bit patronising, all flat caps and whippets”, and Nandy’s campaign has been accused of courting a worldview that is sceptical about immigration. Yet she has long defended freedom of movement, prompting further criticism of “having her cake and eating it”.

“In Wigan, people think of me as a Remainer, often a Remainer who’s been trying to block Brexit. In Westminster, they’d taken that to mean that I was a Leaver who wants to leave at any cost,” she sighs.

Favouring a close relationship with the EU post-Brexit, Nandy called on her party to stop opposing freedom of movement for EU citizens at Labour conference last year. “I have been clear with my voters in Wigan that I think the best outcome is to leave with a deal – and a deal that protects free movement rather than ending it… Those are trade-offs. We are the Labour Party: we put protecting people’s jobs first,” she said at the time.

“I genuinely believe that immigration is a good thing,” she tells me today. “My dad is an immigrant.”

Born into a Bengali family in Kolkata, Nandy’s father moved from India to the UK in 1956. A prominent Marxist academic, Dipak Nandy went on to become a key figure in equalities campaigning, working on the Sex Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act and Equal Pay Act in the Seventies, founding and directing the Runnymede Trust racial equality think tank and becoming deputy director of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

It isn’t far from where we meet that her father and the former Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins sat at her family’s old kitchen table drafting the Race Relations Act in 1976.

“If you can’t find a letting agent who’s going to give you somewhere to live, and you can’t walk into a pub with your wife and get served, and the police are actively discriminating against minorities, you don’t really have a choice but to get involved in the race relations struggle,” Nandy says.

“I think this country’s better for him and his generation being here.”

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Lisa Nandy – who served as a councillor in Hammersmith, west London, for four years ­– believes the problems in our towns and cities are “two sides of the same coin”: in towns, young people leave, high streets hollow out, older people become isolated, bus routes disappear, and pubs close; in cities, those same young people are hindered by rent and housing costs, dodgy landlords, excessive debt, strained public services, and rising inequality.

It’s “an economic model that is overheating one part of the economy and underappreciating the other”, Nandy says, rejecting the “completely overblown culture war” between the two sides – a trap Labour fell into.

“We had half the shadow cabinet arguing for Remain and half for Leave, vocally and offensively in many ways – writing off people who voted Remain as liberal elitists and people who voted Leave as stupid racists,” she laments. “We offended everybody as a consequence, we hit that sweet spot in British politics.”

Rather than accepting her constituents’ concerns about immigration, she says the solution is to invest in young people. An example she gives is of the nursing bursary being cut, giving the impression that EU citizens were favoured for NHS work. 

“In all honesty, the answer is education, education, education,” she says. “It’s just skills. We’ve got to invest in our workforce and the people here because that is how we attract companies to come and invest, and people to come and work here from all over the world.”

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Evoking Tony Blair is just one way Lisa Nandy – once a darling of the party’s left, who battled against New Labour when working with asylum seekers – defies the dreaded pigeonhole. While accusing Corbyn’s team of “dramatically underestimating the need that people had for security”, she insists “we needed to be more radical” in terms of devolving power away from Whitehall and Westminster. Yet she would model her own manifesto on New Labour’s in 1997 – i.e. “shorter”. “I think it was about 20 pages and it didn’t promise much, but what it did promise told you a story about how Labour would transform the economy and what we were about.”

Such mixed politics are shaped by her upbringing. Recalling leafleting at the age of six for Labour in Worthington, central Manchester, when her mother was a councillor, Nandy not only had a communist father but a Liberal grandfather: Frank Byers was a Liberal MP from 1945-50 and then led the party in the House of Lords. She joked in a 2014 HuffPost interview that her dad thought she was “right-wing” (“he was really cross with me about that, because he’s really proud of me!” she laughed. “I was like dad, chill – I mean, he’s a Marxist!”).

Equally, she feels uncomfortable being defined by one identity (“Is Lisa Nandy Indian?” is an often-googled question, following mistakes by journalists who suggested there were no ethnic minority candidates in the leadership contest).

“There’s something really problematic about the way we talk about identity – I’m a Manc by birth and a Wiganer by choice, and being half-Indian is also important to my sense of identity,” she says. “I also feel very, very British, and I still feel European… We seem to have got into the same, reductionist, binary conversation that treats identity as a zero-sum game, and we’ve got to do better than that.”

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These cultural debates enter the endless hustings all too often. Nandy laments how regularly she’s asked about abolishing the monarchy instead of how to win back Bassetlaw – a Nottinghamshire constituency held by Labour since 1935 that turned Tory last year.

“The nuance and complexity [is] being completely erased from our political debate and everything is reduced to this ‘yes or no? Churchill: good or evil?’, stupid level of debate,” she says.

Yet she is alert to keeping journalists onside: her mother Luise Fitzwalter was a current affairs producer at Granada, and her stepfather, Ray Fitzwalter, was an investigative journalist who edited its flagship documentary programme World in Action (a programme that exposed the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six in 1985).

As Labour leader, Nandy would fight for a “better settlement” for funding local journalism. Her stepdad, “a working-class lad from Bury” whose reporting at the Bradford Telegraph & Argus in the late Sixties about a corrupt architect led to the resignation of the home secretary, wouldn’t have “a route” into the media today, she says.

“The demise of local papers is a real problem – we need a better funding model.”

As a child, she noticed how it would take eight months for journalists like her mum and stepdad to make one episode of World in Action. “Most journalists now are lucky to get eight minutes,” she says. “How many of these scandals like Grenfell and child abuse rings could’ve been prevented at an earlier stage, had we had the investment in the journalism we need in this country?”

This is another reason for Nandy’s recent call to “mutualise” the BBC, which means it would be owned by its viewers.

“I think Labour has to have a much more nuanced understanding of the media and recognise that with a lot of the media, we’re always going to have to meet a higher bar as a party,” she warns.

“This is a really decent country but it’s also a cautious country, and change tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. We’re quite a radical party, we don’t accept the status quo. If you want to make fundamental change in this country, you have to meet a higher bar, and you have to go out and you have to win the argument.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.