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Why Lisa Nandy should be Labour’s next leader

The MP for Wigan probably won’t win the leadership, but the party – and the country – would be better off if she did

Leaf Arbuthnot
Saturday 11 January 2020 12:34 GMT
Lisa Nandy announces candidacy for Labour Party leadership

Lisa Nandy has had a good week. The MP for Wigan first became the surprise winner of a parliamentary hustings, in which candidates for the Labour leadership put their case to fellow MPs and peers, then secured the backing of enough MPs to get through to the next stage of the contest.

Those jostling against her for the crown are Rebecca Long Bailey, Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips (plus one or two others, if they can scrape together enough support to continue with their bids).

But of the frontrunners, it’s Nandy I think that could do the most damage to the Conservatives between now and the next election.

We met a couple of years ago when I was doing a piece on British towns. She talked my ear off in an airy Westminster atrium about the need to revive high streets and return economic activity to towns after decades of neglect. It was clear that she really, properly cared – and that she knew her stuff and was brimming with solutions as well an understanding of the problems at hand. I found myself longing to be one of her constituents, just so I could feel she would be fighting my corner.

Nandy’s fixation on towns is well-documented. There’s a Twitter account that pokes fun at how much she bangs on about the subject: her dead-pan pleas for reliable bus services are, it turns out, perfect fodder for memes. But all jokes aside, she’s fighting the good fight.

As Britain’s economy has shifted from manufacturing to services, many towns have lost their footing. Places like Blackpool, Oldham and Sheerness have seen homelessness and food bank usage rocket. While cities are soaking up the young, towns are absorbing the old; since 1981, towns and villages in Britain have lost more than 1 million people aged under 25 and gained more than 2 million over-65s. There are exceptions, but overall the story is one of decline.

Britain’s prosperity was founded upon the success of its towns, and it’s far from clear that our city-centric economic model is the best equipped to power us through the coming decades. The fact that Nandy has noticed this – and cares enough to go on about it – is to her credit.

There are concerns that Nandy may not be enough of a household name yet to be fit for the top job. A recent poll of Labour members put her in last place with just 5 per cent of support. She’s not as recognisable as Keir Starmer, and she’s not one to go on TV shows like Have I Got News for You, like Jess Philips.

But such was the scale of Labour’s defeat last month that there will be bags of time for the public to get to know Labour’s next leader before crunch time.

Exposure isn’t always a blessing, in any case; Rebecca Long Bailey was wheeled out non-stop during the election campaign, to underwhelming effect. Starmer, meanwhile, may have trouble shaking his highly-publicised associations with Remain if he becomes leader. When Nandy has been vocal in recent years, it has often been to express scepticism about Labour’s prevarications over Brexit. She seems to actually understand the priorities of her Leave-supporting constituents, and respect them.

No party leader should be chosen on the basis of skin colour or gender, but the fact that Nandy is a youngish woman, a Northerner and a person of Indian heritage could help Labour woo voters it struggled to reach in 2019.

There is also a sobriety and straightforwardness to her style that could contrast nicely against Boris Johnson’s bluster. In Prime Minister’s Questions she will seem the grown up – without being dull, like Long Bailey, who for all her experience still behaves like an automaton in interviews.

Crucially, Nandy is also not in denial about the degree to which the Labour party needs to change if it’s going to return to power. Where Long Bailey has said, extraordinarily, that she would give Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader “10 out of 10”, Nandy seems to have a clearer sense of what went wrong for Labour in December.

“Now is not the time to steady the ship,” she warned at the hustings this week. “If we do not change course, we will die and we will deserve to die.”

Sadly, Nandy probably won’t win this race. Starmer, who is popular among Labour MPs and has secured the backing of the biggest union in the UK, is likely to bring it home. If that comes to pass, Labour will be led by yet another North London MP and by yet another bloke.

Of course, the success of the next leader will hinge on the performance of Boris Johnson and the fate of the British economy when it lurches out of the EU. But if there is a lesson to be drawn from the turbulent past few years in Britain, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Nandy could yet swing it – and I for one will be cheering if she does.

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