At the close of Labour conference 2018, a new party political broadcast aired – ‘Our Towns’. Aimed at voters in ex-industrial towns, it told a story of how Tory austerity had “ripped the heart out” of these places over the last eight years, though their decline began decades ago. The video quickly moved onto ‘that hopey changey thing’, linking community pride to Labour policies from the national education service to public ownership of services. As it came to an end, I had one person in mind: Lisa Nandy.
A backbench Labour MP perhaps best known to party activists as the person briefly tipped by Owen Jones for the leadership in 2015, or as a supporter of Owen Smith’s bid in 2016, Lisa Nandy has been working on towns for years. That interest has particularly taken shape as the Centre for Towns, a non-partisan think tank launched by data analyst Ian Warren, politics professor Will Jennings and Lisa herself. “Think tank might be a bit of a grand term for it,” the MP says when I ask her about the organisation. “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few pints involved. We concocted the idea in a pub in Horwich about 15 minutes before closing time.”
I’ve come to Lisa’s parliamentary office to interview her about the PPB because I’m interested in finding out the extent of her involvement, but also about her proposed wider electoral strategy for Labour and – of course – her views on Brexit. It was in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum that CfT co-founder Will Jennings wrote a paper called ‘Two Englands’, identifying the divergent features of cosmopolitan and non-metropolitan areas. The latter were typically termed by those in the Westminster bubble as the ‘left behind’ – an expression Lisa doesn’t use. “An industry grew where journalists would come to towns like mine and start talking about the wastelands that were found; the people with no hope and the lack of any good services or good jobs.” Which sounds like a simplistic, even patronising view of what is happening in ‘non-London’. And that’s why the Centre for Towns was set up: “We got fed up hearing the places we live being described like that. We decided we had to do something about it.”
Lisa grew up in Manchester, then spent her teenage years in the nearby town of Bury. She was always aware of the metropolitan-provincial contrast: “Separated by only a few miles, but completely different worlds.” But it has been her experiences as a representative of Wigan, another former industrial town in Greater Manchester, that led to an understanding: the divide between towns and cities was a central reason for the “powerlessness” felt by “whole swathes of the country”.
The MP is still “frustrated by the current settlement – if anything, more so now”, having entered politics with the modest ambition of “fundamentally changing power structures in Britain”. And yet, when elected in 2010, she didn’t expect to be picked as a rising star in the Labour Party. “I came into parliament at a time when the Labour Party was a very different place. I was seen as quite ultra left-wing. People like me, with my politics, hadn’t been on the frontbench. You wouldn’t expect to have a political career in here of that sort. I came in thinking I’d like to get on a select committee.” The majority-Corbynite Labour membership won’t recognise that description of her politics now – after all, they are most likely to remember that Lisa backed Owen Smith’s leadership bid and served as co-chair of his campaign team. But it does seem, against all the odds, as if Lisa has helped to shape the new electoral strategy of Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Asked about the broadcast ‘Our Towns’, the Wigan MP commends the Labour leadership and replies: “I can’t claim credit for that at all. That was their work, and it was phenomenal.” But… “I’ve been having conversations about towns with Jeremy’s office in the last year or so, and particularly over the last few months. I’ve been in contact with a couple of advisers in particular who have been asking with help around language and framing.” That may be why her analysis of the current political climate sounds remarkably similar, to my ear, to that of the Labour leader. She talks about “rebuilding Britain” and says: “There was a reason ‘take back control’ caught the mood in towns like no other political slogan in my lifetime – and it’s because people had been denied agency over their own lives. That is as true in Hackney as it is in Bury, Wigan or Bolton. The solutions will be different, but the sentiment is the same. People want to be able to shape what their communities look like and what time they have with their families.”
Lisa recounts the story of a Nissan worker she met in Sunderland. From Brexit, he stood to lose a well-paid job – and yet he still voted to leave the EU. Does that suggest the result wasn’t about economics? John McDonnell is visiting towns across the country, on a ‘Road to Rebuilding the Economy’ tour that frames the debate as one centred around living standards. Is that the right approach? “I think John’s approach is the right one, because the work that I’ve seen him do was about going and listening to people in those areas. That’s got to be the starting point,” Lisa says. “Not to say,’we’re Labour and we know how to fix this’. It’s got to be: there’s power in these communities, you know best, you saw the problems coming before we did, you know how to solve them. Help us to understand how to build the national framework for that. John also understands that this is about power, not just about increasing the living wage, although that would make a huge difference.” Both the leadership and Lisa are keen to emphasise that the solutions revolve around agency and control.
Centre for Towns research shows that 33,000 votes in a handful of town constituencies could have handed Corbyn the keys to No10. “With cities becoming deeper and deeper red and the countryside becoming darker and darker blue, it’s obvious now that towns are going to be the key battleground for the next general election.” How does Labour tackle that? According to Lisa, it recognises that this situation is down to “a series of choices made by the Blair government all the way through to Osborne”, which decided that cities were the engines of growth “with the hope that the benefits would trickle out to surrounding towns”. Trickle-out economics worked as well as trickle-down, i.e. badly. “Our towns have aged, as our cities have become younger. Young people who used to leave places like Wigan, then return, have increasingly found there’s nothing to come home to. As a consequence, towns right across the country have lost their working age population.” That means a lack of infrastructure, struggling high streets, poor bus services and a crisis of loneliness.
The next question is whether voters can trust Labour again. In Mansfield, North East Derbyshire and similar seats now being targeted after turning blue, Labour MPs once enjoyed sizeable majorities. What happened? Quoting the young Scottish National Party MP known for her impressive speeches in the Commons, Lisa replies: “Mhairi Black put it well in her maiden speech when she said: ‘I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me.’” She adds: “There’s a sense that modern politics has become very disrespectful of people’s lives and their choices; that when people come out on the royal wedding, the diamond jubilee or Armed Forces Day and fly flags and they take part in a national celebration, Labour is not respectful of that choice.”
“I live in a town where people fly flags all year round, they’re very pro-monarchy… what lies behind that is a very Labour set of values actually. It’s this idea of wanting to be part of something bigger than yourself.” Lisa fleshes out the diagnosis: “Theres’s an ambition and a set of Labour values that at best we’ve not understood for a long time, and at worst have been disrespectful of. But I think that is starting to change. You hear that conversation happening about understanding patriotism and people’s desire for change right across the labour movement. That’s quite exciting.”
Hang on. Though Corbyn has been attacked for using “Trumpian” language while promoting the ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign, hasn’t he also been accused of not respecting patriotism? And what about foreign affairs spokesperson Emily Thornberry’s infamous white van tweet? That tweet and Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem “caught on” because “they reflected a concern that people had in towns like mine for some time”, Lisa says. “This predates Jeremy Corbyn.” However, she continues: “Do I believe that Jeremy isn’t a patriot because he didn’t sing the national anthem? Not for a minute. Do I believe that Emily Thornberry is a snob? She absolutely is not. But the trouble is that these things get traction if you’ve already got a set of issues about how people feel they’re perceived and treated.”
A key turning point for Lisa came at a session of Prime Minister’s Questions. “When Jeremy got up and talked about buses, you could really see that split breaking wide open. Most of the commentary around it was: how weird, why is he talking about buses? Tory MPs were openly laughing in the chamber but the vast majority of people in this country travel on buses… I can’t remember the last time a Labour leader or any leader stood up at PMQs and asked about buses.” This is a prime example of the town-city divide for Lisa. When first elected, what struck her was that polarity between Wigan and Westminster. “It was like being on a different planet. I’d step from one to the other and we’d be having debates around here about things like AV [Alternative Vote] and House of Lord reform. I suppose the aim of the last eight years has been to bring this world closer to mine.”
Lisa sees a parallel between those out-of-touch Lib Dem priorities and the way Brexit is being debated now. “My town voted overwhelmingly to leave. It was a very finely balanced decision, and many families were split over the issue. And yet when I go back to Wigan, people are perfectly capable of having a sensible debate about the options.” The Wigan MP believes that the referendum result, 52-48, means “the only mandate is for compromise” – and that voters are aware of that. “My next door neighbour was incredibly strongly Leave and was actually quite annoyed with me for campaigning to remain. But he still puts my bins out every Wednesday when I’m in parliament.”
While Remainers “feel bruised”, some “about being labelled elites and Remoaners”, Leavers are being patronised and “wrongly caricatured”. Lisa doesn’t buy the argument that voters were duped: “I get frustrated by the narrative in here that people were taken in by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg and things that were written on the side of a bus. For most of my constituents, they did take the referendum seriously. They researched; they thought; they asked lots of questions.”
I wonder how Lisa is feeling about Theresa May’s ‘meaningless vote’: the prospect of having to choose between her Brexit deal and no deal. There are reports that some Labour MPs, in reaction to the ultimatum, are considering voting for the Prime Minister’s revised Chequers. Is the MP for Wigan one of them? “I think it’s fair for us to look at the deal on its merits and reject it if it doesn’t deliver. But I think you have to look at its merits… At the end of this process I’ve got to be able to go back to my constituents, look them in the eye and say, ‘I did everything I could to protect your jobs’. If [May] is capable of negotiating a deal that does protect jobs in towns like mine, I think we ought to be open to supporting it. But if she’s not capable of delivering that deal, and at the moment Chequers does not deliver on that, then we ought to reject it.”
The line from the Labour leadership is to first fight for a general election. Like many others, Lisa can’t see the path that leads to that outcome. “I’ve heard a lot of talk about ‘we should vote against it to try to provoke a general election’. As well as not seeing where the mechanism is for that to happen, I just can’t see how you’d go to the country with that sort of approach that says ‘we voted against something that would support your jobs in order to trigger a general election’. I think that view is shared by my colleagues across the front and backbenches.”
Ultimately, she doesn’t feel particularly threatened by hard Brexiteers, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson who “try to pretend there’s a will of the British people”. People “just want to find a way through” the Brexit process, Lisa says, and “Labour is the only force capable of speaking for them”. In sum, it’s the small things that’ll make the difference. “More fundamental to our electoral prospects than who leads the Tory party” are acute issues such as the mental health and social care crises. If Labour can show it will address those best, it’s in the bag.
This article was amended on 22nd October to reflect that Lisa Nandy was tipped by Owen Jones for the leadership in 2015, not 2016.