The MP for Wigan on Labour’s troubling summer and how to move forwardsby Alex Dean / November 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Labour Party is a deeply tribal place. Corbynites and Blairites have spent years waging a fierce internal war, and over time the feeling has grown that some MPs have fallen prey to group-think, thinking in factions rather than really weighing the arguments for themselves.
You could not make that criticism of Lisa Nandy, who has earned a reputation as one of Westminster’s hardest-working, most independent-minded politicians. Elected as MP for Wigan in 2010, she is frequently touted as a potential future leader.
Her record is not uncontroversial. Despite being on the party’s left, initially supported by Owen Jones, she resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016 and helped to run a rival leadership campaign.
But that does not mean she is a Blairite; the impression is rather that she makes up her own mind. That sense was confirmed last week when she defied the party whip on tax plans in the budget, to roars of criticism from the Twittersphere.
When I caught Nandy on the phone I hoped for an honest assessment of the challenges facing the Labour Party. She pressed the need for unity several times, and I had to push hard to draw any rebuke of her fellow parliamentarians.
We began with the anti-Semitism which engulfed Labour over summer, and came to be seen as a black mark against Jeremy Corbyn and his allies. The Jewish Labour movement called for the suspension of Chris Williamson, who belittled claims of anti-Semitism and supported Pete Willsman’s successful bid for the national executive committee, despite Willsman’s use of anti-Semitic slurs.
Did Nandy think there was a place for MPs like Williamson in Labour? When they first met he was “a good front bencher.” Still, “we can’t allow the party to descend into that. It’s that kind of personal infighting, you know, condoning or endorsing anti-Semitism and action in the end has to be taken.”
“The last few weeks in particular, some of the things that I’ve seen Chris saying have been really unhelpful.” Plenty of commentators think Williamson should go. Nandy preferred to talk about process: “it isn’t my job to act as judge and jury,” but “we need to work together in a much better collaborative spirit, and if people are unable to do that then the party has a responsibility to take action.”
That will grab attention. But Nandy made clear that the problem is not just with individuals: “you have to think very seriously about the culture and the organisation of the party… there is still very much a sense that we could be much more active in dealing with this,” particularly with “some of the more high-profile cases like Ken Livingstone.”
On that final point, Nandy is with the majority of Labour MPs. On Brexit she is not.
As we head into the autumn the party faces an immensely important choice. Soon the government could return with a deal. The Labour leadership plans to vote against in the hope that precipitates an election, and the overwhelming majority of its MPs are expected to follow. Will Nandy?
Again that independence was on display. “My view is that every MP has to approach this with an open mind,” she said.
“I wouldn’t ever vote for a deal that was bad for my constituents, but conversely I’ve got a duty to consider what the PM comes back with, whether it is in their interests and the interests of the country as a whole”
Crucially, “the UK-wide customs union with the EU is a big part of the jigsaw.” Reports suggest the government will concede this over the coming days. That would “break down one considerable barrier to me choosing to reject that deal,” Nandy said.
Wigan voted Leave, but a decision to vote with the government would be very brave indeed. When various Brexiteer Labour MPs did the same earlier in the year they were accused of propping up the Tories and targeted for de-selection. The argument, just as potent in this case, is that they in effect blocked an early election.
Reports suggest the government has asked Nandy, a Remainer, for her support. She dismissed this: “Well, I can tell you that nobody’s contacted me.”
On Sunday Tony Blair urged Labour MPs to vote the deal down. In Nandy’s view, the former PM misses the drivers behind the referendum result. “He’s got a right to speak and to be taken seriously, but it seems to me that this is just more of the same when actually the public told us that what they want is fundamental change.”
The criticism went further: Brexit “was a revolt against a way of organising our politics and our economy that ran right through those New Labour years in 2005.”
This ran “all the way through George Osborne’s time, where cities became the beneficiary of well-paid white-collar jobs and towns lost young people, high streets fell apart.”
“It’s one thing to say you want to stop Brexit, but you need some understanding of what lay behind that vote… and at the moment not just from Blair, but from many people on that side of the argument… there’s very little acknowledgement about why people are so angry.”
The key questions, in Nandy’s view, are not about individuals but the party as a whole. Brexit illustrates a fundamental problem facing Labour: how can it appeal to young metropolitan voters and also those who live in towns like Wigan?
For Nandy, “what Labour’s seen over 15 years or so is declining support outside of the major cities, probably best summed up by the loss of Mansfield at the last election and the gain of Canterbury, which was quite a stunning achievement in Canterbury, but obviously alarm bells were ringing when we lost Mansfield.”
“It’s not just Brexit that exposes that divide; actually on almost every major set of social attitudes, those two halves have been moving apart for some considerable time and it’s posed a problem for Labour.”
“The referendum was a real eye-opener,” Nandy said. What’s the answer? “In truth, there’s no route to number 10 that doesn’t run through our towns, and I think the 2017 and 2018 elections were a wake-up call for Labour, because it’s in many of those areas like Bolton, where we nearly lost the council, where Labour is actually going backwards. That will make up the key battleground for the next general election.”
I don’t agree with Nandy on everything; far from it. But in an increasingly splintered Labour Party, thoughtful politicians who ask the big questions have never been so important.