The Labour leadership contest has been going on for so long that two of its candidates, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey, have taken to counting down the hours they have left. The race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn started in early January, and will finally finish on 4 April. When we meet, Nandy is feeling run-down — not because of coronavirus, but the sheer length of a contest that she had initially thought should run beyond May’s now-cancelled local elections. She regrets calling for that now.
A long contest should have helped the Wigan MP. When it started, she was not as well-known as the other candidates, and needed time to establish a reputation with party members. She is currently in third place and polling suggests that frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer might win on first preferences. Nandy’s supporters say they like the way she is honest about the Labour party’s problems, but that honesty doesn’t seem to be paying off in this contest. She has sparked a row with left-wing feminists about transgender rights, and she promotes an immigration policy that may put off the very voters her party needs to win back.
Both positions stem from a rather optimistic outlook. Nandy describes herself as an idealist, and doesn’t see that as a problem. Others do. Her position on trans rights, for instance, infuriated some Labour women with its assumption that there was no collision between the idea that people can self-identify their sex, and safety for biological women. She believes that if a convicted rapist identifies as a woman, then they are entitled to share a prison with women, many of whom will already have suffered sexual or domestic violence. ‘I think you’d find a way to accommodate them in a women’s prison but separate from other inmates. If they were a violent offender, I’d want them to do that anyway. But the bigger issue is why are there so many women in prison who shouldn’t be there.’
Nandy also believes she can change minds on immigration. On the surface, there appears to be a strange contradiction between her belief that her party didn’t take the 2016 Brexit vote seriously and her decision to stick by freedom of movement. Isn’t she also failing to learn the lessons of the EU referendum? Nandy replies that there are ‘two different ideas of what Brexit was all about’. For her, it wasn’t about immigration but about the way voters felt ignored.
‘I think free movement became really unsustainable when we started to use it — and it started under the last Labour government — as a way of not having to invest in the skills of young people in towns like mine. Now if you see Brexit like that, then saying you are going to be awful to immigrants is not going to solve any of that. Behind
the way that Boris Johnson is approaching this lies a profoundly negative view of the British public.’
The trouble is, the British public have a profoundly negative view of the Labour party. And yet, like Starmer and Long-Bailey, Nandy is wary of criticising Corbyn directly, and even says ‘it depends what you think Corbynism is, I suppose’ when asked if she will reject her predecessor’s political platform. ‘We are very quick to characterise people’s positions and put them into boxes, either good or bad,’ she says. ‘There is one moral position and anyone who departs from that position is bad.’ She fears that on so many issues, ‘we have lost the ability to understand one another’.
In a dig at Long-Bailey, who gave Corbyn’s leadership ‘ten out of ten’, she says: ‘It is not good enough to say ten out of ten about a manifesto that did nothing to reduce the numbers of children in poverty by reversing the cuts to in-work benefits, it’s not good enough to say ten out of ten for a leadership that has allowed us to descend into factional war, and it’s not good enough to say ten out of ten on a Brexit position that played games while the country was ripped apart.’
The day after our interview, Britain’s Covid-19 crisis accelerated rapidly as the government moved from the ‘contain’ to the ‘delay’ phase. Nandy emails me to say that she doesn’t believe the Prime Minister has shown ‘strong’ leadership. ‘This is the first global health crisis where misinformation can spread as fast as the virus,’ she says. ‘We need immediate clarity about the support people and businesses need.’
Nandy learned to debate tricky topics from a young age. Her father is an Indian Marxist academic and her mother became a Labour councillor shortly after Nandy was elected to parliament in 2010. ‘There was the sense in the family that you have something to learn from every tradition, and because my dad’s an academic, he was always interested in the argument that you would make rather than the starting point that you came from.’
She is also engaging, friendly and quick. When she first arrived in parliament, she met the Labour veteran Dennis Skinner in the tearoom. ‘He looked me up and down and said: “How old are you?” I thought: “Oh my God, it’s Dennis Skinner.” So I said to him: “How old are you?” and he burst into laughter.’
She’s going to need all the quick wit she can muster to convince members to trust her to change the party for the better.