Lisa Nandy, Labour’s wild card candidate

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Labour MP Lisa Nandy has vaulted into contention for the party leadership | Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

The Wigan MP is a formidable performer and comes from a family of political heavyweights.

LONDON — She’s not the successor Jeremy Corbyn is hoping for. 

Yet Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan in the north-west of England, is in the final four to replace him as leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party — and in many ways she is an unlikely candidate. 

If Nandy wins, it would represent a clear break with Corbynism, returning the party to a softer form of center-left politics and attempting to reconnect with voters in small towns and former industrial areas. 

Nandy is criticized by sections of the left for helping orchestrate a botched coup against Corbyn in 2016. She has since been a major opponent of the party’s second Brexit referendum policy, and flirted with backing Theresa May’s deal last spring before voting for Boris Johnson’s one ahead of last year’s election.  

Her three rivals —  Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry — have all served for years as loyal lieutenants on Corbyn’s front bench. In a party whose members get to pick their leader and who recently crowned Corbyn their favorite one, that matters. 

Where other ambitious backbenchers have stepped into the limelight by chairing committees, launching campaigns and championing particular policies, Nandy has kept busy with the relatively insular task of creating a wonkish think tank

Things have changed. When Nandy first entered parliament a decade ago, she was a darling of the Labour left. Quickly marked out as a rising star, she had a record of criticizing the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments and a history of communist radicalism in her family. 

Though the party has shifted since then, she insists she has stayed the same — and fancies her chances at leading it. She has already defied expectations by securing enough support from MPs and unions to ensure her name will be on the ballot paper.

But with two weeks to go until ballots go out to members, Nandy remains largely unknown. She has failed to build much of a profile since she quit the shadow Cabinet in 2016. Where other ambitious backbenchers have stepped into the limelight by chairing committees, launching campaigns and championing particular policies, Nandy has kept busy with the relatively insular task of creating a wonkish think tank, the Centre of Towns. 

That has put her in a tricky position of starting out as the least-known candidate among Labour members, with little time and opportunity to rectify that. Compared with someone like Starmer, who has used his platform over the past three years to boost his popularity in the party, it raises questions over whether Nandy has the foresight and political shrewdness to be leader.

Eyes on the prize

Nandy began preparing for a run days before the December election, and started putting in calls to past and present allies. “The polls were unbelievably dire,” said one, “and anyone who’d knocked on a single door knew that they were pretty accurate.” She made her decision over Christmas and entered the race on January 3 with a letter in the Wigan Post, her local paper, and the Guardian.

Though she began from a position of disadvantage, Nandy has cut a clear path in a crowded field, fashioning herself as the candidate with the most direct analysis of why the party lost in December. Her media performances against tricky interviewers have earned praise — she has ticked off the BBC’s Andrew Neil for interrupting her, Nick Robinson for asking her a “daft question” and Piers Morgan for failing to understand the “ingrained prejudice” faced by people of color.  

She has also demonstrated her political acumen by swiftly addressing the biggest sinkhole threatening her campaign. Her argument that the party has lost touch with Brexit-supporting voters in towns contains potentially dangerous echoes of Blue Labour — a controversial school of thought which says the party must speak to conservative, community-based values and support controls on immigration. 

Within two weeks of launching her bid, Nandy dispelled any doubt about her own views by declaring support for freedom of movement, going further on the issue than any other candidate. In a party whose members overwhelmingly support remaining in the EU and retaining freedom of movement, that has strengthened her hand. 

But if Nandy intends to advocate policies that are popular among metropolitan voters — such as free movement and socially liberal values — a real question mark remains over how she plans to win over more socially conservative Brexit supporters in towns and former industrial areas. 

Fellow Labour MP Jon Cruddas, one of her chief backers, says Nandy has been “somewhat isolated because she hasn’t simply courted fashion.” “What she’s been trying to do is think through the question of reconciliation between Labour’s more cosmopolitan and communitarian sides, between towns and cities. It’s been quite a lonely journey.”

But critics say her success is a flash in a plan, that she lacks substance and that she prevaricates. One MP said she was “good at talking about the problem” but not finding a solution. Another warned she tells different people what they want to hear. “If she believes in free movement, why are MPs like Stephen Kinnock backing her? She has to pick a side and start saying things that may inevitably upset some people.”

British bookmakers have Keir Starmer as the favourite to win the leadership race | Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Certainly Kinnock — another of Nandy’s key supporters in parliament — does not think she is proposing a return to free movement. “The question is a moot point,” he said. “What I think Lisa was saying is that we believe in the principle of being open to people coming to this country and adding value to our culture, society and economy. But that has to be combined with a proper regulation and registration system.” 

Path to politics 

Nandy, who did not wish to comment for this article, was born in Manchester and grew up in nearby Bury, a bellwether town which frequently switches hands between Labour and the Conservatives.  

She comes from a family of political heavyweights. Her mother, Luise Fitzwalter, was one of a handful of female journalists in the 1960s working for Granada TV’s “World in Action,” the leading current affairs program of the time. Her grandfather, Frank Byers, was briefly a Liberal MP and chief whip who later became his party’s leader in the House of Lords. Her Indian father, Dipak Nandy, is a former Marxist academic who became the first director of the Runnymede Trust, a think tank founded to champion race equality. In 1976 he was drafted by Roy Jenkins, then Labour home secretary, to help write the Race Relations Act. 

On occasion, Nandy has spoken about her father’s formative years as an immigrant in Britain at a time of heightened racial tensions. Having grown up in Calcutta, he moved to the U.K. in 1956 to study English literature at the University of Leeds. His parents had trouble financing him after his first term, and he moved in with the family of one of his lecturers, Arnold Kettle, a lifelong member of the Communist Party. His son, Martin Kettle, now a Guardian columnist, was six at the time. “My father thought Dipak was his most brilliant student,” he said. “He stayed for about six years, and unofficially became my hero older brother.”

Barbara Jacobs, who was a student of [Dipak] Nandy’s between 1963 and 1966, describes him as “absolutely fantastic.”

Nandy left in 1962 for Leicester, where he had been offered a lectureship, with his then-partner, Maggie Gracie. The pair would often hold parties in the basement of their terraced house. Several of those who knew him then allude to his aristocratic upbringing in Calcutta — the poet Andrew Waterman wrote that without his wife, Nandy was “a forlorn figure, scarcely knowing what to do with a can-opener, or how to boil an egg.”

Barbara Jacobs, who was a student of Nandy’s between 1963 and 1966, describes him as “absolutely fantastic.”

“He was one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met,” she said. The two of them were members of the Campaign for Racial Equality at the university. The city of Leicester had an ugly reputation for racism during that time, and was often a stage for pro-fascist marches by the National Front. Some pubs and restaurants operated so-called color bars, refusing to serve anyone who wasn’t white.

Jacobs recalled going to one such pub, the Admiral Nelson, with a small group of students and lecturers from different ethnicities, including Nandy. Dressed in their best clothes, they climbed upstairs to the lounge bar. “We were sitting on these little tables and suddenly, from out back, the landlady came. She had Dusty Springfield hair all backcombed in a bouffant, and she had a dress on that was very fifties, with a gathered skirt. When she saw that there were black people in her bar, she just completely lost it. She started going round the room, raging at everyone and telling them to get out. She rang the police. I was sitting there holding this glass of Babycham and she broke the glass in my hand. Then the police came in and started throwing us down the stairs.”

In Lisa Nandy’s words, it was time of “enormous racism.” In an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson last month, she said her father lived in “a ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ sort of time” and that in academia being Indian and a Marxist “both counted against him.”

Rebecca Long-Bailey is the candidate favored by the Corbynist wing of the Labour Party | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

But Dipak Nandy’s glittering career in the 1970s distanced him considerably from his communist youth. His marriage to Luise Byers was the talk of the Leicester left, Jacobs said. “Dipak was selling out — that’s how some people felt about it.” 

The pair divorced when Lisa was seven, and her mother later married Ray Fitzwalter, a celebrated investigative journalist. Luise Fitzwalter now lives in Bury, about an hour from Wigan, and helps her daughter with childcare. As for Dipak, in a 2016 comment on his now-disused personal blog, he mused that his daughter Lisa was an excellent media performer in great demand — “as her father once was, she reminds me.” 

Path to parliament 

Lisa Nandy’s first job after university was with Neil Gerrard, a Labour MP who was a rank outsider in the same forgotten wing of the party as Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. Working for him gave Nandy an apprenticeship in anti-Blairite politics and a lasting affinity with the Labour left. Gerrard, who has since retired, says she was “very good at the job and clearly highly intelligent.”

“I am not at all surprised at how well she has done since then. I know she is impressing a lot of people during this leadership campaign.”

After being selected for the safe seat of Wigan aged just 30, Nandy became one of Labour’s “shiny people” — the new generation elected to parliament in 2010.

He remembers feeling sorry when Nandy left Westminster in 2003 for a job with the homelessness charity Centrepoint, where she worked for two years before becoming a policy adviser at the Children’s Society and a Labour councillor in Hammersmith. Former colleagues paint a picture of a personable and highly driven young woman who was wise beyond her years. For Bob Reitemeier, who was chief executive of the Children’s Society at the time, Nandy was “brilliant” and “funny” but also pragmatic. Caroline Slocock, who sat alongside her in several meetings between groups of charities and government officials, said Nandy “really stood out.”

After being selected for the safe seat of Wigan aged just 30, Nandy became one of Labour’s “shiny people” — the new generation elected to parliament in 2010. Replacing the swathe of MPs who stood down in the wake of the expenses scandal, this new cohort seemed to hold up a promise of a fresh start and a bright future. Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet spent the next five years preparing for an election they hoped would hand them the keys to 10 Downing Street.

Nandy was overlooked in the early reshuffles which saw the likes of Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves, Liz Kendall and Stephen Twigg elevated to the shadow cabinet. That was something that “probably served her quite well,” said her former colleague Michael Dugher. “Being on the backbenches is quite a good parliamentary apprenticeship and it endears you to colleagues.”

In her first frontbench role as shadow children’s minister under Twigg, she earned a reputation as being “a bit of a handful,” according to Dugher. “She had strong views and ideas that needed to be reconciled with the discipline of collective responsibility.” In 2013, she was moved to a new role as shadow charities minister. “I got a call from Ed Miliband during that reshuffle, saying ‘I need you to do me a favor’ and asking if I would take Lisa into my team,” Dugher said. They had lunch the next day in parliament. “I’m pretty sure I said to her, ‘you could be a future leader’ — whether I said it or not, I always thought it.” 

Lisa Nandy was handed the safe Labour seat of Wigan when she was 30 | Finbarr Webster/Getty Images

Path to power

Labour’s shiny people did not pull off victory in 2015. Days after Miliband’s defeat and resignation, activists set up a Facebook page urging Nandy to stand for the Labour leadership. Their campaign briefly took off when it secured backing from Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who thought she could be the candidate of the left, before Nandy killed it off by pointing out that she had just had a baby.

Five years later, she has thrown herself into the race, but even her backers admit it is unlikely she will win. From their perspective, the main obstacles are her limited resources and lack of name recognition. Her campaign employs just five staff and is promoted by a small but enthusiastic group of Labour MPs — Cruddas, Kinnock, Louise Haigh, Vicky Foxtrot, Jonathan Ashworth and Stella Creasy chief among them. 

On the other hand, Nandy has proven popular with non-Labour voters in polls and focus groups. “She has the X-factor,” said Kinnock. The fact that she has won the backing of one of the U.K.’s big three unions, GMB, has made her a force to be reckoned with. Polling suggests that she is set to finish in second or third place, putting her in pole position for a senior shadow cabinet role. Her interests in infrastructure and rebalancing the economy make her an obvious candidate for the business and transport portfolios — or even shadow chancellor.

“The more people see her, the more they’ll be impressed with her” is the overwhelming chorus coming from her supporters. The only certainty is that she has ensured people will be seeing much more of her.

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