Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey may be rivals for the Labour leadership but they get on well and have already planned a joint celebration for when it’s all over. “We were on a train to one of the hustings in Scotland, Becky and I,” Nandy says, “and she came past, sat down and said: ‘This is a lot isn’t it?’ I said: ‘It’s relentless.’ ”
Long-Bailey then suggested they go for a drink after the results are announced at a special conference on 4 April. “I said, ‘we’ll have one drink for every hustings we’ve done – so at least 40! This going to be a big night out.” Laughing, Nandy adds: “It will make William Hague and his 14 pints look like nothing.”
Nandy and the other candidates have spent the last few weeks touring the country, speaking at hustings after hustings, meeting members, dealing with the media – and all hot on the heels of a gruelling, and ultimately disastrous, general election campaign for their party.
Surely she must find it draining? “It’s a combination of feeling like you’re repeatedly being run over, and moments of enormous exhilaration,” she says. The most enjoyable times are when she is speaking to the public. And the worst?
She doesn’t have to stop and think. “The party hustings where members have to sit in silence watching us shout slogans at each other, about issues on which we broadly agree.”
The 40-year-old MP for Wigan may not enjoy these set-piece events, debating with the two other remaining contenders, Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer, but she is the candidate seen by many as having put in the strongest and most spontaneous performances, and as a result has some real momentum.
She comes from a family with strong political pedigree: her father is the renowned Marxist academic and anti-racism campaigner Dipak Nandy, and her maternal grandfather is Frank Byers, a Liberal MP who later served as the party’s leader in the House of Lords. Nandy grew up in Manchester and Bury after her parents moved north so her father could become deputy director of the new Equal Opportunities Commission. She talks politics a lot with her father, although slightly regrets revealing that he thinks she is rightwing. “He rang me up and said, ‘Darling, I’m very proud of you. Why do you keep telling everyone that?’ I said I didn’t, someone put it on Wikipedia, and now everyone keeps saying it!’”
Whatever her dad might or might not think, how would Nandy describe her own politics? “I’m soft left,” she says, cringing. “I wish we had a better name for it. It sounds a bit like you’ve sort of collapsed into a jellyfish.”
She believes her USP is her willingness to speak truth about the disaster that befell the party last December. “This was no ordinary defeat,” she says. “We have got to face up to that, and I do not believe that there is anybody else in the contest who is having an honest reckoning with that. It’s been frustrating to hear a narrative develop that says that we broadly got things right on Brexit, broadly got things right on policy, broadly got things right on leadership. So how could it possibly be that we’ve ended up with our worst election defeat for a hundred years?”
I have said that we ought to be reaching across the political divide and working with politicians from all parties
Nandy is pitching herself as the candidate who can rebuild what she calls “the red bridge” between two types of Labour voters – the younger, professional ones living in cities, and older, working-class ones living in towns. She believes that when it comes to values, they have more in common than often assumed.
Labour’s election manifesto, she says, was not believed by traditional Labour people who realised from their own experiences that it was too good to be true. “This woman said to me in 2017, ‘it’s our money, love, and we haven’t got a lot of it’. There is a very strong sense in working-class towns that when we say we’re going to do a whole host of things, people want to know we can pay for it.” She offers up tuition fees as an example: she has always been opposed to them, but is proposing a levy on business to offset the cost of scrapping them.
She is pledging root-and-branch reform of the way the Labour party works, to make it more “rooted in our communities with resources at local level to drive change on the ground”. She also wants to end a Labour culture that allowed antisemitism and sexual harassment to go unpunished.
We are meeting a couple of days after Harvey Weinstein received his guilty verdict in a New York courtroom. Nandy says she is appalled that there are women in the Labour party whose sexual harassment cases have still not been resolved years after they made complaints. “We’ve failed a lot of women over recent years,” she says. “It’s very reminiscent of what happened with antisemitism where there are a number of cases which quite simply haven’t been dealt with. It gives the green light to people who harass women to believe they can find a home in the Labour party.” She says she would allow a committee of women to determine what harassment is, introduce an independent complaints process, and robust protections for whistleblowers. Aiming fire at Jeremy Corbyn she says: “There cannot be one rule for friends of the leader and another rule for others.”
Recently Nandy has landed herself in hot water with some feminists over her decision to sign, along with Long-Bailey, a pledge from the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights that calls for the expulsion of members who hold “bigoted, transphobic views”. It describes Women’s Place UK – which wants to protect single-sex spaces – as a “hate group”. Does she regret it? “No, I don’t. I care deeply about safe spaces for women. I know from personal experience there is a generation of women who fought very hard to create and protect safe spaces, that it matters. Where you have women who want to have a genuine debate about how better to protect them, it’s a very welcome debate. But that has to start with the recognition that trans men are men, trans women are women and that they exist.”
She says she wants to do politics differently and will support cross-party efforts to find solutions to pressing challenges. She cites social care as an example and in so doing has a dig at her opponents. “I have said that we ought to be reaching across the political divide and working with politicians from all parties to deal with this, and the response from the other candidates was to say, ‘I’m not working with the Tories.’ It’s not good enough.”
Recent opinion polls have put Nandy in third place. But she believes the race will still be close.
She shies away from too much personal criticism of her rivals but sometimes cannot resist a joke at their expense, particularly when it might work to her advantage. Asked about fun moments in the campaign, she selects one that casts the favourite Starmer in a less than flattering light. “We got asked at the Labour LGBT hustings ‘Cher or Madonna?’ and Becky said Madonna. I said Madonna, because as far as I’m aware Cher has never done a duet with Britney Spears.” Starmer’s response, she says, was hesitant: first “neither”, then “both” she says, raising her eyebrows and smiling.