Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is never going to win power until it starts listening to Brexit voters and stops being a party of ‘placards’ and protest, former Shadow Cabinet minister Lisa Nandy has warned.
In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Nandy said that she shared her constituents’ anger that EU migration had allowed politicians to ignore the needs and skills of British residents for years.
The former Shadow Energy Secretary also said that rows over Trident, defence and shoot-to-kill policies had combined to make Labour looks “careless” about national security.
Labour needs to reclaim patriotism from the Conservatives, and understand why people wanted “to fight for their country”, the Wigan MP added.
Her remarks, part of a ‘Future Of the Left’ seminar at Nuffield College, Oxford, came in the week that Theresa May ridiculed Corbyn in the Commons, declaring “he can lead a protest - I’m leading a country”.
In the wide-ranging discussion, Nandy:
- warned of an ‘emotional disconnect between Labour and the public’
- said that Brexit voters were ‘right’ to force Westminster to listen to them
- suggested Labour under Corbyn was as much a ‘cult’ as it was under Tony Blair
- said it was time to stop ‘picking sides’ in strikes like the Southern Rail dispute
The MP, who was urged to run for party leader in 2015 but put her young family first, said that Labour had no future if it acted like a protest movement rather than a government-in-waiting.
“Our job isn’t to pick up the placards. There are lots of brilliant brave people out there on the streets doing that. Our job is to work out, negotiate those shared challenges in the interest of the many,” she said.
“And so far the direction of travel I’ve seen on the Left of British politics in response to Trump and Brexit has been the opposite. It has been to pick up the placards rather than to start thinking about the politics.
“I think it is a dangerous instinct because it condemns us to be witnesses to the pain and destruction that people like Donald Trump are causing to the world.”
Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis and Shadow Attorney General Baroness Chakrabarti were among several MPs who joined marchers at the gates of Downing Street last week in protest at Trump’s travel ban.
Corbyn and John McDonnell have continued their own long-standing practice of attending rallies and protests, on topics ranging from CND to junior doctors’ pay and even rail strikes.
But Nandy said: “Where I’m really concerned about what is happening on the Left of British politics, by which I mean the entirety of the British Left, is that I think we are starting to be very much in danger of abandoning politics for protest.
“By politics what I mean is a willingness to negotiate the shared challenges that we face. On the Left, most of us came into politics in order to campaign, in order to stand up for certain values. I certainly did. I had been a campaigner in the voluntary sector, I couldn’t care more about giving a voice to some of the people I had worked with and now represented.
“But it is not enough to pick a side and shout, especially at the moment when the country feels so needlessly divided.”
Speaking on Tuesday evening, Nandy said that the EU referendum Brexit vote last summer had “absolutely shaken Westminster and Whitehall” but Labour was still failing to grasp its implications.
“I think this is about respecting people. Too many people tell me when I go out and knock on doors around the country that on the Left we think we know better than they do.
“And actually it’s not good enough for us to tell them the real issue they need to be concerned about is ‘free movement and the single market’, or energy bills or anything else. A bit more listening and a bit less talking is in order.
The Wigan MP, tipped by some as a future unity candidate who could succeed Corbyn, said that defending EU ‘freedom of movement’ was a good example of how out of touch Labour had become nationally.
“I am very liberal in my outlook around immigration….But I feel very, very angry - like many of my constituents - that the system of free movement has allowed us to ignore the skills and aspirations of young people in towns like mine.”
She highlighted the Government’s decision to axe the bursary for nursing degrees, a move that this week led to a sharp drop in the number of people applying for the course.
“There was a week in the EU referendum when there was a Labour politician who went onto the TV and said you are more likely to be treated by a migrant in the NHS than queuing behind one.
“And somebody said to me in Wigan: ‘Why should I be grateful that we can attract people to come here and work in hospitals, when you’ve just abolished the nursing bursary and I have not got a hope of getting a job in that hospital now? So thanks very much’.
“If you look at opportunities for young people in towns like mine….it’s allowed a skilled and mobile population across Europe to gain advantage at the expense of the rest of us.
“That’s no different from what young people told me in Germany, and from what I’ve heard from young people in France, what some politicians who came over recently were telling me young people were telling them in Holland. These are shared concerns that Labour has to address.”
Labour is facing more party splits and resignations from its front bench this week as it prepares to vote on the bill triggering the Article 50 process of quitting the EU.
Nandy said that voters in her Greater Manchester constituency had made clear that much of the current debate in the party risked missing the point.
“For most people this was quite a finely balanced decision… it pitted grandparents against grandchildren, husbands against wives, neighbours. They are not scrapping it out.
“Most people’s view that I meet in Wigan is that we just need to get on with it and decide what comes next: ‘We had that debate so why are you still having it?’
“What matters to people in their everyday lives…we’ve moved quite far away from that in the last few years on the Left.
“The real challenge for Labour is to become the alternative and that means you have to know not just what you are against, but what you are for.”
Nandy said that in the 2015 general election the Tories had successfully portrayed Labour as untrustworthy on the economy, but the party now faced the extra threat under Corbyn of being depicted as weak on defence.
“People already felt that we were careless about their economic insecurity and the more we would talk about spending commitments the more it would help to reinforce that narrative,” she said.
“But then when you add on to that some of the things that have happened very recently, the endless rows about Trident and defence spending…There was an episode around the shooting at the Bataclan [club in Paris], where it was spun, although to be fair he didn’t say this, that Jeremy was saying that those officers should have shot and killed people who were shooting and killing innocent people in a nightclub.
“He wasn’t saying that, but the trouble is that all of these things have been used to drive a narrative that at times we really haven’t helped, that says that Labour is careless about your security: your economic security, your energy security, your national security. I think that’s a bigger problem for Labour, that’s a real deep, emotive thing for people.
“Because in the end you are essentially saying to people ‘trust us to go off and make the right decisions over lots of things - we don’t know what’s going to come up in the next five years - trust us to make the right decision about when and how to go to war’.
“If people feel that we are careless about some of the most important things in their lives, their security, then we are never going to be able to fix it. So the economy matters, but it’s part of a bigger whole.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was forced to quit Ed Miliband’s team before the last election after her infamous tweet about the St George’s flag in the Rochester by-election.
Nandy said that patriotism, as opposed to nationalism, should be something Labour should be proud of.
“I think that patriotism is one of the ideas that we have allowed to become the exclusive property of the Right in British politics,” she said.
“I find that very hard to understand because that sense of collective pride whether it is in you region, your community or your country is something that ought to be something very comfortable for the Left.
“We believe in solidarity, we believe in ideals. We should understand the sentiment that sends people off to fight for their country, even if we’d rather that young people were living for their country rather than dying for their country.
“We should understand the pride and the patriotism that lies behind it. It’s that need for collective belonging, to be part of something bigger than yourself. It’s a great response to the Right and their individualistic values.
Nandy was one of several Shadow Cabinet ministers to quit their posts after last July’s vote of no confidence in Corbyn. She decided not to rejoin his top team after his second landslide leadership election.
Both Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis, who could resign to oppose Brexit this week, and Shadow Treasury Chief Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey are tipped as possible successors to Corbyn.
Although she shows no current appetite for the job, some MPs believe Nandy has a broader base of support that could more easily unify the party’s membership and its MPs.
When asked about leadership styles, she said: “There were some people who were so messianic about Tony Blair actually it started to feel a bit like a cult.
“I don’t use these words lightly, but this is a similar feeling that people who ended up on the other side of the Corbyn question have got in the last couple of years.”
The Wigan MP, who has been touring the country to see how the party can revive in small towns, said that Labour had ‘retreated’ to the big Metropolitan cities and been seen to abandon other parts of the UK.
“I think this has very deep roots, the emotional disconnect between Labour and the public.
“I think we are in danger of compounding that through the devolution model that George Osborne has handed us because it’s very much built on this premise that cities are the centre of their regions and city growth can then help to drag outer areas along with them, and that the major challenge for Osborne is how you can connect up places like Wigan and Bolton to Manchester city centre in order that people can get there to work.
“But actually if we were seriously thinking about the disconnect betwee the towns and cities, between the middle and working classes we would be thinking about how you rebuild those areas, not just warehousing minimum wage jobs for young people, but actually rebuild the social, cultural and economic life in those areas.”
NANDY ON…THE BREXIT VOTE
“The people that I met who felt most strongly about leaving the European Union, who shook with anger when I spoke to them in workplaces and on doorsteps, were not people who had nothing left to lose…this was their last chance to get us to sit up and take notice and they were right. Because they did. The outcome of this referendum has absolutely shaken Westminster and Whitehall in a way that I couldn’t have predicted a few years ago.
“They were voting for more control, not less, against the ability of big corporations to drive down wages. The Tories, they can’t speak for those people, for those voters, but neither do the Greens or Liberal Democrats because they have chosen a side and refused to hear what the rest of the country is telling them.”
“We’ve allowed the interests of the middle classes to be pitted against the interests of the working classes. Labour has to knit those interests together.
“Every time there is a strike in Britain, the phone call goes into the leader’s office: are you supporting this strike or not? When it was Ed there would be lots of debate about it, with Jeremy it’s fairly straightforward.
“Our response has only ever been to pick a side. When I look at the most recent strikes for example, on public transport. Essentially you have a group of people who are working in the private sector largely who are probably quite low paid and whose jobs are pretty insecure who are simply trying to get to work.
“They’ve probably paid a lot of money to do it and they might get fired if they don’t. And you’ve got their interests pitted against a group of people in the public sector who are probably quite low paid, their jobs are pretty insecure and they are standing up for their rights.
“How is it then that Labour’s response is that we pick on side or another and ignore the fact that it is the system at fault and that needs to be changed.”
NANDY ON…LABOUR’S DISCONNECT
“There is a real need for Labour to articulate emotions and values. And if we forget to do that then it finds only one outlet and that is the populist right or the radical left. And I think both of those things are a dead end for this country and for the world.
“The Left has found itself almost unable to comprehend that, we have accepted this idea that we are all rational, calculating human beings who will do questionnaires and think ‘well Labour best fits my policies so therefore we want to vote for them’…”
“For a very long time we know that we’ve become technical and managerial in the way we talk about politics. But I think it’s bigger than that. We have completely underestimated and misunderstood the power of emotion and feeling in politics. When people make decisions about politics, it isn’t just the rational, self-interest calculating human being that is making choices, I think there is something far deeper and more emotive going on there.
“You get that in areas where the top concern is always immigration, but there is very little if no immigration into the area. And when you start digging beneath what people are talking about, if you start trying to listen to what people are telling you, they are telling you a story about loss and uncertainty and change and feeling absolutely powerless in the face of that.
“I think that disconnect has been compounded by that cultural rift. Labour has in Britain over a long period of time retreated very much to the cities, in terms of our membership and our representatives and who has voice and clout and authority in the party.”
“I’ve watched as we’ve taxed working people more and more and they’ve seen their income squeezed more and more, whether that’s through income tax, VAT, council tax - which actually is really difficult for a lot of my constituents.
“But [we’re] not seeing that same level of commitment into how we tax unearned wealth. You put more strain on the people that can least afford to bear it…There are much more imaginative things we can do around taxation, but I think taxation is part of it.”
NANDY ON…LABOUR’S LANGUAGE
“The phrasing of the ‘bedroom tax’ really worries me. Because essentially what we are doing is equating a policy that I genuinely believe is fundamentally immoral with ‘tax’.
“But when was ‘tax’ for people on the left of British politics an intrinsically bad thing? Playing your part, paying your share, supporting other people. We don’t just talk about the bedroom tax, we talk about tax relief, we are reinforcing the frames that the Right has drawn for us.”
NANDY ON…A POST-BREXIT ECONOMY
“People were saying to me essentially we cannot understand how Labour has come to be on the side of capital rather than labour. They were expressing it in different ways but the sentiment was quite often the same.
“This is the sort of thing that I was hearing from people in places like Wigan and Sunderland, in working men’s clubs and factories during the EU referendum.”