Lisa Nandy Interview: 'Ed Miliband Is A Different Sort Of Politician'

'Ed Miliband Is A Different Sort Of Politician'

A couple of years ago, on a wet weekday night in Wigan, the local Labour MP Lisa Nandy was traipsing through the streets urging residents to sign her petition to 'save the NHS' from 'Tory privatisation'.

"It was pouring with rain," she recalls, as we sit in her Commons office in Westminster. "I knocked on a guy's door, told him I was his local MP and cheerfully asked him if he would sign our NHS petition."

The man refused to do so but then asked Nandy if she "fancied going out on a date some time".

Her response? "'No,' I told him, 'but if you'd signed my petition I might have been more prepared to talk about it.'"

She throws her head back and laughs out loud.

"You get that a lot from voters," she tells me. "'All politicians are the same' and the rest of it. It's very interesting that this guy was obviously turned off by politics and politicians.. but then he obviously thought I was normal and decent enough to want to ask me out on a date."

She pauses.

"'They're all the same' but when you're on the doorstep, you're not, you're different."

Nandy is definitely different to most of the other MPs in the Westminster village.

Born and raised in Manchester, with an accent to show for it, she wasn't a special adviser to a minister or shadow minister, and doesn't have a degree from Oxbridge. The daughter of an Indian dad and English mum, she graduated from Newcastle University, did a master's at Birkbeck in London and worked for the homelessness charity Centrepoint and the kids' charity The Children's Society before being elected to the rock-solid Labour seat of Wigan in 2010 - at the age of just 30.

In a Westminster world overflowing with anoraks, oddballs and obsessives she is - what's the word? - normal; the kind of person you might meet at a friend's party, have a laugh with and then depart without any clue that she happened to be an honourable Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, a card-carrying member of the hated, 'out of touch' political class.

Her sheer normality, thankfully, hasn't hindered her rise through the ranks. Having backed underdog Ed Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership race, she was fast-tracked for promotion and is now shadow minister for civil society - or, basically, for charities - and is considered one of the Opposition's rising stars, despite coming from the Compass left, rather than the Blairite right, of the party.

What made her give up life in the voluntary sector for a career in party politics? "After a nearly a decade of working with children and young people, I just felt really frustrated that the sort of change we needed was much more fundamental.

"I think only politics can change [things] in the end. You need good people on the inside and the outside. When I’ve seen politics really work, like [with] the minimum wage for example, it's because there has been a clamour of noise coming from outside of the parliamentary system and.. people on the inside who respond to it and are willing to pick up the baton and champion [it]."

Our interview doesn't, however, get off to the best of starts. I make the mistake of asking what's it like being a female politician in the male-dominated world of Westminster.

She rolls her eyes, sighs and looks over at her nearby (female) research assistant. "I just can't describe to you how many times I’ve been asked this question. I was never asked what it’s like to be a woman until I was elected to parliament. It's very hard to answer the question of what it’s like to be a woman because I’ve not been anything else."

But she does admit it hasn't been easy, given her gender and her (relative) youth and "the stereotype in people's minds" about what an MP looks - or should look - like. "When I first got elected, I would be asked for my pass absolutely everywhere I went.. I would be asked by police officers and doorkeepers where I was going and 'Can I see your pass?' I once tried to get into the [Commons] chamber and was stopped. 'Excuse me young lady, you cant go in there.' And I said ‘Oh right, sorry.' And then I thought: 'Surely I can or else how else can I do my job?' so I got my pass out and he said 'I’m terribly sorry ma’am, please go in.'"

Nandy has her own political pedigree, however. Her maternal grandfather, Frank Byers, was a Liberal MP who served as the party's chief whip during the 1945-1950 parliament. ("I feel like I'm on 'This Is Your Life'," she jokes, when I mention his name.)

Why, I wonder, didn't she join the Liberals?

"Well, because I’ve always felt the Labour Party is the best vehicle for social justice in this country. It doesn’t mean it always will be. I’m not tribal in that sense. I believe the Labour Party is only as good as we are, the values we espouse and live up to."

She repeats that she isn't "tribal", adding: "I’ve got people in my family who aren’t political at all, I’ve got people in my family who are Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative; my dad’s a Marxist, one of the few remaining in this country."

Something else, then, that she has in common with her party leader. What does dad Dipak Nandy think of his daughter's social-democratic views and Labour Party career?

"He thinks I’m right-wing," she says, with a guffaw.

Miliband's personal poll ratings are in freefall and it looks increasingly unlikely that Labour will secure a Commons majority come May 2015. Would she rule out a post-election coalition with the modern avatar of her grandfather's party, the Liberal Democrats?

The polls suggest Miliband isn't a popular leader - even with Labour voters

"I don’t think you can because when you represent people you have a responsibility to try and change things for them. When I look at my constituents, many of whom really struggled in the late 1980s and 1990s, who are now facing a situation that is worse, I couldn’t possibly say to them I am not going to talk to people if there is a chance of making this better for you."

She checks herself, promptly adding: "There is no doubt in my mind that Labour has to win the next general election."

She may not be a tribalist, but the shadow charities minister has a pretty dim view of the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg and co. For Nandy, "if you look at all of the other parties that are a force in British politics, apart from Labour, they are all on the right. You have got Lib Dems and Clegg wedded to.. free market liberalism."

So, hold on, is she really saying she'd oppose Labour doing a deal with Clegg after the next election? Nandy, the non-tribalist, doesn't hold back.

"The problem with Clegg is that he is from that economic liberal wing of the party. It's very, very difficult to see what Labour has in common with someone like Nick Clegg. There are other people in the Liberal party who might perhaps be different.

"So if they had a different leader and stood on a social progressive manifesto I think that would be a different story. But if they stand on the sort of record that they have got in this government, I think it would be impossible. Because, quite simply, we don’t have enough philosophically in common to be able to form a lasting coalition."

Miliband, it is often said, lacks outriders; Ed-ites or Miliband-ites. If such a group existed - and the Labour leader's aides have gone out of their way not to cultivate such outriders - Nandy would be part of it.

Why, as a newbie elected in 2010, didn't she take the safe option and back frontrunner David Miliband? Why vote for his younger brother?

"I felt from the moment [Ed] made his maiden speech in 2005, that he was a different sort of politician, that he was more thoughtful than many of the other politicians that we heard from during that era, and that he could sense that things outside of parliament were changing - and the political machine wasn’t changing quickly enough."

She points out that Miliband's leadership style has introduced a new "sort of consensual type of politics, trying to find common ground where he can, really challenging where he can’t, even where it's unpopular. I think he is a different sort of politician [who] tries to have a conversation with the electorate."

But the electorate isn't listening to him, is it? Voters aren't interested in Miliband's message, if the polls are to be believed. "I think it's hard for Labour to get a hearing after our worst election defeat in nearly 100 years."

But isn't the fundamental problem with the leader, rather than with the party? "I think it's a crisis in politics that goes way back beyond.. Ed Miliband, David Cameron or even Nick Clegg."

Party politics, she argues, "looks very small to people now. It's too much tit for tat, too much tinkering, when we’ve got huge challenges in this country.

"You look at what happened to Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher when they both died.. you saw people coming out and taking to the streets. It’s really hard to imagine that happening for politicians elected in 2010. There’s a reason why people did came out and take to the streets and that’s because [Benn and Thatcher] were values-based politicians. They stood up and said I have a vision for this country and I think things can be different."

Big crowds turned out for Tony Benn's funeral in March

Nandy believes Miliband's finest moments - standing up to the energy companies, to Rupert Murdoch, to the prime minister's rush to war in Syria in the summer of 2013 - were those in which he stood up for his values and "that's why people responded".

She continues: "There is something bigger to this: over the course of my lifetime we’ve seen a shift away from politics as a collective enterprise to politics as an individual enterprise and I think we really need to recapture that spirit. It's not individuals who change things; leaders can set the weather and set the tone [but] it's movements that change things."

For Nandy, it is a "real disservice" to voters to try and argue that "huge political choices, the most important general election of a generation, comes down to one political leader or another".

She says those of her parliamentary colleagues who have been giving anonymous and anti-Ed quotes to the newspapers are "having arguments about the past and not looking at the future".

Rows over leadership and coups and potential successors to Miliband "are not the issues that people are talking about.. This is a bubble - it's rightly called the 'Westminster bubble' - and if you don’t get out of here, you can't hear what people are saying."

Nandy wants more honesty and plain-speaking from the political class. For example, she tells me that though the Lib Dems have been "particularly shameless" in making promises that they didn't keep, all parties, including Labour, are guilty of this.

She cites the Blair government's pledge-breaking on university top-fees in the 2001-2005 parliament. "All political parties have broken promises in the past and we need to recognize that that’s a problem and, to be fair, Ed really does recognize that that’s a problem."

Does Labour under Ed Miliband have a radical enough agenda to address voters' concerns? "People talk all the time about how 'Labour needs to be bold and radical'. I think it misses the point a bit. Labour needs to be relevant and have resonance with people’s lives."

Well, is it relevant? "Offers like childcare, boosting the minimum wage, paying the living wage, housing security, these are the sorts of things that really do have relevance to people."

Nandy, who is from the Compass/Jon Cruddas/communitarian wing of the Labour Party, wants to see a "completely different sort of politics happening in communities like mine and around the country, where the state works alongside people as a partner, helps people do much more for themselves, to shape their own agenda and to change things.. There's nothing bold and radical about it: it's always been part of Labour’s DNA. We were founded from a network of voluntary associations and trade unions."

Labour was also founded as a vehicle for working-class representation. Yet today, the top ranks are dominated by middle-class Oxbridge graduates who worked as special advisers prior to entering parliament, the likes of Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. Is that a problem, in her view?

"We have a lot more people in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] who are working-class, who are fantastic advocates, who have lived those struggles. They can act as really important role models. People like Ian Mearns, the MP for Gateshead."

The shadow minister describes herself as "middle-class" because "both my parents went to university and there was an expectation that I would as well".

In September, the 'Yes' vote in the Scottish independence referendum was followed, paradoxically, by a surge in support for the SNP and an implosion of the Scottish Labour Party. One in three Labour supporters in Scotland are believed to have voted for independence. What lesson should Labour be learning from the fallout from that Scottish vote?

Her response is instant. "That there are millions of people in this country who share our values, who believe that things can be fundamentally different from the way that they’ve been throughout the course of my lifetime, who desperately want to get involved in a debate about the sort of country we could be.

"That our job is not just to provide a voice for that but also to convince people that we can deliver it. Our job is to be an inclusive party that is capable of attracting people like that. I will always have more philosophically in common with the socialists who voted 'yes' in Scotland than the Tories who voted 'no'."

With polls suggesting the SNP could win between 20 and 30 seats in Scotland, will Labour be able to secure a Commons majority in Westminster next May? How worried is she? "I think it would be a brave politician who would try and determine the outcome of the election," replies Nandy. "Think back to four years ago and where Labour was and how much trust we’d lost."

Does she think Ukip are a big threat to Labour's electoral prospects? "I think Ukip are a force that Labour needs to take as seriously as the Tories. They do attract a huge number of people who are not apathetic but angry. In my seat they came second in almost every council seat in the local and European elections last time around, with a huge increase in the vote.

"When I talked to people about why they were voting Ukip they said they wanted us, the major political parties, to listen to them.. There were people who came out in the rain on a Thursday night in my constituency to vote Ukip who hadn’t voted for several elections. That tells me.. they are angry and not apathetic and we can win them back."

Nandy thinks Labour can win back 'angry' voters from Ukip

In a recent interview with me, former Labour minister David Lammy blasted Ukip for a range of "deeply offensive" statements on over race and immigration. Nandy takes a softer line when I ask her whether she thinks Ukip is a racist party. "I think all protest parties will attract really unpleasant people," is her careful response.

Really? So, in her view, the Green Party, for example, attracts as many nutters and bigots as Ukip does? She ignores the question.

"I don’t think that the vast majority of people in my constituency who voted Ukip are racists."

For Nandy, Ukip's support has "a lot to do with insecurity. I think it is people feeling very uncertain about their lives and their future. And immigration is a concern for some people in some parts of the country but it's also a proxy and there's a reason why it often tops the list of people’s concern in Wigan where we have very few immigrants."

So it's a proxy for economic concerns? "When I knock on someone’s door and they say 'I am voting Ukip because I am worried about immigration', usually they will say 'Because my son can't get a job, because my daughter can't get a house, because I am worried about my pension'. There is a whole set of other issues that we have to tap into."

Tap into by cracking down on immigration? "I think we.." he voice trails off. There's a pause. "No," she says. "I think we need to be honest with people. We’ve had years of political debate around immigration being about 'talking tough'. And people can see through it. There are some things that politicians can deliver and some things that they can't."

Nandy says her solution, and Labour's solution, to the problem of low wages attributed to Eastern European migrants, and to the exploitation of those migrants, "is not to pull out of the EU.. surely the solution.. is we back strong trade unions, we enforce the minimum wage and also we.. have a much more efficient immigration system that makes fair decisions quite quickly on people’s cases and removes them if they shouldn't be here".

Ultimately, however, "we shouldn’t pit low-paid migrants against low-paid British workers".

So, in six months time, will Labour be able to win back the so-called 'left behind' voters tempted by Farage and co while retaining the ex-Lib Dems disillusioned by Clegg and co?

She nods. "I think the difficulty is that the Lib Dems are so split, so divided at the moment, it's very difficult to see where they’re going to end up in the [general] election.

"The job for Labour is to spend the next six months making the case and convincing people that we can change this country."

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