The future of the left since 1884

Winning together

We need the most radical reimagining of the relationship between the state and its people we have seen for decades, argues Lisa Nandy MP.


Long read

Labour is in retreat. Defeated in Scotland. Beaten back in north Wales and many northern, southern and Midlands towns. Communities that voted Labour for a hundred years and families that have Labour in their DNA said: “Not now, not this time”. The threat we now face is existential. If we refuse to recognise the scale of the challenge and change, then we will die – and we will deserve to.

However, I see hope where others do not. I know in my heart and my head that it is possible to win the next election. The people in the country who desperately need a Labour government need to know they won’t have to wait 10 years for us to be in power. Our members need to know that playing it safe now so we can come back in 10 years’ time probably means there won’t be a Labour party to vote for at that point. It deserts those people who need us now. That is how stark this moment is, and that is why I say we need a leader who understands this.

Whilst the last election defeat was devastating, the result was a long time coming. For decades, the growing disconnect between the Labour party and the communities we seek to represent has left us unable to hear the clamour for change coming from out in the country.

In the days immediately after the election, I went to Ashfield to listen to lifelong Labour voters who felt that they could not support us. And throughout this leadership election, wherever I have been, my first priority has been to hear what people are trying to tell us.

Time and time again throughout this campaign, I’ve heard the same message. From Bassetlaw to Grimsby, people have told me they haven’t left Labour – Labour has left them. We have lost the trust of communities across the country to deliver real change in their lives, and with it their faith that we are fit to lead.

Brexit exposed this disconnect with our voters. We completely failed to offer the leadership the country needs. While one part of our leadership pushed for a People’s Vote, another part of the leadership pushed back against it. We let the Tories determine how we would become divided from our people and our voters noticed. Never again can our activists be forced to choosebetween being for Labour, or for their community. I promise you that under my leadership this will never, ever happen again.

Brexit also exposed sharp divisions in our society and my leadership will address them head on. I have written for many years about how our towns have slowly declined whilst our cities have performed better. This is because successive governments, including Labour’s, have actively promoted our cities as the only engines of economic growth. Look back through budgets in recent decades and you see sustained and overwhelming investment in our cities.

Underpinning this economic model is the belief that if we simply load our cities with people and investment, the benefits will trickle out to the rest of the country. Not satisfied with investment in existing cities, we have now created city-regions from desks in Whitehall and applied the same model to them.

On its own terms, this model is failing. If, as I am often told, London is a successful model of economic growth, then explain to me record levels of air pollution, congestion, unaffordable house prices and the searing inequality we see in the capital. Who exactly is benefiting from this model? Because it doesn’t appear to be the poor or young people looking for housing. If this model is successful, then why is economic growth in Greater Manchester city region concentrated entirely in Manchester itself whilst surrounding towns lag behind? A slavish, one-size-fits-all approach to economic growth, built on faulty regional measures and dictated from a desk in Whitehall is an entirely outdated and lazy approach to our economy.

What we need is an entirely new relationship between the state and the people it presumes to represent. Under my leadership, the country will hand power and resources to people in communities across Britain. Not in a piecemeal way, slice by slice, but in a comprehensive devolution settlement which fundamentally shifts power and money away from Westminster and into the hands of the best resource our communities have: the people who live in them. I want to start from the position that the role of central government is to carry out those tasks which can’t be performed locally. Not the other way around.

I have already announced during the leadership campaign that I will abolish undemocratic local enterprise partnerships and give the billions of pounds allocated to them by the Conservatives to local councils. Our local government has been decimated by the Tories over the last decade, and I am committed to not only putting this right but going further still.

I want power and money to go to local authorities, and I want those councils to be supported to build the capacity they need to deliver world-leading public services, good jobs and vibrant communities. I also intend to bring forward legislation which would enable local councils to raise revenue for themselves. At present, councils are seeing diminishing returns from council tax and business rates, particularly in ex-industrial and struggling coastal towns. Councils should have a battery of powers to raise revenue locally, if they so wish.

However, with this commitment comes a responsibility for councils to deliver for communities across Britain. Equally, and most importantly to me, people must themselves be empowered to deliver change in their communities. Some councils across Britain include local people in the strategies they develop, and the services they run, but I want this to become the norm in every community. People want agency and control over their lives, and for too long our political settlement has treated people as pawns in a game they control. Under my leadership, our politics will move from “we know what’s best for you” to “you know what’s best for you”.

I am under no illusions. These commitments present a real challenge to the status quo. There are vested interests which will resist any reduction in their power. I am speaking here to all our political class, not just Conservative ones. The recent Marmot Review exposed startling levels of health inequality in our country. Tinkering at the edges of an economic model which helps to produce such an outcome simply won’t cut it. And believing that the solutions must inevitably come from a desk in Westminster won’t either. I am running to be leader of the Labour party so that I can preside over the most radical reimagining of the relationship between the state and its people for decades.

Barbara Castle once said: “In politics, guts is all.” Now is not the time to steady the ship or play it safe. This is the moment when we up our game and recover our ambition. The leadership that is needed at this moment needs to be gutsy and brave, it needs to rediscover the empathy, stamina and courage that has driven big, deep lasting change in our country.

We have four years to be more ambitious than ever before. To come together to fix, repair and run local assets, from pubs to playgrounds. To share the expertise of Labour councils working with communities to break the monopoly of the big energy companies, and transition towards a low carbon, clean energy future. To work with unions organising in workplaces, providing the support and services people need, but this government will never provide.

When we are rooted in our communities we are at our most powerful. The path back to power runs not along our red wall but by building a red bridge that connects our towns and cities and stretches from Dagenham to Fulham, Aberdeen to Glasgow, and Cardiff to Wrexham.

When Labour is at its best is when we are bridging and not reinforcing divides. When we can see the ‘invisible chain’ that George Orwell said binds our nation together. I am a visible link in that chain. I was born in the north, educated in the north east, started my working life in London and now live with my young family in Wigan. Throughout my life, I have kept open a bridge to my parents, as many of our young people do every day. One million people, mostly young people, made London their home in the last five years. They keep a bridge open to their place of birth and the families they left behind. If they can do it, Labour can too. Because, as opposed to some defeatists in the party, I believe it is possible to build a red bridge between those places we lost in 2019 and the places we won; between our towns and our cities; between the nations of our United Kingdom and between young and old.

Our job to tell a unifying story that takes the country forward together. For example, when activists in Balham talk about a green revolution, people in Bassetlaw, whose power stations are closing, hear that their job is being lost and their energy bill is going up. But what those Balham activists are talking about when they call for a green revolution is one that can create green energy jobs in towns, bring down energy bills, and a functioning low-carbon bus network. To tackle climate change we need new, cleaner, more reliable transport. This means the better buses that Bassetlaw needs.

Like every other candidate for leader, I believe in collective ownership. But I know that when at the last election we pledged to nationalise everything from rail to mail and water, from energy to broadband, people didn’t believe we could deliver. My priorities would be to end privatisation in the NHS and bring transport into collective ownership so we can sort out the trains and start to rebuild the bus network.

Similarly, the Labour government I lead would keep its pledge to scrap tuition fees. But we would also be clear that our top priority would be to restore the education maintenance allowance, which is critical for so many working-class young people to be able to continue their education.

As a party we must tackle the stain of antisemitism in our party. The hostility and abuse Jewish members have been subjected to has been inexcusable and exacerbated by failures in leadership. We cannot pick and choose between the types of prejudice we take on. Labour must urgently change its rules so that we root out all antisemites from our ranks and create a hostile environment towards those who deny the existence of antisemitism. We must change the culture that has allowed antisemitism to thrive. That is why I have published a plan with specific moves to tackle antisemitism. It is the product of listening to Jewish colleagues and friends. It focuses on adopting in full the EHRC recommendations, a new independent disciplinary process, comprehensive training but also transparency.

I come from a family that spans the broadest political tradition, from Liberalism to Marxism, and it’s that that makes me understand that you take on your opponent’s argument at the strongest, not the weakest point, or you do not defeat it at all. It demands that you run towards trouble. That lesson has been reinforced throughout my political career, from my battle against the last Labour government to get child refugees out of Yarls Wood or to take homeless teenagers off the streets of Soho and as the vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, standing up for Palestinian children and against antisemitism, for the right of both Palestine to be recognised and Israel to exist. I have learnt that progress is not inevitable. If you want a better country you have to go out and fight for it.

The road ahead is steep, but it need not be long. By listening to the communities that left us, becoming rooted in them, empowering them and rediscovering our national story we will be back in government again. Not in 10 years’ time, but at the next general election. So let’s get started. When we are prepared to go out, take on the argument and do so from a place of hope and not anger, we always win. Together.

Credit: Rwendland/Wikimedia commons

Lisa Nandy MP

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for  Wigan and shadow foreign secretary


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