Talk of the town: On the road in Worksop with Lisa Nandy
After 85 years as a Labour seat, the Nottinghamshire constituency of Bassetlaw witnessed the largest swing from Labour to the Conservatives in the country at the general election. Benedict Cooper joins Lisa Nandy on a trip to the area to hear first hand how she plans to reconnect with the party’s former heartlands
It’s a bright, crisp winter’s day in Worksop, and in the café of The Crossing church and community centre the lunchtime trade is under way. As I cross the room on my way for a coffee, a woman sitting with her husband catches my eye. Nodding towards the incongruous entourage of cameras, aides and press huddled around a woman in a black suit and a red top, she asks “Who’s that lady?”
“That’s Lisa Nandy,” I tell her. “She’s standing to be leader of the Labour party.” She takes a sip of her tea and tuts. “Well I’ll tell you what, she’ll have her work cut out round here.”
You can say that again. Worksop sits within the constituency of Bassetlaw in north Nottinghamshire, where Labour suffered its biggest swing to the Tories of any seat in the December election.
This is a county where Labour went from dominating the map to being beaten down to just three urban seats, all in Nottingham. It’s an overwhelmingly Leave-voting region that includes Ashfield, where Labour went from first place to third in 2019; Bolsover, where ex-miner and local legend Dennis Skinner lost to the Tories; and Mansfield, where the Conservatives actually increased their majority after stealing the seat in 2017, ending 94 years of Labour dominance.
Welcome to Labour’s lost heartlands. The rubble of the red wall.
It’s here that, theoretically at least, Labour knows it needs to do something drastically different or face permanent rejection. But with the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn still only halfway through, the immediate question is, which Labour will it be? The party of the incumbent order, of Momentum and Unite? A party that looks to its past successes in the centre ground for guidance?
Above all Lisa Nandy hopes that it will be the party of Lisa Nandy. A party which, she told a meeting of Labour members at Worksop Town Hall earlier in the day, would learn from the mistakes of recent years.
“We should have understood what was coming next,” she told the audience, referring to the early warning sign from Mansfield. “It shows how disconnected a party that was built by, not just for, working-class people had become that we didn’t feel this coming.”
This was a soft ride event – no hostile audience members, no hostile questions. But it was a strong pitch, touching on subjects that are likely to connect in areas like this: the “great tragedy” of the demise of youth services and child and adolescent mental health funding, the disparity of investment between towns and cities, county lines drugs gangs, reforms to transport infrastructure and the revival of skilled working-class jobs.
The line has been worked out as very much alluding to the Blair-Brown era without calling on it too explicitly, save for a few direct references – keeping post-Brexit Britain competitive in the world, she said, was a question of “education, education, education”.
But Nandy has a distinct identity; a warm, authentic empathy fired up by an alert, articulate mind. She cites Robert Kennedy, Barbara Castle, Nye Bevan and George Eliot yet makes a point to back up policy ideas with anecdotes about ordinary people she’s met and the serious problems they face.
On the whole she doesn’t tend to be direct in adversity. Instead she takes a more circumspect approach, conscious no doubt of the hypersensitive scrutiny she’s under as a leading member of Owen Smith’s leadership bid team in 2016.
Take the line that “when Rebecca [Long-Bailey] is attacked for her views on abortion, I might not share those views, but she has every right to hold them”. Or the veiled dig at the persistent culture of latent misogyny within the Labour party that has arguably contributed to Keir Starmer, the only man in the race, taking the frontrunner position: “I was told by a few people in Parliament that I wasn’t ready, that I didn’t have the amount of Parliamentary experience that I would need. Then they went on to nominate someone who had less than half the Parliamentary experience that I have.”
Criticism of Nandy often focuses on her modesty and her unassuming presence. Perhaps she could use a touch more of the bullishness you see in other politicians. But watching her work a room like this it feels terribly unjust, and indicative of something distinctly patriarchal, that a lack of an overbearing ego is actually being held against her.
Especially as she does have a bluntness and a punch when the desired target comes along. There’s plenty of criticism of the faction of the party that has been in power for four-and-a-half years; the “serious crisis” it has led the party into, and a tendency of appealing to the converted summed up by “simply banging on about Margaret Thatcher and the NHS”.
When asked about Corbynite-favourite deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon’s plan for a Labour Peace Pledge to ballot Labour members before taking part in military actions – announced the day before to considerable eyebrow-raising – there was no holding back. “Robin Cook would be ashamed of where we may end up as a party,” she said. “I couldn’t disagree with [Burgon] more.”
After the speech and audience questions, a group of local councillors including Simon Greaves, leader of Labour-run Bassetlaw District Council, have planned a short walk from the town hall to the community centre on the other side of town. A chance for Nandy to meet some of the people it’ll be her job to win over if she gets the leadership.
Worksop is a former pit town close to the border with Yorkshire. The high street has a sadly familiar feel in parts, specked with handsome old buildings redolent of more prosperous times. Just to the south-east lies the former site of Manton Colliery, linked to the town by Retford Road, where picketers and police forces clashed during the miners’ strike of 1984. The pit closed down 10 years later.
It’s an archetype for the sort of places Labour needs to be focusing its efforts on in defeat: a modest Leave-voting, working-class town that has just gone from red to blue after decades of returning Labour MPs. It’s a place that has had its problems since the mines went, there’s no doubt, says Greaves, who warned a long time ago that Labour was in trouble around here.
As we walk and talk he tells me: “I think Lisa’s the most credible leadership candidate out there. You can either have continuity which will be absolute oblivion for the party, or you can genuinely think about real change that connects with Labour voters again. If we don’t do that, there’s not going to be a long-term future for Labour.”
The first person who stops to talk to Nandy is a former lorry driver who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019. He cites some of the reasons that will be familiar to Labour activists who went out on the doorsteps in December: Corbyn, the second referendum pledge, the swing to the left. But there are also deeper factors: the “free for all” of immigration from the EU, the local economy, the lack of job opportunities, and the fact, he says, that “the unions have let us down”.
Sitting in The Crossing a little later with the couple who caught my eye across the café, Worksop residents Ann and Tony Cousins, we talk about the town, Labour politics, and the job Nandy would face if she were to take over the party.
Their story is one that Labour doorknockers will have ringing in their ears. Aged 77, Ann and Tony had both voted Labour from the day they were eligible to, until last year when they decided enough was enough.
Like a lot of people I spoke to in the town, they are full of praise for John Mann, now Baron Mann, the former Bassetlaw MP who quit last year under a barrage from the Corbynite wing of the party, but who they call “a real good bloke” who worked hard for Worksop and for them. They are scathing about Jeremy Corbyn.
“He’s my pet hate to be honest,” says Ann. “He’s a traitor to the country. He had to be right, he had to be leader of the party, but he was decimating it. I think the Labour party’s on its knees. They’ve lost all their values. We’re well into our 70s and we voted Conservative for the first time ever last year.”
The day after the general election, Boris Johnson spoke directly to voters like Ann and Tony in his famous “You may only have lent us your vote,” speech, admitting that people like them had gone blue probably with heavy hearts. Even hardened Labour activists I know admit that was a smart move.
Especially if that pledge turns out to be more than just smooth words from the Cummings strategy manual. If the Tories do start pumping serious money into places like Worksop, Labour really could be in trouble. It would palliate the pangs of guilt people may be feeling for abandoning the party their parents and grandparents would have crawled from their hospital beds to vote for; maybe even secure Tory votes around here for life. These are dangerous times for Labour.
Do Ann and Tony feel that they’ve just lent their votes to the Tories? Or could this be a Conservative seat for good now?
“There’s a strong chance of that, there really is,” Tony, an Army and RAF veteran, tells me, gravely. “Even when I was in the Forces I voted Labour with a postal vote. I really feel for the future.”
I leave them to their lunch and find a table for a quick coffee by the window. Across the road from the community centre an elderly gent with a flat cap and wax jacket emerges from the Wetherspoon’s pub over the road, stooped on a walking stick. Pinned to his chest is a crumpled Remembrance Day poppy, probably worn all year round.
Maybe he was a soldier in his younger days, just like Tony Cousins. Or maybe he was a miner, like so many men of his generation in this part of the country when Notts had the proud industry, the steady jobs, and an intrinsic bond with the Labour party.
When I get my time with Nandy I tell her about the conversation I’ve just had in the café, and ask whether she agrees Labour might never win back places like Bassetlaw.
“Well that’s up to us,” she tells me, with a stern determination. “There’s a very small window where people are still listening. We’ve seen our base collapse in north Wales, the north, the south and the Midlands. The challenge facing us is bigger than it’s ever been.”
She tells me about the anger she experienced out on the doorsteps during the election, not least in nearby Ashfield, canvassing with Labour’s candidate Natalie Fleet and former MP Gloria De Piero; an anger that, she says, “could very quickly turn into people being not interested in us at all”.
“The story we were told was of a deep-rooted sense that Labour doesn’t understand people any more,” she says. “We don’t stick up for people, and we’re more interested in ourselves than in the country.”
But Nandy has a plan. And at its core is a pledge to fix faults in the system that she says have hampered the revival of small towns: the flawed local authority funding model, the Local Enterprise Partnership system, public transport infrastructure, education funding, and mental health provision.
She wants to put more power and funds in council leaders’ hands for starters, and believes that an “active interventionist government” is needed to secure big contracts for British firms in emerging sectors like sustainable energy infrastructure.
If Labour’s biggest challenge is to rebuild its base and restore trust, Nandy’s pitch to do it starting with forgotten towns like Worksop is a strong one. But winning back the trust of voters who went Tory last year is going to be a hard sell, for whoever is in charge after 4 April. And Nandy is still well behind in that race.
Talk of rebuilding the so-called red wall seems hopelessly oversimple when the sharp reality of the job comes into view. It feels more like Labour is on a desperate missing persons search, for those it has let slip out of sight. The people in the left-behind towns. Who wear their poppies all year round. Who felt forced into a drastic decision back in 2016 and doubled down last year, but might still vote Labour again if it reaches out to them in the right way.
And like all missing persons searches, the first precious hours are always the most crucial. Possibly the difference between finding them or never seeing them again.
It makes me think back to the last thing Nandy said as we wrapped up our chat, before she had to race back to Wigan to see her four-year-old son after school. She gets the urgency of the situation, perhaps the most precarious in Labour’s history. “We’ve just got to get this right now,” she told me. “If we don’t, we’re finished.”