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Lisa Nandy: "I'm desperate to have a woman lead the Labour party"

Lisa Nandy: 'I'm desperate to have a woman lead the Labour party'

Lisa Nandy has ruled out running for Labour leader again | Photography by Baldo Sciacca

10 min read

Lisa Nandy found the experience of running for the Labour leadership a bruising one — to the extent she rules out standing again. But as shadow foreign secretary she's found her voice, convinced that as a champion for internationalism she can play a part in healing a divided party. Kate Proctor meets her ahead of Labour's party conference in Brighton.

Labour front bencher Lisa Nandy is in no rush to run for the party leadership again. In fact, she jokes she’d probably hide under her desk, rocking back and forwards, if she was faced with putting her life through “the shredder” for a second time. She had to deal with sexism, engage in a popularity contest and endure being pitted against her female colleagues – something she found acutely unpleasant. 

“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “There were lots of women in Parliament who were fantastic at giving me advice and support, like Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Diane Abbott, because we’re part of a unique club of people,”  – a nod to the group of women brave enough to run to head a party that in its 121-year history has never elected a female leader. 

Going for leader is a process that is just “different for women, it’s completely different”, she explains.

“You saw it with Becky (Rebecca Long Bailey) and some of the sexist stuff that she had to deal with during the campaign. I got a fair bit of it, Jess (Phillips) got a fair bit of it. It’s very personally exposing, and it’s also difficult to go up against your colleagues, because the frame is about personalities. 

“We’ve become very American in that sense. Rather than a battle of ideas, it becomes a contest of personalities. That in itself is quite a difficult process to go through.”

Nandy, 42, the MP for Wigan, finished third behind Keir Starmer and Long Bailey in the contest in April 2020 with 79,597 votes – a 16.2 per cent share. 

We meet in her office in Portcullis House, adorned with a poster featuring women supporting the 1984 miners’ strike and bookshelves laden with the works of historian Eric Hobsbawm. Nandy explains she entered the leadership contest to make sure it didn’t become a factional battle, with Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged heir apparent Long Bailey and soft-left Starmer occupying different positions politically. She said she wanted to put ideas at the heart of the debate, and avoid a descent into a tribalism. Her political ally, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh, ran her campaign, and she got backing from the GMB union and the Jewish Labour Movement.

But in the end, she admitted the process was largely about popularity. 

“I don’t have any intention of ever putting myself through that again,” she says. “It does genuinely make me want to get under the desk thinking about it. I hated the way that we were pitted against one another. I was desperate by the end of it for us to get to a place where we could work together to solve things.” 

I don’t have any intention of ever putting myself through that again.

Having focused much of her campaign on the revitalisation of towns, public transport and rebuilding the vote in the north of England, it was a slight surprise that she was offered the shadow foreign brief. However, she believes her half-Indian heritage gives her a particular insight into foreign affairs, quoting Hobsbawm’s words: “As an immigrant I see things at a tangent to the world.” Her father, the Marxist academic Dipak Nandy, moved to Leeds from Calcutta in the 1950s to go to university, and she says he has given her a different perspective on the world, one where she prefers dialogue and bridge building to confrontation and insularity.  

The job is one she is grateful for, she says, even if so far she has conducted the foreign brief from behind a computer screen, Zooming world leaders. The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, spoke to her from her kitchen and Nandy spotted Spanish premier Pedro Sánchez making a sandwich for himself believing he was off camera. She hopes she can schedule more meetings face to face in the next year and travel abroad, with Dublin her likely first stop to “try and repair relations with Europe” and then a joint trip with Starmer to Israel and the Palestinian Territories when it’s possible.  

“[After he won] Keir reached out and offered me what was quite an extraordinarily generous offer not just to be shadow foreign secretary but to work as a team. We’re close in a way that we weren’t before the leadership contest,” she says. 

Considering poll ratings have put Labour behind the Tories, the calamitous local election results and the loss of Hartlepool, does she think she could have done a better job than Starmer? 

“Ouch!” she laughs at the brutality of the question. Adding an “Oh my god!” and giving a good impression of someone who has never considered the possibility. 

Diplomatically, she answers that she would have faced exactly the same challenges Starmer has, of operating in the political landscape of Covid where the public have a vested interest in wanting the government of the day to succeed. She says she’s spoken to opposition parties around the world and Labour’s sister parties, and all their opposition leaders report having to navigate the same backdrop. On Hartlepool, which went blue after 57 years to a totally unknown candidate, she says considering the place had suffered 40 years of economic decline it would be “foolish” to think she could have saved it where Starmer failed.

Like many Labour women, Nandy remains disappointed the party still hasn’t elected a female leader. This year’s party conference in Brighton will see senior women taking some prime speaking slots – Rachel Reeves as shadow Chancellor, Angela Rayner as deputy leader and Anneliese Dodds as party chair – but it’s no compensation for the top job. 

Will we get a female leader this decade? She replies: “I’m desperate to have a woman lead the Labour Party. But what I’m more desperate for is to have a Labour prime minister in Downing Street, and every bit of our energy and attention at the moment is on trying to make sure that we win the next general election and that Keir becomes Prime Minister.”

I’m desperate to have a woman lead the Labour Party. But what I’m more desperate for is to have a Labour prime minister in Downing Street.

The most high-profile foreign affairs crisis that Nandy has had to deal with so far is the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. She has been highly critical of the former foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s lack of planning for the American withdrawal of troops that resulted in the dramatic airlift of British nationals, with estimates that several hundred were left behind, unable to get out in time. 

The Tories have attempted to deflect criticism of Raab’s actions by pointing out that Nandy had not mentioned Afghanistan once in the Commons in the long run-up to the crisis. She responds that shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, shadow Asia minister Stephen Kinnock and shadow defence minister John Healey all raised it. But it’s true, she hadn’t personally raised the Taliban or Afghanistan in the House until it was recalled on August 18. 

Isn’t it the truth that had she been foreign secretary she would be in the same position as Raab, with a lightening speed collapse of a country which took everyone by surprise? 

Along with not going on holiday, as Raab chose to do as the Taliban advanced, Nandy says there are several things she would have done differently. 

She questions how much the UK challenged the American decision to withdraw with a hard deadline, which she claims both encouraged the Taliban and eroded the morale of the Afghan forces. The relationship with US President Donald Trump seemed very one sided, she suggests, with an unwillingness from the British to stand up for our values. She also wouldn’t have cut UK aid to the country. 

On the shambolic airlift that followed, she says: “There’s always a deadline, but you can have a phased withdrawal rule. You can have a series of deadlines. There will always come an end date but that doesn’t mean that you have to set a hard stop.” 

Her team are now pushing the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office hard to get a group of Afghans who may have a right to stay in the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy programme the physical papers they need to have their claims processed in third countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Some are female politicians, judges, women’s rights activists for whom travel across the country to a land border is exceedingly dangerous.
They are also concerned about the British nationals left behind, a figure believed to be in the low hundreds.  

“It’s a first order failure when you’ve got British citizens now stranded in Afghanistan and we’re reliant on the assistance from the Taliban in order to evacuate them,” Nandy says.

During the entire Afghan crisis she reveals Raab did not pick up the phone once to her, with nothing “apart from bad tempered exchanges across the despatch box”.

It’s a first order failure when you’ve got British citizens now stranded in Afghanistan and we’re reliant on the assistance from the Taliban in order to evacuate them.

“It is unusual, actually, when the lives of British nationals are at risk. In 11 years I don’t think I’ve shadowed anyone on the front bench where it’s impossible to get them to pick up the phone to have a conversation at moments of national crisis.”

Raab did call her when the Chinese government introduced stringent security laws in Hong Kong and their residents were being offered the right to come and live in the UK. 

The primary theme of her   Party  Conference speech will be the need for Labour to turn outwards to the world and cement its internationalist reputation, looking like an alternative government, not just an opposition. 

After the cheering and singing, flag waving, and Jeremy Corbyn scarf-brandishing of previous conferences, is she worried the atmosphere in Brighton will be flat? Could Starmer even be booed by Corbyn loyalists? After all, the former leader still sits as an independent in the Commons having not had the whip restored. 

“I genuinely don’t know what we’re going to expect,” Nandy says. “What I can tell you is that the mood of the party seems far more focused on winning elections than it has been for some time. I feel like the party members want to keep that energy and dynamism that we managed to harness under Corbyn’s leadership – but I think most members like me would like to drop the introspection, the division, and start to look outwards to the country again.”

Labour’s foreign policy can be a way of doing this, she suggests. “Labour Party members are very proudly internationalists and believe in standing up for our values in the world. But I think the country is too,” she said.

She feels very strongly there has been a mis-reading of Brexit across the political spectrum, that it didn’t mean communities wanted to shut off long-standing global links. On military intervention, she believes this can occasionally make a difference – in those times when standing by is not an option. Britons want to be engaged in the world, she believes. But, most importantly, she thinks Labour can strengthen international bonds trashed by the Johnson government. 

She’ll be making this argument at Labour Party Conference this week. Now it just needs to be made to the country.

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Lisa Nandy