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Thursday 17th May 2012 | 20:00
WORDS: Sam Macrory
Lisa Nandy is looking flustered. The MP for Wigan has just heard that a factory in her constituency looks set to shut, affecting more than a hundred jobs. A busy weekend awaits, and it’s clear that Nandy would prefer to be with her constituents than pacing the corridors of Westminster. “I’d like to spend more time with the people I represent. If we spent less time with each other and more with the people we represent, then we’d talk more about the issues that matter to those people. We’ve spent most of the last year talking about voting reform, Lords reform and splits within the coalition – I don’t think my constituents are particularly interested in that”, she complains of life as an MP.
Though no career politician, and an MP with a better grip on normality than many, politics was always likely to find Lisa Nandy. Her father is a Marxist, her grandfather is a Liberal, and her mother is a Labour supporter, and for Nandy herself, growing up in1980s Manchester under a Thatcher government was “an angry time”. She leafleted occasionally for Labour, but politics only became a full-time interest when she combined further study in London with work as a researcher for Labour MP Neil Gerrard “It was a big deal for me. Coming to work in this building was quite daunting. He [Neil Gerrard] was the dream employer to work for – which isn’t always the experience of researchers here.”
However, watching how a humble backbencher existed as part of a thumping Labour majority left Nandy uninspired.
“There was a limited amounted of influence that really talented people like him [Gerrard] could have. I found that quite frustrating and I thought, to be honest, that if you want to change the situation for the sort of people he represented, you’d be better off outside of Parliament.”
Nandy found work in the voluntary sector with the housing charity Centrepoint.
“I always wanted a job where I’d get to meet the people I was representing, but I equally wanted a job where I was helping individuals” she explains, but through working with children living temporarily in B&Bs she found herself drawn back to politics. “They had some really awful stories about some things that happened to them. We approached Hammersmith and Fulham Council… and asked whether they would be prepared to consider changing the model about how they supported young people – put them into supported accommodation for a time-limited period instead of putting them into B&Bs. They agreed, and managed to lift all young people out of B&B accommodation within a year. It was then that I thought, actually that’s where you can make a difference. You can get all the legislation in the world right but if you really want to have a dramatic effect on someone’s life it’s how you implement it. It made me really keen to get more involved.”
She was elected to the council in 2006, but when her day job with the Children’s Society took her to the 2009 Conservative conference, the discussions she took part in left Nandy “horrified” at what might follow. “I just thought, I don’t know what I’m going to be able to do for these children in the job that I’m in, in the voluntary sector in particular – it seemed pretty clear that staying in my current job was going to be a pretty frustrating experience.”
And when the seat in Wigan became vacant two weeks’ later, “there just wasn’t any obvious reason not to do it”.
Nandy stood as a candidate from an all-women’s shortlist, a process which she admits caused a “lot of frustration” in Wigan. “I think it was a lot to do with the local party feeling for some time that they had had an ever more marginalised voice in terms of the direction of the party – I really do understand that, but I also have to say that I certainly wouldn’t have got the job if it wasn’t for the all-women’s shortlist” Nandy explains. “I’m the first female MP for Wigan. My big hope is perhaps we’ve opened it up now.”
Nandy, whose father is Indian, also faced opposition to her ethnicity. “The BNP and associated supporters had whipped up an issue around Islamaphobia and there were a lot of questions about what my religion was. I’m an Atheist, but a lot of people were trying to argue that I’m a Muslim. You don’t want to get in to the idea of denying that you’re Muslim because there’s nothing wrong with being one – I just happen not to be one”.
Winning was a “particularly weird” experience. With Wigan a safe Labour seat, press interest was nil. “At the count there was only really me and my Tory opponent. We sort of made a speech to each other and then helped the cleaners tidy away the coffee cups and drove home.”
On arriving at Parliament she found herself sharing a temporary office with Labour high-flyer Chuka Umunna. “You’ve got someone to bounce off and he’s a really nice bloke – but at the same time he found his feet really fast” Nandy recalls. “While I was on my hands and knees looking for somewhere to plug my Blackberry in, two weeks after being elected, Chuka was sorting out entire countries..”
Nandy’s own promotion to the front bench took place a few hours after we met. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” she said, when asked about a frontbench role, no bad thing given her appointment as shadow children’s minister. It follows on nicely from her position on the Education Select Committee, which she says is “probably one of the most influential things you can do” in Opposition.
“We have very different views about what education is for”, says Nandy of Education Secretary Michael Gove. “His is a vision very much based around competition, and the system I want to see is one based around collaboration. I think he’s fragmented and fracturing it, leaving a lot of children behind.”
And yet, with his support for City Academies, Gove says he is building on the work of New Labour. “One of the cleverest things he has done is appropriated some of the language of the New Labour era – it’s a clever political trick” Nandy replies, arguing that Gove’s academies are not focused on children from poorer backgrounds.
Nandy is also a vocal opponent of free schools. Would she abolish them? “It’s very difficult, once they’ve been set up, to get rid of them – I’d like to see schools brought back within a kind of…. local authority family. I’d likes to see local coordination brought back”, she replies, an answer likely to see her accused by opponents of being anti-reform.
“If you talk to school teachers, they’d say they need more reform in the education system like a hole in the head. Not all reform is good reform. If you really want to bring forward all children then you would be looking at a much stronger package of support outside the classroom – you can’t put everything on schools.”
Another priority is her campaign for universal free childcare, with Nandy believing in the “moral case that women shouldn’t be barred from work and the strong economic case [that] if you enable more women to go back into the workforce that would pay for itself.” Labour’s next manifesto, she argues, should promise free childcare. Meanwhile she is working with Tory MP Edward Timpson on plans to improve the lives of looked after children to make sure that “the concern and anger at what’s happening to this group of children isn’t lost.” The cross party work clearly suits her, with Nandy convinced that MPs should “free ourselves up and have more of a debate and dialogue… you can find interesting alliances in here between MPs of different parties”.
For that approach, she adds, her party leader is a role model. “Ed Miliband is one of the least tribal people that I’ve ever met. I get the impression that his driving force is to change things. That’s very healthy.”
And while Nandy enjoys the “fantastic platform” that being an MP has given her, she admits that Opposition, and the internal focus of life at Westminster, have been “frustrating” experiences. However, she refuses to say what her future holds – “I guess I’d probably talk to my local party first” – beyond the immediate: getting back to Wigan and getting to grips with whatever is worrying her constituents.
She has the perfect way to find out. “There’s a pub called The Anvil in the centre of my constituency where I’m often to be found on a Friday night with a pint” she says. Lisa Nandy: not bitter at life inside the Westminster bubble, but determined all the same to burst it if she can.
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