We meet Lisa Nandy in one of her favourite places in London, the Lyric Hammersmith, where, a few years ago, she saw a Harold Pinter play that first premiered there in the Fifties. “The history here is amazing,” she says.
If Nandy has only recently appeared on your radar, the location may seem confusing. The Labour leadership contender, 40, has made a name for herself as the tough-talking Northerner from Wigan — but she was a councillor in Hammersmith before she was elected as an MP in 2010; sat on the board of the theatre; and is passionate about the benefits of arts and culture.
Although she’s not all about the high-brow: her favourite recent karaoke attempt was Black Magic by Little Mix, which she did with her friend, former Labour MP Gloria De Piero.
“She said to me at the time, ‘It’s a very hard song to sing’. I didn’t accept that, but she was right. It was probably the worst thing that anyone’s ever inflicted on the world,” Nandy says. “If I could do any song it would be Never Forget by Take That, but the choir bit is hard.”
As a teenager, she was such a Take That fan that she camped outside Mark Owen’s house in Manchester. His mum was “really nice and brought us cups of tea”.
Nandy began the Labour leadership contest as the unknown candidate, but has proved to be the most interesting and impressive performer. Her media appearances have won her plaudits, especially as she has taken on two men the Prime Minister has run away from: Andrew Neil and Piers Morgan.
She went viral after she slapped down Morgan on Good Morning Britain in a row about Meghan Markle. “I didn’t have a huge amount of patience for a fairly privileged white man with a huge media platform who claimed to know what racism looked like better than a young woman who has just experienced it.”
Nandy decided to throw her hat in the ring for the leadership a fortnight before Labour’s disastrous December election. “I saw it coming, but the scale was quite a surprise. It was breathtaking,” she says.
She consulted close political friends and made the choice quickly. Her campaign has been focused on reversing the fortunes of Northern towns and highlighting the lack of infrastructure, such as reliable buses. Indeed, she has mentioned buses so often she has become a Twitter meme, which makes her laugh.
But what’s her pitch to city dwellers? “The lesson of the last few years is that if you neglect one part of your coalition, you run into real trouble. My ambition is not that we now speak for towns rather than for cities, but that we speak for both,” she says.
Her time as a London councillor exposed her to the city’s social issues, from rough sleeping and knife crime to overcrowded transport, poverty and air pollution.
She sees things getting worse, but thinks the problems are two sides of the same coin. “Young people in Wigan haven’t got a choice but to move away, if they want decent jobs and opportunities, to London or the South East. We’re relying on a model in which we overheat some parts of the country and economy and don’t use the assets and potential we have in others, and it’s causing chaos for everybody.”
She feels she can represent both North and South. “In a sense, I am Labour’s coalition, in that I grew up in Manchester, came from a middle-class family, moved down to London after university to work with the homeless and then refugee children, and I now live in Wigan. These are my friends and neighbours, not just constituents, and it’s a very working-class community where I’ve had to be that bridge.”
There is no doubt she is a Left-winger, who joined Parliament because she was “frustrated at the lack of radicalism in the economy”. She says this comment got her into “a bit of a row” with Tony Blair last week.
She is complimentary about the last Labour government, and calls the national minimum wage and investment in education and health “game-changing”, but says to “leave the power structures undisturbed seems to have been the wrong approach”.
How did she feel when Peter Mandelson said he was relaxed about the rich getting richer? “I think for a lot of people across this country, that was quite devastating,” she says. Yet she is careful to strike a tone which doesn’t scream class war.
She isn’t a fan of fee-paying schools, “but the idea that, as Prime Minister, your first job would be to go around closing schools seems completely out of step with where we are as a country”.
She is frustrated at how paternalistic and “we know best” politics has become. “I think people are the best architects of changing their own lives,” she says. “The job of government is to help create the right circumstances in which people can do well. People can rise up together, and that is not about stopping people doing well, that’s about enabling the conditions in which people can flourish and choose very different paths.”
Nandy’s political convictions are shaped by her family background, which spans the spectrum. Her father Dipak Nandy was a Marxist academic from Calcutta who came to Leicester and set up the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) as a result of the racism he and others faced when trying to find work and accommodation.
He went on to found the Runnymede Trust, and was asked by Roy Jenkins to help write the Race Relations Act. Her mother, Luise Fitzwalter, was a social worker who became a current affairs producer for Granada Television. Her grandfather Frank Byers was MP for North Dorset, then leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords for nearly 20 years.
Nandy quips: “Sorry, this is the worst backstory… I know I was meant to say ‘I was born into abject poverty and held myself up by my bootstraps’.” But she thinks a lot about what her parents went through as a mixed-race couple back in the Seventies, when people would say, “think of the kids — you’re making a terrible mistake. I’m proud of them because my dad didn’t really have a choice but to fight. He built the architecture for modern anti-discrimination and equality,” she says.
Although they have since split up, she has a close relationship with both of her parents. Her mum lives near her and helps look after her four-year-old son along with Nandy’s partner, Andy Collis, who she met while working at The Children’s Society. He is “amazing and takes a lot of the burden”.
Many people don’t realise that Nandy is a mixed-race, BAME woman. “I’ve never chosen not to talk about it, but I also felt my gender more than my race when I got elected — because maybe people didn’t know my dad was from India.”
When she first got to Parliament, she shared an office with Chuka Umunna, and noticed that when he did interviews he was asked about “the economy and the future of the party, and I was asked what it was like to be a woman in politics. It’s frustrating, but I suppose what I’ve learned over the last decade is that is really does matter to people”.
She’s been surprised but pleased by how many young mixed-race women have joined her campaign and see her as a role model. “That they can feel inspired is one of the most emotional things about the campaign so far,” she says.
One of the toughest issues she has faced has been Brexit. “My heart goes out to people on Friday who will be feeling bereft as this is a big moment for the UK, and not one that I think we should have taken.”
She went through a grieving process about three years ago, when so many life-long Labour voters in her constituency, and around her in those red-wall seats, voted to leave.
“I knew there was no prospect of going back,” Nandy says. She hoped that there could be a consensus on a soft Brexit and was bitterly disappointed when there wasn’t. She felt it became a “zero-sum game between Leave and Remain”.
She wanted the UK to maintain a close economic and political relationship with the EU, and argues that she voted to give Boris Johnson’s deal a second reading to try to make that happen at Committee stage, where she says there may have been support for a customs union. “I bitterly regret that didn’t happen,” she says.
She is certain she made the right decision — but it has come at a personal cost. “The last few years haven’t been easy; to fall out with friends, to come down to London and get treated like a pariah for being a so-called Leaver, then going home and having tough arguments with the people you represent about being a Remainer. But this is what you sign up for and do because it’s right.”
She won’t give up on Labour as an internationalist, pro-immigration party. “Our future lies with Europe, and that’s something we have to get on the front foot on now. Jobs and security depend on close arrangements, and we need to go out and win the argument.”
She is very careful not to criticise Jeremy Corbyn or his allies, and says that he “has allowed us to wear our values on our sleeve again”.
She has spoken out about the failure of leadership on anti-Semitism, has called for more transparency, and says she will “at a minimum, implement all the recommendations” of the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Though she warns: “I don’t want to pre-empt what they are going to say, and it is possible that the report may not be as tough as many people think it might.”
The only occasion she reveals a negative opinion about Corbyn is when she refers to her decision to leave the Shadow Cabinet in 2016 when she ran Owen Smith’s unsuccessful leadership challenge. “I believe [Corbyn] was wrong and the people he surrounded himself with were perpetuating a factional war which would lead us to one of our worst defeats,” she says.
It’s easy to see why Nandy has been the breakthrough star of the contest. She’s fiercely intelligent, rooted in solid Left-wing values, and has a light touch. She may find that the other candidates have more campaign firepower in terms of logistics and money, but she may emerge the winner in terms of reputation.
She was on James O’Brien’s LBC radio show yesterday. After she left the studio, a caller rang in to say: “I didn’t think I would like her. Turns out, she’s really good.” Wherever she ends up, we will be seeing a lot more of Nandy.