Lisa Nandy, the fresh face in Labour’s leadership election, is already a political survivor. As the Conservatives racked up ground-breaking victories across northern England in December’s general election, the MP for Wigan managed to hang on.
As the dire results for her party came in overnight, she argued that the cull had “been a long time coming”: the party had lost touch with ordinary people in Brexit-supporting towns like hers.
Ms Nandy is now one of five competitors to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader who vacates the post in April. Whoever wins has the unenviable task of trying to lead the party of Tony Blair and Clement Attlee out of the political wilderness and back to power. The odds are stacked against them. December brought Labour’s worst defeat in 80 years as the working classes in Britain’s manufacturing heartlands deserted the party founded to represent them.
The front-runners appear to be Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman and former director of public prosecutions, and Rebecca Long Bailey, an acolyte of Mr Corbyn. Yet the Labour membership can be unpredictable. Mr Corbyn, after all, began the 2015 contest as a 200:1 outsider but seized the crown by firing up the left.
This week Ms Nandy launched her campaign in east London, survived a television interrogation from the BBC’s formidable Andrew Neil and gained the backing of the small but totemic National Union of Mineworkers. She could gain momentum if — as some party insiders predict — she wins the support of GMB, one of Britain’s three most powerful unions, on Tuesday.
The 40-year-old is largely untested, having only served briefly on the front bench as shadow energy secretary; she quit alongside others dismayed by the Corbyn leadership and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Owen Smith to replace him in 2016.
Yet supporters believe that she could end the philosophical war between Labour’s radical membership and the more centrist MPs, starting to rebuild the shattered party after four defeats.
Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, compares her to Neil Kinnock, the leader who started Labour’s march back to relevance in the 1980s. “She is from the authentic soft left, trying to . . . build something electorally consistent with our history and identity,” he says. “She was opposed to the Iraq war and privatisations but she is non-doctrinaire.”
Some colleagues are dismissive: “She’s not someone you notice when she walks into a room,” says one MP. Her team admits that she is still an unknown quantity but she has 12 weeks to make an impression. She could benefit from second preferences in Labour’s convoluted voting system.
Britain’s Labour party has only ever been led by white men and Ms Nandy, whose father is Indian, wants to change that. “I don’t look like the leaders that we’ve chosen in the past and I suspect I don’t sound like them either,” she said at her launch. Despite her northern vowels and emphasis on left-behind populations — she co-founded a think-tank, the Centre For Towns — she does not quite match the description of a “good working-class lass” once given her by Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union. Her background is more in line with most of Labour’s increasingly bourgeois, well-heeled urban members.
Ms Nandy was born in Manchester to a Marxist academic father who co-wrote the Race Relations Act 1976. Her grandfather was a Liberal MP. Her mother was a producer at Granada TV who worked on the investigative series World in Action: they split up when she was just seven. She now has one young son of her own.
Educated at a comprehensive school in Manchester, she then studied politics at Newcastle University and obtained a postgraduate degree in London. She briefly took a job as a researcher to a leftwing MP before working at charities including Centrepoint.
Kathy Evans, her former boss at the Children’s Society, says Ms Nandy was a “natural leader” even in her 20s. “She would nurture whatever evidence or relationships she needed to make progress, it wasn’t ideological.” Supporters describe her as “thoughtful”.
She was elected in 2010 as MP for Wigan. George Orwell wrote The Road To Wigan Pier about bleak living conditions suffered by coal miners in the town in the 1930s. Wigan’s economy — dominated by low-skilled jobs — still struggles.
A decade ago Ms Nandy was seen as a left-winger but Labour’s membership has become so radical that her views are now moderate in comparison. Despite serving for a year in Mr Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, she joined the stampede of shadow ministers quitting within hours of the EU referendum result. One person close to her said she had been asked to return to the front bench several times: the piano-playing Britney Spears fan declined, in order to spend time with her son.
From the backbenches, she spent the last three years analysing the anger which propelled Brexit. Despite having voted Remain in 2016, she considered backing Theresa May’s deal. Her emphasis on addressing the concerns of Leave voters makes some northern Tories nervous. But it may make it harder for her to win over Labour’s largely pro-EU membership.
Still, her blunt message has caught the mood of emergency among Labour supporters: “If we do not change course we will die and we will deserve to do so.”
The writers are the FT’s chief political correspondent and northern correspondent