In conversation: Liz Kendall and Lisa Nandy sit down to reflect on their own political traditions within Labour, and where the party heads next
How did you come to your politics?
LISA: ‘I came into parliament after nearly a decade in the voluntary sector. I think part of what motivated me was how I’d worked with children and young people in some of the most desperate situations. I had seen government come in and do some very, very good things for young homeless teenagers, for children in care. Less good on young refugees and asylum seekers because of the very draconian asylum legislation. I’d seen some of these very real improvements in a lot of children’s lives. I’d seen how the voluntary sector can help with that as well. In the end, for so many of the children that we worked with, what their lives looked like had been largely determined before they were even born. That’s about power and distribution of power in this country, and the fact that many of those opportunities were just absolutely closed off to young people because they lacked not just wealth, but voice and influence, and opportunity. In the end, only politics can change that and that’s what motivated me to stand for parliament. That’s what motivates me still.’
LIZ: ‘I’m Labour because I believe in solidarity – that we achieve more together than we do alone – and that everyone should have the chance to fulfil their potential, no matter where you’re born, what your parents did, your gender, sexuality or the colour of your skin. I’ve always considered myself a moderniser rather than being stuck with the label of any previous leader. It doesn’t help because the world has moved on. I have always believed that the key to being a moderniser is thinking about the ends rather than the means that your policies will change as the world around you changes. What we proposed in 2010 has moved on, let alone 1997. I have strong views about the kind of society that I believe Labour should be fighting for. The way that we achieve that isn’t set in stone. So that’s how I see my politics. Also, the main reason I don’t see myself now as a Blairite, although I was very supportive in the past, is that I felt that New Labour, especially towards the end, was very centralised, top-down targets, and controlling. That helped with some problems in the past but that’s not fit for the future now. Actually, we didn’t do anywhere near enough to give people power and control over their lives.’
What is it about Labour politics that should have changed sooner?
LISA: ‘When I first came across Liz properly, to think through some of these issues with, was when I was doing the shadow children’s minister job. She was in the shadow cabinet as the shadow minister for older person care. Both of us had come to very similar conclusions about the change that was needed in those areas. States and markets don’t have the answers – people have the answers. Where the state is needed is to intervene, to give people the support and the help they need in order to change their own lives. The strongest asset that most people have is their relationships with other people and that, when the state intervenes far too often it either ignores those relationships, or worse, as we saw particularly with children in care, it drives a coach and horses through those relationships at exactly the time people need them most.’
LIZ: ‘My biggest criticism of when we were in government was that we were far too slow to realise the impacts that globalisation was having on communities. We were driven, understandably, by support in big cities, but if you look at post-industrial towns, some of our coastal areas, former pit villages, for whole swaths of the country, the economy was not working for them, they have been left out and left behind. They have not seen any so-called benefits of globalisation in their pay packets or their local public services. Actually, for me … We often talk as a party about inequalities in income, but it is about wealth and power too.
‘The referendum campaign was, for me, far worse than even in 2010 when people were angry about MPs’ expenses. It was unleashed. I was our east Midlands champion on the EU. There was an outburst of anger, that nobody had listened. I can remember one particularly difficult day on one high street. We’re talking about the benefits of the EU and the jobs it brings to the region. People looked around and said, “It can’t be any worse than this”.’
Where does ‘power’ fit in to Labour’s politics today?
LIZ: ‘I don’t want to run anybody’s life – I want to give people power to make the choices that they want. That goes into much deeper questions, I believe, about poverty and inequality, as well as decent public services, but I am not from that centralising wing that’s been so strong in our party before. I also believe that what matters hugely to people, which [is when] I really first started talking to Lisa, was about their families and their relationships with their families, and their community. How much that means to people; the state can help create the right environment. Actually, building those bonds between people is one of the things that people value most.’
LISA: ‘That sort of agenda about power and relationships unites a lot of us in the Labour party from left to right. It goes beyond the old left-right politics and it’s an important agenda because I think it speaks to the challenges we have now and that we have coming down the line in the future. Too much of the debate in Labour for such a long time has been backwards-looking and left us without anything to say about the real challenges that people are facing now. I think one of the things that Liz has done particularly is to challenge views in the Labour party, including mine, that often looks to the state for the answers. Looks to the state to intervene, the state to solve things, more spending, this is the solution. I think all the way through the last parliament Liz was very good at turning the spotlight back on ourselves and saying we’ve got to challenge some of these assumptions.
‘I think where, perhaps, we differ is that I tend to look much more to the problem created by markets. Particularly, for me, the great, great challenge in the 21st century is about the power of global corporations in relation to nation states and the impact that has on people living in Wigan and Leicester in their actual day-to-day lives. Their ability then to live larger, more meaningful lives.’
Has a critique of markets been lacking in the party?
LIZ: ‘I think you’re often forged in the fire of the politics that you grew up in [in the 1990s]. We knew that people didn’t trust us on the economy, they didn’t think that we liked business, and certainly we were always consciously giving a message that we backed businesses, we wanted wealth-creation, that we supported it. I think the counterbalance to that was that as the nature of the economy changed and as the ability of nation states to deal with global economic challenges actually diminished, we didn’t recognise it quickly enough or come up with the solutions quickly enough. That’s what I think happened.’
LISA: ‘I think there’s something else that I saw happen over that time period as well, which was about this kind of notion that you give everyone a shot at living the good life and then it’s largely up to them whether they succeed or not, the kind of sink-or-swim approach. I feel there’s something deeper going on behind that, about this tension between individuals and collectives.’
How about Labour’s historic challenge now, in 2016?
LISA: ‘Here’s the challenge for Labour as I see it: three-quarters of people in this country work in the private sector, but when was the last time that we had something meaningful to say to them about all of these challenges? We’ve seen the rise of the self-employed, the growth of people in old age who are genuinely quite anxious about the future of the Labour party. We’ve got these massive challenges, the aging population which Liz started to grapple with when she was doing that brief and then Heidi [Alexander] was grappling with as shadow health secretary. We’ve got real issues about how we move away from being an economy based on fossil fuels to one being based on clean energy, without further disadvantaging people who work in the North Sea and in communities who have relied on those industries for decades.
‘It’s really difficult when you look back on the Labour party in the last decade to see when we’ve had anything, perhaps even longer, when we’ve had anything meaningful to say about it.’
LIZ: ‘Especially since the referendum result, I feel there is a kind of sense of us being a divided country, let alone a divided party, but a divided country between those who voted ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, those who are pro- or anti-immigration. Those who live in multicultural metropolitan cities and those that don’t. Something has happened in our politics where anyone who seeks to try and find what we have in common is considered to be weak, ineffective, lacks passion, conviction or ideology. We’ve all got to live together and real leadership is not simply about doing everything for those who agree with you.’
LISA: ‘Where I really agree with Liz is that Labour must be able to speak for both the middle and the working classes. There is a lot that unites the middle and working classes in this country.
‘I would challenge this sort of notion that you have this core traditional Labour base, who need Labour and therefore vote Labour. Then you have a group of people for whom it’s a take-it-or-leave-it, but we’ve got to persuade them to come in with us to help other people. What I see happening in my constituency and I saw in places like Sunderland in the referendum campaign, Middlesbrough and other areas that I went to. That core who need a Labour government don’t see Labour as the answer.’
What reasons do you see to be cheerful?
LIZ: ‘Despite all the traumas we’re going through in the party, the reason that I feel optimistic about the future is that the Tories will never make the changes in our economy that will redistribute power, wealth and opportunity. Some of the first things that have gone through under Theresa May are these inheritance and capital gains tax cuts, which give more and more power, and wealth, to those who’ve already got it, and the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools, which will entrench and widen social inequalities. They will never be able to make the changes that we need.’
LISA: ‘There is a big challenge back to all of us I think because every party talks in opposition, about trusting people and letting go. When they get into power they tend to centralise. That’s the challenge for us: to develop a real alternative to this government that we could be confident that we could hold when we went into government. Like I said before, I feel we haven’t done this, we really haven’t. After this leadership contest is over, we’ve got to do it.’
Liz Kendall MP is former shadow minister for care. Lisa Nandy MP is former shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.