Lisa Nandy can be the Labour leader to reconnect with towns

The Wigan MP is best placed to bridge the urban-rural divide and get Labour back to power.

It has become abundantly clear since last Thursday evening that Labour’s long path back to power lies predominantly through towns.

Of the 123 seats that the party needs to win at the next election, 104 are in towns rather than cities, according to the Fabian Society.

The party must consider carefully which potential leader can win support in towns across the north, Midlands and Wales, as part of a unified movement which maintains the backing of big cities. The future of the party, and left politics in the UK, depends on it.

Overcoming geographical and generational divides

Winning over towns is not only of geographical significance, in building bridges between urban and rural areas. It is also intimately linked to closing the UK’s generational gap, and ensuring that the Labour party is for the old as well as young.

That is because our towns are ageing at a much faster rate than our cities. Research by the Centre for Towns think tank, founded by Lisa Nandy MP, showed that between 1981 and 2011, three-quarters of the increase in 45-64 year olds and over-65s across the country took place in villages, communities, and small and medium sized towns. By contrast, 80% of the growth in 25-44 year olds occurred in large towns and core cities.

The swell of young people getting involved in politics and shaping the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership has been exciting and great for democracy. But this has mainly been a city-driven phenomenon.

In a country with a rapidly ageing population, a party’s support needs to span age groups. Our demographic reality means that even if every young person voted, they would be outvoted by older people. Electoral success lies through an intergenerational approach, which means performing well in towns as well as cities.

Lisa Nandy: a champion for towns

Lisa Nandy’s understanding of this need, demonstrated through her work with the Centre for Towns, should make her a forerunner in the upcoming Labour leadership battle, and at the very least a key part of the next shadow cabinet.

Nandy has over a number of years advocated for policies such as town-focused devolution, improved transport networks including bus routes, better digital infrastructure and an economic approach that ensures good local jobs in towns.

An industrial strategy that more evenly spread opportunities to towns as well as cities would help reduce the urban-rural divide currently causing such dilemmas for the Labour party, and start to build a more unified nation.

The generational divide, partly caused by young people being forced to move to big cities in search of work, would also be lessened – helping Labour to be a party for all ages.

These town-focused economic policies need not be a stark break from some of John McDonnell’s thinking as shadow chancellor.

Promoting ‘The Preston Model’, which sees councils work closely with local institutions like the NHS, police and colleges to invest money back into the local community, can help bring economic power to the people of towns. This is an approach the new Labour leader should take to new heights rather than halt.

Of course, the challenge is to communicate these policies through a narrative that people find meaningful – as Labour could not this time around.

A cultural offer to towns

Where Nandy and the Centre for Towns need to expand is the cultural sphere. Labour are not going to win over towns on economics alone.

The biggest differences between the views of older towns and younger cities is on the social liberal-conservative spectrum, rather than the left-right economic spectrum.

For example, Hope Not Hate found the 100 neighbourhoods with the highest concentrations of people with a positive attitude towards multiculturalism are all in major cities or near universities, while the 100 areas most opposed are in towns or on city outskirts.

On the one hand, this offers hope to Labour because voters of different geographic location and age have been shown to back economic policies like better-funded public services and more support for private renters in the face of exploitative landlords. And recent polling has shown that Labour policies like higher taxes on wealth and nationalisation broadly poll well.

On the other hand, Labour are only going to unite young and old around economic causes if they connect with voters in towns on cultural issues. This needs to include a focus on things like fighting crime in communities and national security – the latter on which Corbyn was not convincing.

It should also include policies to bring people from different backgrounds together for social contact, to improve integration and reduce cultural worries about those from different ethnic groups.

Lisa for leader?

Having an in-depth understanding of towns, which Labour needs to win over 100 of at the next election, puts Lisa Nandy in a strong position to take the party forward.

There are certainly other important qualities that Labour’s next leader needs to have, including more firmly tackling antisemitism and engaging much better with the media, but Nandy should at the very least be at the heart of Labour’s new direction of travel.

Sam Dalton is a progressive activist working in policy on issues including social integration and tackling loneliness. Follow him on Twitter here.

14 Responses to “Lisa Nandy can be the Labour leader to reconnect with towns”

  1. Michael McManus

    Interesting – but what about the boundary changes that some say could lose Labour 30 seats, and ending postal vote fraud which (allegedly) could lose a few more.
    Aren’t there dangers in dividing voters up in this way, or in any way? Are young people’s interests opposed to old people’s? Will younger voters still be in favour of wealth taxes and property taxes when they realise their parental home or its market value will be funding the NHS and not them?
    Seems to me Labour is spoilt for choice in the coming election – but will members realise that the Corbyn experiment has failed? I’d go for Jess Phillips myself. She was the only MP who stood up to those Birmingham mobs and seems free of ideological baggage too.

  2. nhsgp

    Michael, add in another 20-30 seats because the Brexit party did Labour a favour and split their vote.
    10 seats for postal vote fraud say.
    ID cards. Depends on how its done, but it could really be used to disenfranchise. Insist on a Passport for example. Ban benefits ID.

    Your idea tax property won’t work. The debts all of them are on the young anyway. £550,000 of socialist debts, and that’s the issue. They can’t pay that. No one can. So you have to axe state pensions, public sector pensions.

    Jess Phillips. She will be shredded. Anyone who says they were brought up to hate Tories is no different from someone who is brought up to hate blacks or gays.

  3. Michael McManus

    Hi NHSGP – don’t quite understand your point about debt. What I was driving at was that policies ought to be aimed at the population as a whole, not special interest groups with their own (sometimes antagonistic) agendas. This sets up jealousies among the voters and needless conflict. We really are all in this together.
    When Phillips said what she said maybe she meant Toryism (as she understood it) rather than individual people – so it would not be the same as hating gays. But she is notoriously potty mouthed. Seems unlikely that whoever gets the lead in march will survive the bloodletting that is likely over the next few years. Maybe the next Labour PM is still in her cradle!

  4. Alice Aforethought

    Generally speaking, you should elect the leader your opponents most fear.

    The Conservatives fear nobody in 2019 Labour. Literally nobody. There is time for 3 or 4 leaders to fail.

    Last Thursday’s GE result was a 2-, perhaps 3-term majority.

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