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.