Labour must show it can be trusted with UK’s finances, says Lisa Nandy

Labour must woo voters who rejected the party at the 2019 election by showing it can be trusted with the public finances and sounding optimistic about the UK’s future, according to shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy.

She warned of the need for Britain’s main opposition party to reconnect with so-called red wall voters in its former heartlands of the Midlands and northern England, many of whom switched their support to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is pulling the party back to the centre ground of British politics after its heavy defeat under his leftwing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn at the general election two years ago.

Ahead of the Labour conference, which begins on Saturday, Nandy told the Financial Times it was important for Labour to prove that it could be “trusted” with the public finances.

Under Corbyn, Labour proposed increasing tax and public spending by £80bn a year while also borrowing £400bn for capital investment.

“In those [Corbyn] years there was a sense . . . that people felt anxious about whether they could trust Labour with their money,” said Nandy, MP for Wigan.

“There was a woman who rang me in the 2015 election and said . . . ‘Don’t promise what you can’t deliver, because it’s our money, love, and we haven’t got a lot of it’. I said to her ‘I agree with that, to be honest’.”

She also poured cold water on the idea that Labour would keep Corbyn’s pledges to nationalise industries including water, rail and energy.

“When people say ‘Just renationalise everything’ I’m instinctively quite sceptical about it,” she said. Her preference is for the greater use of co-operative groups instead.

The shadow foreign secretary acknowledged that Johnson connected with some voters through his optimism and said it was important that Labour showed ambition for the country.

“One of the problems that we’ve had in the party is that, while often we sound like the pessimists, Boris Johnson in particular sounds like the optimist . . . our job is to show that we can match the ambition of the people of this country,” she added.

Nandy, who ran unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership against Starmer, is neither from the “Corbynista” nor the more rightwing “Blairite” side of the party.

Born in Manchester, the 42-year-old worked for charities including Centrepoint before entering parliament in 2010. “I came into politics as much to fight racism as I did to fight poverty,” said Nandy, whose father is a Marxist academic.

Despite supporting Remain in 2016, she was one of a handful of Labour MPs who fought against the party’s backing for what she once called an “absurd” second referendum on UK membership of the EU.

Many voters had felt that Labour was not listening to them when they explained why they wanted Britain to leave the EU, said Nandy.

“There was something quite powerful, difficult and important for Labour about that,” she added. “It said to people that we didn’t respect them, it told them that we weren’t on their side, that we thought we knew better than them about what was in their interests.”

Nandy predicted Johnson would “try to keep the Brexit row going” at the next election. The prime minister consistently portrays Starmer as someone who would have signed up to the initially sluggish EU vaccination programme.


Percentage who think Keir Starmer is performing ‘badly’ in recent poll

But Nandy said she believed most people in the country had now moved on from the Brexit argument.

She insisted the public was warming to Starmer, who had been on a tour of the country during the summer, talking to voters. “They are quite warm about him . . . warmer about him than I’ve seen for a leader since I’ve been in parliament in 2010,” she added.

The latest YouGov poll tells a less flattering story, with 20 per cent of those surveyed thinking Starmer was performing “well” and 59 per cent “badly”.

But Nandy said there was now a public “hunger” to learn more about Labour’s positive agenda after months of the leadership focusing on internal party issues.

During Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as party leader ‘people felt anxious about whether they could trust Labour with their money’, Lisa Nandy said © Toby Melville/Reuters

Having turned the page on the hard-left Corbyn era, Labour was now going to “turn back outwards” to the country, she added.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Johnson government has spent hundreds of billions of pounds propping up the economy through schemes such as the furlough programme. In doing so it has seemed as interventionist — or even more so — than Labour.

Nandy said this should be a cause for optimism for her party. “If the Tories are fighting on our territory, let them come,” she added. “The challenge is to . . . reclaim the territory and show that we can deliver.”

She admitted that on Brexit Labour had consistently looked like it was “fighting the last battle” and that the UK’s departure from the EU was now settled.

But she said a Labour government would start to rebuild ties with the EU. The Brexit deal signed by Johnson and backed by Labour was “a floor not a ceiling” and that Labour would negotiate with Brussels to set up a “formal mechanism” for UK-EU co-operation in key areas, she added.

Nandy said Labour wanted closer working relations with the EU on foreign policy, security, defence and climate change. “Strengthening and deepening that co-operation is really important,” she added.

Meanwhile, she said Labour would take a more sceptical view towards Chinese investment in Britain than the Johnson government, which she claimed had shown a “lax approach” towards screening in areas such as telecoms and nuclear power.


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