On Lisa Nandy and Open Selections

10 years ago the Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Krugman, recounted an anecdote from the 1980s, at a time when the Democratic Party was trying its hardest to abandon its labour roots in favour of big business. 

“I suspect it was in Mark Alan Stamaty’s Washingtoon, but can’t be sure — there was a joke about Democrats laying out their new platform. The principles of the platform were tax cuts for the rich, big spending on the military, and cuts in programs that help the poor and workers. One Democrat asked, ‘How does this make us different from the Republicans.’ The answer was, ‘Compassion: we care about the victims of our policies.’”

I’m reminded of this each time I hear Lisa Nandy speak. With her earnest tone and furrowed brow, she wags her finger pointedly at the audience. Casting herself as a very serious and concerned politician and the only grownup in the room, she delivers 'hard truths' and scolds those naughty sections of the membership who were far too spoiled in the Corbyn years. It would be unfair to say that Nandy is unprincipled. For Nandy, it has always been crucial that members remember their place, as spectators - not participants - of the Westminster soap opera.

In fact this principle runs so deep that she was willing to stake her entire career on it, playing a leading role as a shadow cabinet member in the coup which sought to oust Corbyn in 2016, despite his overwhelming popularity among members. “I want someone who is not interested in the 80s fighting the 90s but is interested in what the decades to come will bring for this country,” she lectured bewildered members who sought to know why it was imperative the lifelong, principled socialist they adored should be immediately replaced as Labour leader by a former lobbyist for big pharma.

Though she’ll never say it out loud, her deeply felt, lofty aversion to politics driven by progressive social movements is betrayed not only by her record and patronising manner but also by her consistent refusal to back any meaningful proposals to increase party democracy. “To be honest, I’d rather that we were getting rid of Tory MPs than Labour ones,” she recently quipped in response to a question about whether she supported the introduction of open selections prior to each general election. The proposal would enable new candidates from within the party to stand against existing Labour MPs in a democratic selection process to decide who should contest the general election. It would end the privilege enjoyed by many Labour MPs in safe seats of having no accountability to anyone and a job for life.

It is, ironically, the absence of such a system which has led to the severe dearth of talent, inspiration and energy in the Parliamentary Labour Party today and, by extension, to Lisa Nandy’s leadership bid. To illustrate this point compare Nandy (who since winning her safe Wigan seat in 2010 has been automatically selected as the Labour candidate at three subsequent elections) to the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In 2018 the unknown New York waitress was able to take advantage of open primaries to defeat her Democratic rival for congress, the veteran Joe Crowley, and contest the general election on a progressive platform of medicare for all and a federal jobs guarantee. 

A moving speaker and remarkable media performer, Ocasio-Cortez was subsequently elected to congress and, along with a number of other talented new faces selected in open primaries, has completely revitalised the Democratic Party from within. It is thanks to open primaries that the Green New Deal, perhaps civilisation’s last hope of survival, is now firmly on the political agenda in the US. It is also largely because of the endorsement of open primary winning congresswomen that a Jewish socialist is today the frontrunner in the race to become the Democratic nominee and take on Trump for the presidency in November.

There is little doubt that if a similar system existed in the British Labour Party, enabling energetic progressive candidates to take on rivals and contest elections, we too could have our own versions of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Instead we have politicians like Nandy who use every media opportunity to carefully cast themselves in the most politically anodyne light imaginable. “I think on the whole the media does a good job of reflecting this country,” Nandy recently told a silently stunned Piers Morgan who had been hoping to be able to push back against something, anything, remotely left wing.

Recently she responded to the deputy leadership candidate, Richard Burgon’s suggestion that Labour members be polled before future leaders take the country to war. Whether this suggestion is in fact workable or not, modern Labour’s shameful foreign policy history might suggest it deserves careful and sensitive consideration from any prospective leader. Not, however, from Nandy who barked she "can't disagree more.” Keen to stress the importance of going to war without the permission of pesky members, and invoking the “responsibility to protect” argument favoured by hawks and arms lobbyists across the west, Nandy echoed Hillary Benn’s warmongering speech in parliament immediately preceding the vote to bomb Syria in 2015: “At times in our history, there have been moments where we have had to stand up and go and protect people all over the world,” she said, her brow fully furrowed and finger wagging pointedly, “we have a responsibility to protect and we have obligations to people outside our borders and that’s the kind of Labour party I will lead.”

In the end I suspect every one of us knows at least one person - probably several - among our friends, family and acquaintances, who would make a better politician, a more inspiring leader, and a more effective voice for progressive change than Lisa Nandy. The fact that she is, perhaps fairly, considered one of the most talented politicians in the Parliamentary Labour Party serves as a thoroughly depressing reminder of Corbyn’s failure to democratise the party and empower the membership while he still could.

The repercussions of that may well be felt for decades here. In the meantime events across the Atlantic may provide us with some solace.