The country that lies beneath the surface with Orwell Lecturer, Lisa Nandy
22 February 2023
UCL Policy Lab partnered with the Orwell Foundation this year to host the annual Orwell Lecture. After the event, James Baggaley headed to Wigan to speak with this year’s lecturer Lisa Nandy MP
This interview originally appeared in the UCL Policy Lab Magazine.
It’s in our beginnings that we find so much of who we are. The foundations of who we become. And in all our beginnings, there is a place. A place we call home or at least once did. In these hometowns and neighbourhoods, we forged the stories that carried us into the world. And in the willingness to push us away or pull us close, we understood our sense of belonging.
Yet in the UK, and many other developed nations, there has been a growing divide. Not just geographic but generational. With places often left behind, not just by globalisation but also by those young people forced to move away. The everyday symptoms of which can be seen in the boarded-up high streets of our small towns and the overpriced rents of our big cities.
But what would a politics that genuinely values all places look like? And what could it mean for our everyday lives? I sat down with Lisa Nandy to find out. She spoke about how communities have shaped services, why Whitehall needs to get better at giving away power to those with ‘skin in the game’ and why she’s hopeful for 2023.
In the opening lines of your lecture, you invoked Orwell when you said, “I want to talk to you about the country that lies beneath the surface, and why it is time for that country to take charge of its own destiny.” Do you see your job as Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as helping to unlock the potential of what lies beneath the surface?
A few years ago I sat down for a chat with Danny Boyle. I told him that the incredible opening ceremony that he directed for the 2012 Summer Olympics showcased a country that was confident, proud, compassionate, open, international and at ease with itself. But since then we haven’t really seen that country, as we’ve been swamped with so much chaos and people seeking to divide us from one another. I asked him where he thought that country had gone and he told me it’s still there, just beneath the surface. It’s just waiting for somebody to give voice to it. I see that as part of my job, and as the job of the next Labour government. That’s why we’ve said that if we get into power, we’ll undertake the biggest ever transfer of power out of Westminster and give it back to people and local communities.
In your lecture and recent book, you cite examples of where systems or the state have failed communities. Often, they are actively working against those who seek to transform places or improve lives. How important is it that Labour has answers that support the dynamism and passion of communities?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 13 years as a MP, it’s that those people with a stake in the outcome, and skin in the game, will always try harder. They will think more creatively and do more, because they have no other option. I’ve learned it most from the mums who have come through my constituency surgery with children with disabilities or special educational needs. Without fail they have all mastered – regardless of background – the opaque systems that surround their children’s care. They do it because it matters so much, because they’ve got skin in the game, and because they can do no other.
That dynamism and passion can be found in every community in our country, along with a huge amount of ambition. What we’re lacking is a government that shares that ambition and that will harness all that dynamism and passion. Instead, for decades we have written off most people in most places. The only way to build a country that works is to back all people and all places to make their full contribution. It’s not important for Labour’s future that we deliver that; it’s imperative for the country’s future.
Keir Starmer recently spoke at UCL and set out the plans for a ‘take back control’ bill. How central is the bill and it’s objectives in winning back trust in communities like Wigan?
The phrase ‘take back control’ resonated with people in communities like mine, because for years they have seen power slip further and further away. Good jobs have left and not been replaced. Whole swathes of the country have been written off and written out of our national story. That’s why ‘levelling up’ spoke to many people in 2019. But we haven’t seen enough progress. That’s why we’ve announced plans for a ‘take back control’ bill, to make sure we get power and resources out of Westminster and into the right hands, so we can create good jobs, thriving communities and rebuild this country from the ground up.
You speak with such love about Wigan. It’s not always the case that a politician's constituency or even lifelong home comes to define their politics. How has Wigan shaped your politics?
I’m a very different person, not to mention politician, because of Wigan and the experience our town has gone through in recent decades. It has fundamentally shaped my politics and absolutely shapes my approach to the job I’m in now. What it has taught me is that there is so much ambition, and hope, in our communities. So many ordinary people are doing extraordinary things every day because they have no other choice. If we could harness that ambition – all the skills and assets in every part of our country – we really could build a country that works.
In your lecture, you spoke passionately about the young people forced to move away to find work. As you note, they are often forced to live in overpriced housing far from where they grew up. In some senses, it feels like the other factor in levelling up. Not just the places that are ‘left behind’ but also the people forced to leave.
The reality is that for many young people in many parts of Britain, they have to get out to get on. It means they leave behind home, friends and family, but it also has a devastating effect on the communities they leave behind. Young people leaving means spending power is lost, with knock-on effects for high streets, bus services, pubs, post offices and all the institutions that make up the social fabric of a place. And it means parents and grandparents growing old hundreds of miles from children and grandchildren.
And this is not working for the places those young people are moving to, either. Millions of people head to London, Manchester, Newcastle and cities like them every year searching for better opportunities and higher pay. I know, because 20 years ago I was one of them. And those opportunities and wages are what I found, but what I also found was extortionate housing costs, pollution, congestion, and huge extremes of wealth and poverty. Even the winners are losing, because while we undercook most parts of Britain, we’re overheating places like London.
That’s why we need to rebalance this country and our economy, so that young people enjoy choices and chances wherever they grow up, and they don’t have to get out to get on.
You’ve spoken about the risks posed by politicians who give false promises or fail to bring about change. How important is it that Labour not only wins the election but also delivers change?
I don’t think many people in Westminster – politicians but also journalists and others – realise how close our whole system came to collapse after the referendum in 2016. For a long time we mistook anger for apathy. Westminster thought that people didn’t care when what they really felt was that they weren’t listened to. And they were right. This is why I said recently that our political system has a simple choice to make now: change or die.
At the UCL Policy Lab we are always looking for the optimistic angle on stories, about what give us hope in 2023. When I asked you if this was the busiest year of your life, you didn’t miss a beat in saying ‘definitely.’ Clearly, the UK is facing substantial economic challenges, but you seem energised and hopeful about what can be achieved. Where does that hope come from, and what should we be hopeful for?
The hope comes from a belief that we absolutely can be better. As a country, we can do so much better than this, and the route to that is right there in front of our eyes. There is hope and ambition and passion and brilliance in every community in every corner of Britain. We just need to harness that knowledge and those skills, and we just need a government that shares the ambition of its people and will match it with real backing. That country that lies just beneath the surface is still there, as ambitious and capable as ever. We just need to give it a voice.
Lisa Nandy delivered the Orwell Memorial Lecture at UCL on 6 December 2022.
Watch back the lecture - Wigan, the World and Everywhere in Between - How We Build a Country That Works.
Read the Latest UCL Policy Lab Magazine.