Lisa Nandy on UK’s productivity challenges, regional inequalities, and the politics of economic reform
Featuring LISA NANDY
On this episode, we talk to Lisa Nandy to unpack the politics of economic reform, issues around state capacity, and empowering local communities to be a part of decision-making. Nandy is a member of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and has been a Member of Parliament for Wigan since 2010. She currently serves as the Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, Communities & Local Government. In the past, she has served as Shadow Foreign Secretary, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and Shadow Minister for Education.
Nandy has a new book out titled All In: How We Build a Country that Works, where she unpacks the range of socioeconomic challenges that the UK faces, including the winners and losers from globalization, regional inequalities, and underinvestment, and outlines a vision for inclusive development.
Nandy shares her thoughts on the UK’s productivity challenges; the politics of economic reforms, including why liberals all over the world were unable to understand the level of economic discontentment; and how she looks back at the economic legacies of Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. We then turn our attention to regional inequalities, the leveling up agenda, and the need to devolve power and build state capacity.
"You cannot power a modern economy if you write off the contribution of most people and most places, and you can't have a cohesive society if you write people out of your national story. Everyone has a stake in the future of this country, and they have to believe that again."
This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Note: This transcript was automatically generated and contains errors.
Rohan: Lisa Nandy, thank you for joining us on the show.
Lisa: Thanks for having me.
Rohan: Well, Lisa, I've had a chance to read your great new book, and before we dive into the content of the book - you've played a variety of roles in the opposition in UK politics in the past decade. What is it that made you want to write this book and what are you hoping it accomplishes?
Lisa: I've had 13 years as the MP for a town Wigan in the northwest of England, which is a former mining town. Some of your listeners might be familiar with it through the "The Road to Wigan Pier", which was a very famous George Orwell book. And over that time, Wigan, like many former coal-field communities, has been at the center of the big waves of political upheaval that we've seen in Britain, and that I think have been experienced in the United States and across the world. We saw huge rise in support for populism. We saw falling voter turnout for a long time. We thought people were apathetic but actually they were just angry. We've seen a rise in nationalism and of course a huge vote to leave the European Union, which was concentrated in towns like mine. And for all of that time, political commentators, politicians, journalists, have largely, not exclusively, but largely taken all the wrong cues from what the electorate has been trying to tell us. I wanted to write this book because the 13 years that I've spent as Wigan's representative has changed me, it's changed my politics, and it's given me a far better understanding, not just of the challenges that countries like Britain and many liberal democracies face, but also about how much better things could be if we understood and respected the contribution that people in places like Wigan have to make.
Rohan: Well, there are many of those issues that I want to follow up on. But before I do that, your book talks about your mother being one of the first women to be a producer on TV and running a newsroom, and your father being an immigrant. How did this shape your approach to your role, and to your understanding of the UK's challenges?
Lisa: I love that you started with my mom, because usually the conversation centers around my dad, my granddad. Every man I've ever met in politics, and I've had to remind so many commentators, I do have a mother as well (laughs), who actually has been the most profound influence on my life. This was a generation of women who broke lots of glass ceilings, but they didn't just get to do it all - to have it all, is to do it all. They were still doing the bulk of the childcare, and the family pressures, the cleaning, the cooking, as well as trying to be, in my mom's case, the chief breadwinner in the house. And so really go out and set the agenda and to go where women hadn't gone before. And I learned from her and from a lot of women in her generation that it's possible, change is possible. And that you should never limit your ambitions, but it's hard and you've got to be realistic about that.
And I think from my dad, particularly with him being an immigrant to this country, an academic, which has been quite an important influence on me, I think I've learned a few things. I've learned to treat your opponents not as enemies but as opponents, people from whom you have something to learn as well as something to teach. That you defeat their argument at its strongest point, not at its weakest point? And you engage and grapple with the perspective that they have. And I think particularly as an immigrant, I think a lot of immigrants will say this, that my dad sees a slight tangent to the world. He has a slightly different perspective than most of the people that I know, and that has been enormously helpful for me because British politics can be incredibly insular and your world can shrink so much. And actually when you lift your eyes up to the horizon, which very few politicians get the chance to do, you start to see that real change is possible. And I think him being an immigrant to this country from India, that has been one of the things, the gifts, that that has given me.
Rohan: I want to dive into so many of those topics, the politics, the economics, the localism that you talk about in your book. So let's get started at a higher level, talking about the socioeconomic challenges that the UK faces. One of the things I was most intrigued by was that you use language typically used in developing countries while describing some of the challenges that the UK faces. For instance, when you talk about the UK's productivity problems, but then you draw more direct comparison to something you witnessed during your trip to Indonesia as Shadow Foreign Secretary. You write, "just like the young people in Tunisia we met earlier, they're the casualties of the system that creates winners and losers. The few who hold power and will not relinquish it easily. And the many, many people who are denied a say over the things that matter in their lives, community and country." Now, you've written a whole book in this, but help us unpack this briefly. How do you relate all of this to the political changes in the UK over the past decade, but also in the past couple of months?
Lisa: I think many of your listeners, particularly in the United States, will be familiar with the idea that far too few people have control over their own lives, their families, their communities, and the future of their country. I think that was something that 10 years ago, when I started out as Wigan's MP, was not well understood at all. But through the big waves of political change, whether it was the election of Donald Trump in the United States that lots of people didn't see coming, or the vote to leave the European Union in the UK, I think more people now do understand that there's a real problem when a small group of people hold a very tight grip.
It's not just that it writes off the contribution that other people have to make. It's felt as profoundly disrespectful, almost a sort of casual kind of violence to the people that are being afflicted by it, having things being done to them, while they watch the things that matter most to them falling apart. But it's also that it's such a tragedy for a country like Britain, where in every community of our country you've got people who are in it for the long haul, who have a stake in the outcome and skin in the game, and they're working harder, they're trying longer, they're being more creative in order to solve problems and build things that last for the future. But so often the system is stacked against them when they try to do that.
And the purpose of writing the book was to argue that if we flipped that system, if they felt the whole system pulling in behind them rather than banging up against them when they tried to create change, we could build a country that works again.
Rohan: So you just talked about the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election in the US. And in general you write a lot about political polarization across the world. Why do you think conservatives have been able to tap into the sentiment on the ground better than liberals? And what has prevented liberals, all over the world pretty much, from being able to see and understand this economic discontent?
Lisa: I think in Britain, it's certainly two things, and I felt this a little bit in the United States when I came over just after the Brexit vote and met with Hillary Clinton's campaign team, who were phenomenally interesting people, running campaigns that were miles ahead of the sort of techniques that we have here in the UK. And I learned a lot from them. But there was a really striking moment where I said to them, we've got this huge problem in Britain on the left. Because our traditional voter coalition, the older working class people that I represent in Wigan and the younger, more university-educated, socially liberal voters are largely now concentrated in our major cities. There's a huge disconnect here. And there are very different experiences of globalization, very different social attitudes, and we've lost the ability to speak for both. What do you do to deal with those challenges? And the answer was, well, those older working class rural voters really have nowhere else to go. So we pursue our agenda and they have to come on board.
That was the moment I think where I started to think, my goodness me, Donald Trump is going to be President of the United States because it was such a similar phenomenon to the one that we've been dealing with here in Britain. And I think that's partly a consequence of - whether you call them liberals in the United States, we call them socialists here in Britain, it's went out of fashion for a while, but it's back - but the sort of progressives in global politics, I think partly as a consequence have shrunk into a very narrow group of people who are drawn from a very narrow socioeconomic background. In Britain, most leading actors in the Labor Party tend to live in London and have lived in London for most of their lives. I think there has been a sense in which we've lost the ability to understand the country that we want to lead, but I think it goes further than that in some parts of the left as well. A profound lack of respect or understanding for people their way of life, their views, their priorities. I think we're starting to repair that here in Britain. But that's been a major factor.
And then I think the second issue really for us here in the UK, which might be a particular UK issue, is that England in particular, not Scotland and Wales, but England is a very small sea conservative country instinctively. And to vote labor, which people have only done three times in our hundred year history, it's a bit of a leap for most people. It's a leap of faith. They'll do it if they really believe that we have a compelling story to tell about the country, but it's not the default and it's not the status quo. We don't win by default. And so the bar is always higher. And that that's not me complaining about that, that's just a recognition that it's always going to be higher for us.
And simultaneously we have to do two things. We have to convince people that they can trust us, that they're safe with us. People, working class people, who have far more to lose. If we get things wrong on the economy, they lose their homes, they lose their jobs. If we get things wrong on foreign policy, their children go off to war, they lose their lives. They are far more at the sharp end of these decisions. So we have to show that we can be trusted, but we also have to show that real change is possible. And that, really between now and the next general election here in Britain, is our task. We've got to make hope convincing people at a time when it feels anything but.
Rohan: My general sense, as is the sense of many commentators, is that the left liberals, progressives - that entire category of policy makers generally - have a problem with creating a narrative around their causes. You know, it's famously stated that republicans or the right in general makes their policies and headlines, whereas the left makes its policies in white papers. Given this, how do you see your work cut out for you over the next three years?
Lisa: I think we complicate things on the left and I think that that partly a consequence. Certainly in Britain, we've always been a coalition of working class people, particularly through the trades union movement who came together to build the formal the Labor Party, to have a political wing of the trade union movement. And a group of intellectuals, middle class intellectuals - of which my family are very much in that camp; my dad's an Indian academic, my mom was university educated as well. But I think that it's partly a tendency of this intellectual strain within the left, that we tend to overcomplicate things in a way that many of the right wing populists particularly are much better at simplifying things.
But I don't think that's inevitable, when I go around the country and I listen to people talking about their priorities. The government recently here published a huge prospectus for what they call "leveling up", dealing with places that have been left behind and left out of the gains of globalization. And they had these 30 missions, which were incredibly complicated. But actually most people that I met said, the problem we've got here is that young people have to get out to "get on". That's a very Northern England phrase, but it basically means that, you know, if your kids want to do well, they've got to move away for work home for work, for study, for better wages. Because there isn't enough for them back home, and they can't stay and contribute. And I think we could learn a lot actually from the people that we're trying to represent. Because they don't overcomplicate it. It's fairly straightforward and you're right, we've got to get better at doing that.
Rohan: So I'm going to put a pin on "leveling up" and the topic around regional inequalities for just a moment. In his recent book, "The Middle Out", Michael Tomasky lays blame on Republicans and conservatives in politics and academia. But he also holds Presidents Clinton and Obama accountable for not changing the rules of the game nearly enough and perhaps of being more incremental in their approaches. Based on where you sit today, as one of the architects of the Labor Party's economic agenda, how do you evaluate Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's legacies? And how does the party's economic thinking today differ from that of the past?
Lisa: This is something that I've grappled with quite a lot. I read the Ta-Nehisi Coates book, "We Were Eight Years in Power", and I thought it was fascinating, both in terms of identifying where the groundwork that led to Trump wasn't challenged sufficiently, but also perhaps I think it made me reflect on how it's much easier in hindsight to see the problems. And certainly that's true of people like me who've been somewhat critical of new Labor legacy here in the UK. Very, very positive about many of the things that we changed, particularly the transformational change, things like the minimum wage and our equalities legislation that was a game changer for young people from LGBTQ+ plus backgrounds, and has become very much part of the established norms here in the UK.
But there was a problem, and it was that essentially we left the economic model unchanged. That we thought that you could power a major economy in a modern country using only a handful of people in a handful of sectors, in a few small parts of the country. And the offer for most other parts of Britain was either public sector investment, which went completely when the conservatives came to power, or it was redistribution. And as Sir Keir Starmer said in a speech that we worked on a couple of weeks ago, for far too much of the country there's been only a one word plan for the last four decades: redistribution. But people have a contribution to make. And by writing off that contribution, we haven't just written them off and the places that they call home, we've written them out of the national story as well.
And that just won't stick anymore. It won't fly. For two reasons. One, because people have said so, and in the end in a democracy, people always win. But also because it's just fundamentally not working for our economy. It doesn't produce enough to help sustain decent high streets and thriving communities and good public services, particularly our National Health Service, which was once a crown jewel in Britain and has been systematically run down for the last decade. And if we want to rebuild all of those things, we've got to start spreading power and opportunity and prosperity far more widely across the country.
Rohan: I do want to dive into that much more now while talking about the UK's economic challenge. You summarize these very well in your book, in your discussion on winners and losers. But you also point to the intersection of these winners and losers with place and regional inequalities. As you also just said, we've written off the contribution of most people. We've written off the contribution of most places too. Help us understand this intersection better. And what is the nature of regional inequalities across the country?
Lisa: In Britain, for a hundred years, we've been trying to deal with the fact that we are regionally one of the most unequal countries in the world. Each of our early economic activities is concentrated in a handful of sectors, particularly the financial sector and particularly in the city of London. But over the last few decades, we've pursued a model of investing in cities in order to try to reboot regions and hoping that the benefits would trickle out to other places. Just as trickle-down economics, the idea that you can unleash what the conservatives here call the "wealth creators" at the top to make super massive amounts of money, that you then tax and push down to others, just as that is now a thoroughly discredited model, so is the idea that by investing in some places the benefits are felt far more widely? Largely speaking, not exclusively, but largely speaking, it just hasn't been the case and it's becoming a real problem for Britain.
In those coastal and industrial towns that within living memory powered the world, not only are people thoroughly disillusioned, but these are the places that offer us the most potential. As we go through the energy revolution and deal with the climate crisis, these are the places that we ought to be investing in, and ought to be recognizing and respecting the assets that exist there, and the contribution that people have to make. But for far too long, we haven't done that. And that's partly a consequence of being "place blind" in the way that we do policy. We've seen groups of people, whether it's older people struggling to heat their homes, younger people, children growing up in poverty. We've seen groups of people, but what we haven't seen is places, and now that's starting to change. Not just in Britain, I think that's starting to change all over the world.
And there are some countries that are much further ahead on this. I mean, Germany is a really good example of where they've been much better at seeing places, and they give much more equality and equal weight to different parts of Germany. In part a consequence of their history and their very difficult legacy post-war, and not wanting to see power concentrated in one place, but I think there is a lot that we can learn from countries like Germany about how to spread that opportunity far more widely.
Rohan: Say more about the potential you see in some of these left behind regions in terms of the climate transition.
Lisa: Britain is an island, so you know we're a pretty windy place. As those listeners who know Britain well, will know. In some parts of Britain, we have a really thriving wind industry, off the northeast lands. For example, in Grimsby, in Yorkshire, there was a decision 20 years ago to invest in wind energy and as a consequence, young people from Grimsby our powering the world from the Grimsby docks. This is a place that had become very deprived because of the loss of much of the fishing industry. But has found a new industry and is really at the forefront of developing new technology. And in many of the former mining towns, we've still got this huge legacy of expertise from those days in the mines and the mills. We have engineering expertise. We teach young people from all over the world to study engineering, but then we don't create the jobs here in the UK in order for them to have those opportunities closer to home. And if we got on the front foot, if we were able to see the potential in those places and to start investing and backing our people, if we had a government that matched the ambition that is found in all of those places amongst all people, despite 40 years of relative economic decline, we could really start to turn around Britain's current national malaise and start to do things better.
But it's my view and it's one of the central arguments of the book, that in order to do that, you've got to move decision making and resources out of the capital and into those communities, where people don't just see the problems, but they see the potential that exist there.
Rohan: In this context, how do you see the role of the leveling up agenda. And to build on some of our previous questions, why was it that this agenda was one that the Tories were able to identify and not the Labor Party in its previous forms.
Lisa: I think that's partly a consequence of what we were talking about earlier, about the shrinking of the progressive left into people who come from a particular background and live in particular parts of the country. And I think that there has grown up a real cultural disconnect. There's a man called Michael Young, who you might be familiar with, who was a major figure in the labor movement here in Britain, who wrote a book about the meritocracy. It was an allegory, it was a warning about what would happen if we were to move from a very aristocratic country, which he profoundly rejected, this idea that you can be born into privilege and hold onto privilege and pass it down through the generations. But to move from that to a meritocracy, he was warning 50 years ago that this would be a big problem because the winners would continue to win. They would change the logic of the system in order to support themselves and to ensure they continue to do. But now the losers from that settlement would own their own sense of failure.
And that is exactly what has happened. So if you don't succeed in modern Britain, it's largely as your fault. And people have almost internalized that sense of failure. You could hear it running right through the language of the David Cameron era, about the "wealth creators", that we had to back the wealth creators. These were the super rich, the winners from globalization. And my view is that they're not the wealth creators, actually, the people who create the wealth are the ordinary men and women, who power our factories and heat our homes and deliver our mail and teach our children. Those are the people that you've got to back if you want the country to do well.
But to do that, it requires a complete shift in mindset. Yesterday I was at the Royal Society of Arts, one of our great institutions. I was talking to Andy Haldane, who is a former chief economist at the Bank of England, who's been working with the conservative government to write their leveling up agenda. And he was saying, everybody in this room is essentially here because the education system that we have worked for people like us, this very academic education system and exam based, it works for people like us, but it doesn't work for are largely not in this room. And we shouldn't kid ourselves that we are here on merit. We're here because the system has been designed to help people like us. Well, what if we changed, what if we started thinking much more creatively about how to equip young people with both vocational and academic skills for the modern world. And suddenly, all that potential becomes possible again.
And so I think it's a huge agenda really, leveling up. What it spoke to and what it tapped into. It's collapsed under the conservatives into a bit of an election slogan, but really what lies behind it, that sentiment that people understood when they heard it is incredibly important. It's about national renewal after 40 years of malaise, and it's about the future of Britain. And frankly, whether we have one or not.
Rohan: So as shadow leveling up secretary, what would a labor leveling up agenda look like and how would it differ from the current conception of it?
Lisa: I think the key for us getting good jobs back into communities and equipping our young people in those places with choices and chances. So that if they want to move away, work to study, whether that's across the European Union or across the globe, that they should have the opportunity to do that. But if they want to stay and contribute, we should not be imposing a choice on those kids of having to choose between the future work and opportunity, love, family and community. That they were our choices, not theirs, and that should never have been the situation that we were in.
And I think that's for two reasons. One is because as socialists we want people to live larger, richer, more dignified lives. And the reality in Britain and in much of the Western world at the moment is that people simply don't. And that has got worse during my lifetime, but also because for a hundred years we've had these attempts to sort of reduce regional inequalities, but they've always been seen as something nice to have, something that would be good for the region, something that would be good for local communities. But actually there's a difference now because we, certainly on the left in Britain, see this as at the center of Britain's national crisis. That you cannot power a modern economy if you write off the contribution of most people and most places, and you can't have a cohesive society if you write people out of your national story.
Everyone has a stake in the future of this country, and they have to believe that again. We've found ways over the last decade in Britain to divide ourselves from each other. We've had a rise in support for nationalism in Scotland, and in England and in Wales. We've had the "leave/remain" debate dominating through Brexit. We found all these ways to create divisions, but actually the, the national mood, the national sentiment is that people want to leave that behind. A House that's divided can't stand and, particularly given the global challenges that we currently face, we've got to find ways to come together and work through the future. And I think leveling up gives us the opportunity to do that because, at its heart, it's about a basic respect for different people in different parts of Britain, and to understand that by the strength of our common endeavor, we achieve more than we achieve alone. That's a line, by the way, that's on the back of the Labor Party pledge card. It's always been our motto in the Labor Party and our mantra, but I think we've forgot it in recent years and we need to remember it again. If we've got a shot at healing, what has been a very fractured and divided country.
Rohan: I have several follow up questions, let me start with this one. Leveling up often centers in conversations around manufacturing, but in the UK the services sector is even more dominant than it is in the US. We all know that manufacturing in the future will be more and more specialized and, while productive, it won't generate the same jobs boom as it did in the past. What can regional economic policy do then to improve low wage service sectors? Like the care economy, for example, which you again do talk about in your book to some extent.
Lisa: Absolutely, I think this is where the thinking is perhaps least developed, but most interesting. In Britain, we call it the "everyday economy". This idea that you have in every part of the country. you have this foundational economy without which nothing can work. It's the care workers, the hairdressers, it's the people who are going out and holding things together in communities, food production workers, people providing very basic services that are absolutely fundamental to whether the country can work or not. And over the last few decades, the value of that work, the respect for it and the reward for it, has been really devastated. It's been run down to the point where now in Britain we have a crisis in not just in social care and the ability to look after our aging population, but we've also got a crisis in the National Health Service. Just this morning I was in my local accident and emergency department. They had 138 beds being taken up by people who were medically fit to leave but had nowhere to go, because we can't recruit social workers into the profession because their work is so hard and they're paid so little that they would be better off working in a local supermarket with decent work-life balance and far. better wages.
And if you want to really start to repair the country, you've got to focus on that everyday economy and start to think quite creatively about what you do about that. Now, pay rises is obviously a huge issue. In Britain we've got a wave of strikes in almost every public service now, across the board. Because people are going out to care for our families, but they're not paid enough to look after their own. But raising wages in and of itself is expensive and has to be paid for, particularly in the public sector. So the question is, what do you do? And there's a really fascinating economist, a British economist called Diane Coyle, who has done quite a lot of work looking at how you might skill up people who work in, commonly labeled in quite a sort of demeaning way as "low skilled" work, but it's vital. But upskill those professions to be able to take on and do far more, in order that the wages will also rise as well.
So it does two things. One is, it protects the foundational economy. It means that you've got a base so that things can work. But it also has a particular impact on parts of the country where we've seen good jobs leaving for the last 40 years, and where the population has aged outside of our major cities, and where you've got a real crisis in things like social care but you've also got a lot of people working in it, and those wages have tended to be very low which is what undermines the whole basis of the local economy. Because if people don't have money in their pockets, they can't go out and spend it, and then everything starts to fall apart. So this is a really interesting area of work. It's one that Rachel Reeves, our Shadow Chancellor here in the UK wrote about almost a decade ago and is really interested in. And it's something that we're talking to people all over the world about trying to develop as the thinking emerges around it.
Rohan: Since you mentioned Rachel Reeves, this is a good segue to my next question. And you probably know what the question is given the conversation this week. For leveling up to work, we need to be thinking about both creative evolution of authority, but also improved administrative capacity in areas that have hit or who been left behind. This week there's been some debate around the topic, with the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves saying there would not be new tax powers for Councils. Something that's sort of seen at odds with what a lot of local leaders think is the reform that's needed. Without making it just about this this particular debate or this particular incident, how can more power be devolved to the local level but while also being cognizant of unequal state capacities across regions?
Lisa: Yes, so this is the Holy Grail - how do you get to a place where, instead of local leaders in every part of the country having to go cap in hands to junior ministers in Whitehall and Westminster to beg for small grants and small powers, and small permissions to do something as absurd as put in a park bench in Stockport and greater Manchester or develop allotments in Birmingham. And I kid you not. These are real examples of where people have had to go and ask for permission and funding, to do things that there's a right to do in their own communities. How do you get from that position to a position where places are far more financially autonomous, where they can raise their own money and decide how to spend that money? And where local leaders, our elected mayors, our council leaders, aren't just accountable to Westminster, they're accountable downwards to the people that they serve? And at the moment, the system isn't working for anybody. It's frustrating for local leaders, it's frustrating for national government because every time they hand out a grant, they come back for more. And it's frustrating for people because they're completely cut out of the conversation. And this week Rachel was talking about not wanting to just increase the tax burden on people at a time when they're really struggling. But there are examples of where already lots of mayors and local authorities, councils here in Britain, are starting to raise taxes.
They're doing it on a voluntary basis because they don't have permission to do it from government. But they're doing it in Birmingham, in Manchester, in Liverpool. For example, a tourist levy, what's commonly known as a hotel bedroom tax. And they're asking people on a voluntary basis who are visitors to the city to add a couple of pounds to their bill so that that money can then be reinvested in the local community and far more widely outside of the cities, in places that badly need investment. And it seems to us that, the big problem is not whether you get to a place where places are financially viable. The question is how you get there and how you get there. Without local economies where there isn't a great big tax base to be tapped into where people don't have a lot of money, how do you make sure that on the journey towards financial independence, that those places have some proper form of redistribution from the center, so that they don't pull further and further behind.
And one idea that we've been looking at, for example from national government, is a guarantee of a minimum level of infrastructure in every part of the country. So there's been a huge live and quite angry debate at times on the progressive left about a minimum income guarantee. And it arouses very strong feelings in people, in fact, including myself. But we've not really thought in terms of place again, and a minimum infrastructure would ensure that those places can't fall as far behind as they've been allowed to over the last four decades. Whether it's policing, so that town centers don't become no-go areas, whether it's investment in skills, if every place was guaranteed a minimum that would be a game changer for Britain. It's not something that we've done before, but it's something that we're seriously exploring that we might do in the future.
Rohan: The flip side for all of this of course is the capacity of the state to deliver. You talked earlier about a reduction in public investment capabilities. There's also been a very strong conversation around the capacity of the NHS being outsourced. But now when we talk about regions being responsible for their own development, there are a variety of coordination failures and you know, that are likely to come up with a weak state being in power or with weak state capabilities. In your book, what needs to be the state capacity agenda moving forward? Both central, starting from London, but then also in a more decentralized manner at the regional level.
Lisa: The great learning for me over the last couple of decades, but before I came into Parliament, I was working with homeless teenagers on the streets of London and then came into Parliament, dealt with lots of challenges over the last 13 years. The great learning for me has been, as somebody who's fundamentally very statist by instinct, is that governments don't change things people do, and what they need is an active, empowering government that walks alongside them and supports them with investment and help and energy and ambition, in order to help them deliver on their priorities. I learned that first and foremost from those homeless kids that I used to work with. They knew what was going wrong in their lives. They knew better than anyone else how to fix it. But what they needed at that time of crisis was people to step in and say, we can help with the very basic fundamentals that you need to get from where you are now to where you want to be.
And almost every time we took that approach, it worked. Now, I think running a country is no different, actually. If you walk into any community, in our country, you will find people who know what has gone wrong, what needs to be fixed, and what potential exists there, and how much more they could do with the right support. But what's tended to happen that instead of taking that approach, successive governments have come in and said, we're going to fix your problems for you. This is particular problem on the left. I think this paternalism, this idea that we're coming in to save you because you can't save yourselves. And it's disrespectful to people. And it's completely wrong. And it writes off the biggest potential that we have in our country, which is this very quiet patriotism that is in at work in all of our communities where people come together to try and build better.
So it's my view that the state has to fundamentally change, it should stop trying to micromanage millions of decisions that are none of its business. And it should start thinking about doing its actual job. My view is that national governments matter. I don't subscribe to this idea that nations are broken or that government is bad and local government is good. I think that's a cheap device designed to divert attention from the fact that those proponents of it don't know how to mend the system. But if you look at some of the big challenges we've got in Britain, frequent flooding events that are putting homes and businesses underwater across large swathes of the country, we've got a growing problem with fraud from international gangs that are targeting our elderly population. They're losing their homes and their live savings.
We've got this huge problem with football clubs being taken over by big money interests and used not only as playthings for the super-rich, but also to subvert democracy in some cases. Dodgy actors trying to get a foothold in British democracy and trying to exert greater influence over what happens here. All of these things are things that only national governments working with other like-minded national governments can tackle. And yet, for far too long, we've had the very people who are meant to be doing that, reaching global agreement on things like a global minimum corporation tax. Instead of doing that, they've been trying to decide whether we get a park bench in greater Manchester. It's an absolute nonsense, and I think we've got to fundamentally reassess the role of the state in order that we can build a country that works.
Rohan: Your book started a very inspiring example from Wigan about community participation to save a local football club. A British colleague recently commented that football clubs are the churches of modern England. But what are other such examples of community participation that you've seen across the country? And what are the implications of what you witnessed in Wigan, for example, on economic planning and administration? How can we use that as an inspiration for how decisions get made more generally about go. governance?
Lisa: I met this amazing group of women a few years ago up in Sunland in the northeast of England. The northeast was the economic powerhouse of Britain. I'll probably get in trouble for saying that cause I'm from the northwest, but it's an incredible region and it's through work in the coal mines and through the shipping industry, really that it was at the center of the world and the center of British industry for a long time. And still is in many respects but has struggled with those same sorts of global trends and national response as many of the world. I was up there, with this very proud community, talking to a group of women who a few years ago had watched their high street falling apart. They watched historic buildings falling out of use and they'd watched landlords, private landlords, coming in and buying up large sues of the housing stock. And then claiming money from government to house people who were considered to be very vulnerable and had additional needs, alcohol problems, mental health problems, were fleeing domestic violence. And so they could get quite a lot of money from the government in order to house those people, but without providing any real support or help, and an appalling quality of housing as well.
And the whole community was feeling the impact of this. Suddenly, a very stable community had become very transient. There were lots of antisocial behavior problems. The town center didn't feel like a safe place to go boarded up buildings, and they were absolutely discerning to do something about. They got a very small grant from the last Labor government. They were the last group to get one before we lost power in 2010. And with it, they bought up a few houses in the town center and did them up, and they rented them out to local people. They used the proceeds to then buy some more and to keep investing. They've brought the historic library in the center of the village back into use. They've started to invest in the skills of the young people there and in wider support for the community, employment and retraining. And they provide housing and employment advice as well. They are the most incredible group of women who, with a tiny, tiny bit of help from the national state, have completely transformed the community that they live in, and given people the sort of choices and chances that they would never have had before. They could do that because they had a government that spotted the potential and wanted to back them. People haven't had that for far too long.
Instead, what they tend to find is that the system is rigged against them. So take that example of the private landlords. Nobody checks what they're providing to those vulnerable tenants. The government just hands over massive amounts of public money to those people who are running down our housing stock and treating their tenants appallingly and ruining communities. That's an example of the system working for the wrong people and against the right people. And it could be changed. It could be changed on day one, if a different government, if we had the political will to do it.
And this group of women, they call themselves "Back on the Map", which I love as a name, because it's a recognition of how much they contributed how much they still have to contribute in Hendon, in Sunderland. If you're ever in Hendon up in the northeast of England, go and see them. They are the most incredible group of. But there are people like that in every part of the country. That's the point. And you know, I've met them in the United States, I've met them in Austria, I've met them in Germany, I've met them in France. I've met people in every country who are doing this. But so often, as we've experienced in Britain, the system rubs up against them rather than pulling in behind them and helping them to achieve what we know we could achieve with the right backing.
Rohan: From a policy perspective then, how do you leverage these really inspiring examples or the existence of this as a resource, to plan and decentralize governance better?
Lisa: I think two things. First, that you've got to put assets their hands. It's not just enough to give them powers. We've had a real movement to try and do that. In fairness to the David Cameron government, there was a push to try to get more powers into communities during that time. And so for example when Wigan Athletic, my football club, was taken over and then put into administration, we had the right to buy that football club. The trouble was we didn't have 16 million pounds down the back of a sofa. And so the right was useless because what use of rights without the means to realize them. So we are doing work at the moment thinking about how you get assets and particularly revenue raisers back into community hands. So not just the right to buy your football club, but the money to do it. We're looking at whether we could hand over housing, stock, land and other assets, live music venues, to communities to be able to run and to generate the revenue, to reinvest in the things that matter to them.
I think the second part is that, that is necessary in order to support good, strong communities. It's by nowhere near sufficient to rebuild our country. Actually, this isn't a local agenda. This is a national agenda. And what you've really got to do is you've got to move the tools of economic decision making out of Westminster and Whitehall, to regions and sub regions of the UK so that they can drive not one national growth strategy, but lots and lots of local and regional growth strategies in every part of Britain based on the assets that they have. The state will fund some of that, of course it has to, and it must, but really the gamechanger is when you get private investment being leveraged into those communities. And every time I talk to private investors, they tell us we want to invest in other parts of the country, outside of our major cities because we can see the potential. But without the state backing and the state support the lack of basic infrastructure like roads and rail and investment in skills, it becomes impossible.
Now we could unblock that with some political will, but it will take some political will. I feel quite optimistic about it though, because I think there is a sense here in Britain that everything is broken now. And wherever you go, even amongst people who've been relatively well protected from the impact of the last decade, now there is a feeling that nothing is working. And it's at moments like this that I think that real change becomes possible. And people are looking for change. It's whether we can make that change credible, and we can make that sense of hope convincing between now and the next general election.
Rohan: As we talk about localism, let me offer two things that might pose some problem. The first, in the context of Brexit and political polarization, how do you see these cultural and social divergences being translated into local communities? And then second, does localism engender some type of insularity? You talked earlier about national governments and international planning still being important, but what is that balance that you need to create to prevent insularity as you devolve more power and resources to local government?
Lisa: My experience over the last decade or so representing a town where people have really struggled a lot with the impact of austerity. Huge deep cuts to our public services, and the fallout from that in our town was immense. We didn't have the resilience baked in to be able to deal with that either in people's family finances or in the local economy. My experience has been actually that people are fundamentally forward thinking, far more long-term thinking than their governments that they've elected. There have been furious rows here in my local community, as there are right across Britain, about house building for example. We have huge housing shortage. We have a massive housing crisis, and it all comes down to the fact that we're not building enough homes. We're not building the right sort of homes; we're not building social homes and affordable homes. Lots of communities, very, very angry about the idea of housing being built in their own communities. They're labeled NIMBYs in Britain, "not in my backyard". And people are pretty disparaging about them. But what I've learned from having to deal with that the coalface in communities having to navigate those tensions, is that people want the houses. What they don't want is houses that are worth half a million pounds in a town where average household incomes are around 20,000 pounds a year, because their kids are never going to be able to buy those houses. They're not going to be able to stay in the local area. And more and more they see themselves priced out of their own communities. But if that housing was genuinely affordable, if we protected green open spaces, and that doesn't mean that you don't get any building and green open spaces, but it does mean that you look at post-industrial sites first and redevelop them. If there was money that came with those new developments to help fund the basic infrastructure that's been falling apart in many of those communities for a very long time.
That's when you get a completely different conversation. And to give you a really, really stark example, immigration has been a huge flashpoint in Britain for a very long time. Sort of dropped off a bit after the referendum, but it has been a really difficult issue to navigate in Britain. And in my community, we had a lot of asylum-seeking men into a hotel in a small former pit village the outskirts of Wigan a few years ago, by a private company that was contracted by the government to buy up accommodation. They did it overnight. They didn't tell anybody. They didn't tell me, they didn't tell the police, they didn't tell the council. And so the next morning you had hundreds of young men who had been through an incredibly traumatic experience, mostly coming over from parts of Africa, in a village that is 98.5% white. They were visible. It completely changed the feel overnight and people were anxious. And my phone was ringing off the hook with people saying, what on earth is going on? The far right came to Wigan. They traveled here. They stood outside with the hotel, with and all sorts of appalling, you know, chanting at appalling slogans. It was a really difficult febrile environment. We called a public meeting. We got people into the room, and we explained to them what was going on, and why this company was buying up this accommodation. And we said to people, we have a higher proportion of asylum accommodation here than other parts of the country, so we can say no to anymore. Instead, what happened was that the community rallied rounds. We launched an appeal for support and we got 20,000 bags of donations in two weeks. The local community set up a five side football team, the local priests and vicars opened up their churches to help the families who were coming over. It was a completely game changing experience, but the reason that it changed is because we put the community back in the driving seat. And that phrase during the referendum, "take back control", really spoke to that sense that people will accept change and they'll accept, lots of things in their own communities. But they've got to be in the driving seat of making those decision.
Rohan: Lisa, finally, you see the anger and frustration not as sign of despair but as positive signs. And you say this while quoting Pankaj Mishra so you're obviously very helpful. What gives you this hope and what are maybe one or two of the most concrete policy changes that need to happen convert this hope into reality?
Lisa: For a long time I thought people had just got sick of politics. I think they'd turned off. I thought they were fairly apathetic. People weren't voting, they weren't participating. And it was when we started to see a huge rise in support for nationalism in England, and we started to see a rise in support for a party, independence Party here. And people were coming out to vote for the first time in a very long time. And then again, when they came out to vote "leave" during the EU referendum, I was campaigning for "remain" and very much in favor of cooperation between Britain and the European Union.
And so on one level, it was heartbreaking to see people go out and vote for these things. On the other hand, I felt vaguely excited because they weren't apathetic, they were angry, and you can work with anger. Because there's somewhere for it to go and something that you can channel towards something better. And I'd never forget the day when a guy came out of his house and said, I'm voting for them because you lot need to change. And I felt excited. And actually we've started to see that in many parts of the country, people are coming together and building things. That are better and they're building things that work and they're challenging their politicians to up our game and to do more and to match the level of ambition that they have.
And I think we're in a really odd place at the moment in Britain. I don't think for most politicians or journalists, I think it's still well understood how close the entire democratic system came to collapse in recent years. There's a great academic called Harry Pitts over here who wrote a book about this, and he said there are people on both left and right who luxuriate in the flames licking at the side of liberal democracy. And that is absolutely still the case. And those people are still waiting at the gates, waiting to prey on those tensions that exist. And I think the system could very much collapse. Because in a representative democracy, if people don't feel represented, if they're not represented, the system can't survive. But there's a window here for real change and people want us to give voice to it. They want us. To rise to this moment.
A few years ago I sat down with this incredible film director, Danny Boyle, who comes from Lancashire like me, comes from about where my mom lives, and I talked to him about that the last time we really nationally gave voice to the country that we are and that we know we can be. when he did the Olympic opening ceremony of the London 2012 games. And that was this great celebration of the working class people, who've come together to build this country and created everything that matters in Britain. And I said to him, where did that country go? There was that little moment where we all came together as a country and said, we believe in that, that's who we are. And then everything fell apart. He said to me, it's still there, it's just waiting for its politicians to give voice to it again. That's what George Orwell called the "country that lies beneath the surface". That country is still there. It hasn't been heard but it must be heard, and I'm determined, whether it's through writing books or coming on your brilliant podcast, that it will be heard and that we'll start acting on people's priorities again.
Rohan: Well, Lisa, on that optimistic note, thank you so much for joining us today. We hope this is the first of many conversations and we look forward to seeing how your agenda unfolds in the coming years.
Lisa: Oh, it's been amazing. Thank you so much.