A year ago, had you heard of Jeremy Corbyn? Be honest now.
The bicycle riding, allotment loving teetotaller might have been an MP for 32 years, but he’s never come close to the frontbench until now. Even his shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell admits she had “never, ever met or spoken to him” before the explosion of Corbynmania this summer.
During the Blair years, Jeremy Corbyn was so deep in the wilderness of the backbenches he was almost invisible. But that was then. Now, he’s a very different leader of a very different party.
Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP
Suddenly there’s a whole new cast of characters to get to know – like the new left wing shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, or the vegan Kerry McCarthy who has been put in charge of farming.
And there’s someone else you’ve probably never heard of who could end up being very important: Lisa Nandy.
The new shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary could even end up being the next leader of the Labour Party.
Yes, 36-year-old Lisa Nandy isn’t one of the better known Labour MPs. But then, this time last year you hadn’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn either, had you? (Unless you happen to be an Islington North constituent or a Stop the War activist.)
The elevation of the young Wigan MP received just a ripple of attention, compared to the tidal wave of coverage garnered by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. But hers was the Shadow Cabinet appointment that caught my eye.
Lisa Nandy, first elected in 2010, was affectionately described to me by one MP as a “f***** handful.”
The daughter of an Indian dad and English mum, she grew up in Manchester in the 1980s, in what she describes as a “very angry time” when it was “impossible not to be political.” After graduating from Newcastle University, she worked as senior policy adviser at the Children’s Society and for the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint.
Lisa tells me: “It made me realise there’s a group of people who are always shut out of power and often don’t have a voice. That’s why I got into politics – to try and change that.”
Her shadow cabinet brief is the perfect launchpad for any personal ambitions. Issues around climate change and energy will appeal greatly to the party’s base and are uncontroversial among her fellow MPs. “It’s an enormous brief,” she tells me, “There’s a huge opportunity now to show leadership on climate change and what sort of country we want to be.”
Lisa is clearly driven. She had her first child four days before the general election, but was out campaigning the day before she gave birth and was back knocking doors just two days later. Now, she is juggling a new shadow cabinet post with childcare issues – not easy since her family lives in Wigan. “Jeremy Corbyn talks a lot about a new politics, well, our family will be that in action, we’ll need team work and collaboration to make it work.”
So does Lisa have leadership ambitions?
She tries to laugh it off: “I was asked if I was plotting about a leadership bid when I had a one month baby, and just getting dressed in the morning was an achievement.
“I came into politics because I wanted to make a positive difference. That’s still what I’m about now.”
That’s not a no – and her contemporaries say she’s ambitious and well connected enough to make a serious bid.
One Labour source told me: “She is very impressive: clever, principled, tough and excellent on TV and radio. I’d be a mug to be in the ‘predicting the next leader’ business, but she has the potential to be a leading light.”
Lisa Nandy is the acceptable face of the left.
And this matters.
Even Jeremy Corbyn’s most devoted followers will admit, the 66-year-old is unlikely to clock up years and years of service. The bookies give him just 475 days.
Big beasts lurking on the backbenchers who could hasten that date include Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Dan Jarvis – all modernisers who are seen as potential leadership rivals. MPs I’ve spoken to have made it clear that they believe the party should have been more ruthless over Ed Miliband’s poor poll ratings, and they won’t make the same mistake twice.
But the real dark horse in any future leadership election is likely to come from the party’s left.
Remember, the same rules will still apply. The backing of union members and the £3 registered supporters will be decisive. Jeremy Corbyn is hardly likely to change the selection process in order to give the Blairites more power.
However, one thing will change. Any contender will need to get the support of 35 MPs – and next time around, politicians will be more wary of nominating a left-wing candidate. This could rule out the likes of John McDonnell or Diane Abbott, who would struggle to clear that hurdle.
However, Lisa Nandy’s brand of left wing politics is more palatable to her parliamentary colleagues. She backed Andy Burnham during the leadership campaign, and is likely to easily clear the first jump. MPs from Jon Cruddas to Jon Trickett rate her, and she would also pick up support from the Labour Sisterhood, keen to see a female leader.
Lisa has worked with MPs from Labour’s Liz Kendall to Zac Goldsmith on the Tory bench, and says she is on the left of the party but not the “old left.”
“Some of my best friends in Labour are people who have different instincts to me. I’m interested in consensus building,” she explains. That could come in useful.
When you speak to MPs about Lisa, the word that keeps coming up is authenticity.
Michael Dugher, the new Shadow Culture Secretary who worked with Lisa under Ed Miliband, told me: “Lisa is a clever, principled and authentic campaigner. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously – and that’s a breath of fresh air.”
Labour MP Gisela Stuart doesn’t share Lisa’s brand of soft left politics, and backed Liz Kendall in the leadership race. But she said: “Lisa Nandy is very authentic – when she says something, you know she means it. And she’s got backbone. I like her.”
Once you’re past the first hurdle of gathering together 35 MPs, the second stage of the fight is all about picking up support from left-wing supporters, £3 sign ups and the unions. Lisa Nandy has a history of trade union activism and is rated within the powerful Unite union, that backed Jeremy Corbyn, and by Owen Jones, the media commentator who was a cheerleader for Jeremy Corbyn throughout his campaign.
So it’s worth keeping an eye on the young shadow Energy Secretary. You heard it here first.
Before you scoff – hear me out.