All In by Lisa Nandy review – why Labour must give power to the people

Two-thirds of the way through this timely book, Lisa Nandy relays a gem of a quote from Clement Attlee, Labour prime minister in the 1945-51 postwar government. “Socialists,” Attlee wrote, “are not concerned solely with material things. They do not think of human beings as a herd to be fed and watered… They think of them as individuals cooperating together to make a fine collective life.”

All In: How We Build a Country That Works is an attempt to revive that ethos for 21st-century Britain, making the case for a democratic revolution to address a seemingly endless political crisis. Amid signs that a top-down managerialist approach is back in fashion in Downing Street, after Johnsonian chaos and the wild follies of Trussonomics, it feels like a much-needed intervention.

Nandy begins at Wigan Athletic’s DW football stadium, remembering the first match she attended as the town’s MP. Ten years later, she found herself part of a battle to save the club, after a new owner based in Hong Kong put it into administration at the first opportunity. Recalling the fire sale of assets that took place before weeping, baffled employees, she writes: “Fans and a community that should have been at the heart of the process were shut out, treated as a nuisance by wealthy and powerful people with no connection to the club… the wrong people held all the power.”

A town with one of the highest proportion of low earners in the country fundraised a remarkable £615,000 and Wigan were eventually rescued. But the episode inspired Nandy to sit down and write. Repeatedly, All In offers vivid portraits of communities obliged to mount resistance campaigns against distant companies, institutions and governments that see only the logic of the bottom line. There are the proud NHS hospital porters and cleaners of Wigan’s Royal Albert Edward Infirmary, who find they are to be offloaded to a private company and an uncertain future. The last pub in a working-class area is threatened with closure by developers. Preserved as a community asset, it is later voted Wigan’s pub of the year. Such inspiring victories, Nandy points out, are exceptions to the rule in an era in which the odds are stacked in favour of market forces.

These local vignettes capture a wider sense of civic and economic powerlessness in much of the the UK, one that, Nandy argues, a generation of politicians either ignored or failed to understand. Brewing in English towns for 40 years, it drove the “red wall” Brexit vote. Globalisation – and, in particular, the role of the Chinese economy as a source of cheap labour – saw 6m British manufacturing jobs disappear. The power of unions diminished accordingly and was further undermined by successive Thatcher governments. New Labour mitigated the economic impact of deindustrialisation, but its strategy for growth focused overwhelmingly on cities. Towns such as Wigan, ageing and neglected, were ripe for revolt and the 2016 referendum was the opportunity they needed.

This problem, writes Nandy, was “largely unanticipated by parliament, political parties and the media because they had become so deeply disconnected from so many of the people they were meant to represent”. When it came, too many on the left were happy to dismiss leave voters as xenophobic reactionaries. The People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum after the Brexit vote is given short shrift, accused of mirroring the intransigent belligerence of those pushing for “no deal”. “The willingness to embrace populist rhetoric, ultimately ends up wrecking democratic debate. Offering simplistic solutions – ‘Just leave with no deal’ or ‘Have another referendum’” – did a disservice to the messy complexities of the crisis.

Many remain-voting Observer readers and Labour members will bridle at that analysis and Nandy does not address the economic damage done by leaving the EU. But her object is to diagnose a crisis of exclusion that found a form of expression in 2016. Numerous social divisions – between London and the rest of the country, cities and towns, the asset-rich and the asset-poor, graduates and non-graduates – have created a fractured country that has been conducting a dialogue of the deaf. The rise of social media has helped to turn up the volume and the vitriol and diminished the possibility of genuine debate. Nandy advocates, in effect, a major rebalancing of social forces: one in which local authorities, trade unions, community organisations, regional banks and citizens assemblies can constrain capital and give power and resources back to people and places. From local carbon budgets to prioritising local ownership of community assets, a host of ideas is floated to illustrate the desired direction of travel.

As Britain endures apparent permacrisis, the book’s publication was brought forward from next March. Such is the pace of events in Westminster that Boris Johnson’s boosterish “levelling up” rhetoric – pithily critiqued here by Nandy for its lack of substance – has now been eclipsed by a new politics of austerity under Rishi Sunak. The disastrous Truss interlude has handed the Labour party a huge poll lead and given markets the power to dictate the terms of British politics, a combination of circumstances likely to reinforce Labour’s cautious and centralising instincts. All In is a salutary reminder from the shadow secretary of state for levelling up of why this agenda must be reclaimed by the left and done properly.

It is also, at close to 200 pages, a fast and accessible read from a politician who interpreted the signs of the times in Brexiting Britain earlier than most. At times, the writing feels a little rushed, as Nandy attempts to keep up with an ever-changing political backdrop and there are some needless repetitions. We read more than once, for example, that “the path to net zero is paved with a million jobs”. But Nandy’s thesis is surely right. The deep shortcomings of Britain’s post-industrial settlement will not be solved by rejoining the EU or the return of “grownups” to Downing Street and something more ambitious is required than managerial competence in Whitehall.

Lisa Nandy has an attractive faith in the essential decency and good sense of her fellow citizens and in their ability to cooperate and find constructive common ground when given the chance. At one point in All In, she writes: “Hand people power and resources and they will make the country work.” That is a deceptively radical vision and one that Labour should embrace.

All In: How We Build a Country That Works by Lisa Nandy is published by HarperNorth (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

The Guardian