LABOUR LEADERSHIP: Clive Lewis – the left-wing maverick vowing to end 'command and control' politics
If Rebecca Long Bailey is pitching herself as the natural heir to Jeremy Corbyn, then Clive Lewis is promising to be a bolder and more radical left-winger than even the current incumbent.
An early supporter of Mr Corbyn's leadership, the MP for Norwich South announced he planned to run shortly after Labour's election defeat opened up a vacancy for the top job.
There's certainly plenty in his opening pitch for the Corbynite faithful. Lewis, currently a Shadow Treasury minister, is promising to go further on plans to democratise the party's structures and boost its standing as a grassroots political force. He has thrown his weight fully behind Labour’s plans for a ‘Green New Deal’ to tackle climate change, and says that as leader, he would try to take on “the failings of 40 years of neoliberalism”.
But while running from the left, Lewis is also clearly aiming to differentiate himself from the current regime - giving Corbyn's leadership just a "six out of ten" in a recent Newsnight interview and urging the party to work with other progressive organisations and throw its weight behind electoral reform in a bid to fight a triumphiant right.
Going further in an email urging MPs to back him, Lewis said: "I’m a socialist from the same broad tradition of the party as Jeremy but I’m also strongly opposed to the pointless factional warfare and culture of command and control, that has crippled our party and our collective creativity. As Labour leader, my aim will be to take the best of the Corbyn project, unite the party and unite the country."
As a prominent BAME MP, Lewis has also put his background - and the ways it has shaped his politics - front and centre of his pitch to MPs and members. He has vowed to make a positive “economic and cultural case for migration” and spoken out against what he sees as the increasing demonisation of some communities - a position that chimes with his longstanding opposition to Brexit.
It’s on this issue where Lewis has perhaps made the biggest mark since his election in 2015, jointly founding the left-wing ‘Love Socialism, Hate Brexit’ group with ally (and now leadership backer) Rachael Maskell.
The group sought to differentiate itself from the more centrist cross-party groups pushing for a second referendum - and Lewis regularly tested the limits of his shadow ministerial job with direct attacks on Labour’s Brexit policy. In 2017 he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet after Labour MPs were ordered to back triggering Article 50. And in a characteristically outspoken intervention last year, Lewis - now back as a shadow minister - warned his party they would be “utterly, comprehensively destroyed” like the Liberal Democrats if Jeremy Corbyn helped to usher in a “Tory Brexit”.
A former infantry officer, Lewis’ combative style has also seen him land himself in hot water several times. A blazing row erupted in 2016 between Lewis and Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s communications and strategy director, over the party’s policy on the Trident nuclear deterrent. The argument centred on claims Lewis’ conference script - vowing not to shift Labour’s pro-Trident policy - was edited by Milne just minutes before his speech, with reports the MP punched a wall in anger at the move. He was shortly to be shuffled out of his Shadow Defence Secretary role and handed the business and energy brief instead.
Lewis then had to apologise the following year after a video emerged of him telling the actor Sam Swann to “get on your knees bitch” at a Labour conference fringe event organised by the Momentum campaign group. Lewis initially defended the comments as “jovial”, but later said sorry for the “offensive and unacceptable” language.
Perhaps more damagingly, Lewis later faced a claim he had inappropriately touched a female activist at another conference event - an accusation that came at the height of Westminster’s sexual harassment scandal. Lewis denied the allegation, telling The Independent: “I wouldn’t do that to someone. It’s not what I do, it’s not my style, it’s not how I roll. I do not do that.” A formal party investigation into the alleged incident was dropped at the end of 2017.
At the time of writing, Lewis has the backing of just one parliamentary colleague, with Rachael Maskell telling PoliticsHome she believes he has what it takes to “challenge the neo-liberal industrial narrative and set a radically different course socially and economically”.
It’s a pitch that could be hugely popular with a membership that twice picked Jeremy Corbyn for the top job. But first Lewis will have to convince 21 of his fellow colleagues that he has both the vision and the temperament to help the party get back on its feet after the election disaster.
CLIVE LEWIS: KEY FACTS
- Age: 48
- Constituency and majority: Norwich South, re-elected in 2019 with reduced majority of 12,760
- Before politics: Vice-president of the National Union of Students, BBC News reporter, infantry officer with the Territorial Army
- Frontbench jobs held: Shadow Minister for Sustainable Economics (2018-present); Shadow Bsuiness Secretary (2016-2017); Shadow Defence Secretary (2016).