Clive Lewis: “Corbyn would be in No 10 if there had been a progressive alliance”
After an ‘amicable’ resignation from the Labour frontbench, Clive Lewis is enjoying life on the backbenches. But does he want another crack at the shadow cabinet? He talks to John Ashmore
Clive Lewis seems full of beans as we meet in his office in Portcullis House. It wasn’t so long ago that some observers were suggesting he might not be long for this place, with the polls pointing to possible defeat in his Norwich South constituency. Back with an extremely healthy majority, the former BBC reporter is feeling understandably vindicated.
He seems to have spent a good deal of the summer recess reading, telling me he’s taken “extensive notes” from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. Trotsky and a book on the Italian socialist Gramsci have also been on the reading list.
While Lewis was an early supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, and one of the 36 MPs who nominated him for the leadership, their views on the central issue of the day are quite different. He is emphatically against the kind of left-wing argument that characterises the EU as Thatcherite cabal, describing it as a “fallacy”. More recently he opposed his own leader’s decision to back the triggering of Article 50, a move which led to what Lewis describes as an “amicable” resignation back in February.
He is much happier with the rather vague position the party has now adopted, with Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer advocating membership of the single market and customs union during a possibly lengthy transition phase. He says this, rather than the “angels dancing on a pinhead” ambiguity of the election campaign is where Labour should be on Brexit.
“I think where we are now is a brilliant start, is a good place to be at this stage and I think the frontbench, Keir, Jeremy, John, the leadership team, they should be massively congratulated for kind of looking at the situation, analysing it and coming up to this position and I think it’s the right position for where we are now,” he says, before adding: “I don’t think it’s the finished article”.
Having resigned over Brexit, would Lewis now be willing to return to the front bench, if asked? He seems keen to underline that he is not angling for a job and is enjoying life on the back benches.
“A lot of people say ‘oh you just want to come back on the front bench, you’d jump on if Jeremy asked you’.
“Well, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. At the moment, I genuinely am enjoying being a backbencher, something I only had three months at. It’s a privilege to be in this place and everybody thinks ‘once you’re in the shadow cabinet you don’t want to go back’ – it’s not a backwards step, it’s a different component of the democratic process of this place, so it’s a good place to be.”
As a former political reporter, Lewis has a particular perspective on how this most crucial of issues is covered – and he expresses concern about the rise of hyper-partisan sites pumping out often dodgy reporting to pander to their readers’ prejudices.
“I think the rise of those sites is troubling especially as people tend to increasingly consume so much of their material they use in terms of debates and forming their worldview, I think there is something to be worried about,” he says.
At the same time there is an easy enough solution. “No one forced you to go to them, there are lots of other options and avenues which you can read.”
He’s not shy about laying into his former employer, particularly the way they have covered the Corbyn phenomenon, but makes clear the “sexist crap” aimed at political editor Laura Kuenssberg is “deplorable”.
“I think there’s a legitimate way to criticise sometimes how the BBC has responded to the changes that are taking place within politics,” he continues.
“This is part of a punditry that said Corbyn would never be leader, that Jeremy Corbyn would never win the second, that Jeremy Corbyn would never be prime minister, that Labour would be wiped out at the election, that has been wrong, consistently wrong.
“So, people understandably feel sometimes aggrieved that they haven’t set a higher standard and I think there are senior people in the BBC who have said, ‘we need to do better, we need to do a lot better’.”
Whatever faint whispers there were about Lewis manoeuvring for the Labour leadership have disappeared entirely since the general election, though there are still plenty of rumours about who will ultimately succeed Corbyn. I put it to Lewis that it’s high time Labour had a female leader - a proposition he is keen on, albeit with some caveats.
“The ideal candidate for me would be a black, working-class woman, a BAME working-class woman who is the next leader of this party, that would be brilliant. The issue again is, you know, it’s important what the politics of the person are, it really is,” he says.
“Now, is it impossible to find a woman with the politics that you agree with? It shouldn’t be. Do I think that Labour needs [a woman]? I think it’s overdue, to be frank and we really do need to have a woman leader but it would also be good to have a black leader, or BAME leader.”
Again, he seems wary of people thinking he is describing himself.
“Now [people will say] ‘yeah but you’re thinking of yourself’ - I’m not saying it for that reason, I’m saying it because ultimately the day we have real representation of people in terms of creed, colour religion, sex, race – that makes for a party that represents and shows that people, no matter what your background is you can reach the top.”
Reports over the summer suggested Corbyn-ally Len McCluskey favoured Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to succeed him. Lewis is also a fan, but he stresses there are plenty of other possible candidates.
“I’ve worked with Emily on defence and so on and I think she’s great and there are people out there and there will be others coming up, names we don’t even know yet but for me the key factor is their politics.
“I think politics are important but I don’t think it should be beyond the ken of a social democratic party to find a woman who has the politics and there are lots of them out there, so let’s see what happens.”
Talk of a new leader feels pretty far in the future when Labour has just exceeded all expectations. There could well be another election before 2022, and despite the brimming confidence in the Corbyn camp, Lewis is under no illusions about how hard it will be to win an outright majority.
“I think complacency kills, everyone knows that. I think finding a balance between confidence and looking like a government-in-waiting but also understanding that the incline, the next incline that we have, that extra 1-2% swing is going to be the most difficult part in many ways and it’s also about holding the coalition that we form together.
“Do I think the position the frontbench has now adopted in terms of the single market and the transition period will help hold that coalition together? Yes, I do, in my seat and I think in quite a few others. Do I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have a Labour government? No.”
Lewis was one of the few big Labour figures to support the Progressive Alliance, a cross-party effort to unseat Tories that sprang into action when the snap election was called.
In several constituencies, not least Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond Park seat, left-of-centre parties could easily have won out if they had been willing to work together. That that didn’t happen was probably due to a lack of time as much as a lack of willingness to give up electoral advantage.
Despite Labour’s strong performance, Lewis is in no doubt that the Alliance still has legs, particularly in light of how hard it will be for Labour to get the extra votes to form a majority on its own.
“If there had been a progressive alliance on the lines myself and others were arguing for Corbyn would probably be PM by now, we wouldn’t have these Tories heading off a cliff-edge on Brexit, that’s the first thing.”
He namechecks Gramsci in explaining that political parties alone are only one part of what he envisages that alliance looking like.
“He was one of the kind of key proponents of this progressive alliance idea and it’s simply to say that the establishment is very powerful and if you’re going to have a genuinely game-changing effect on politics and power, as opposed to just coming into power for one term or less than one term and then being turfed out, you’re going to have to make real changes to our society, really take on the establishment of this country and the privilege and power bases, you’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Next up for Lewis is this week’s conference in Brighton, though he says he’ll be spending a lot of time in the unofficial Momentum event, The World Transformed.
This sort of more participative event is the way he sees conference going in the future, with less of the corporate razzmatazz and “showbiz” stage management that have characterised the get-togethers in recent years.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to spend time at conference and hopefully I get to speak on the podium and engage in some of the fringe events there as well but to me the energy at The World Transformed is something else.”