Interview: Clive Lewis on the left after Corbyn

Clive Lewis speaking at The World Transformed, 2017

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, put his name forward for the Labour leadership but did not get the MPs’ nominations required to stand. (For analysis of his leadership manifesto, see here.) He spoke to us about the way forward for the Labour left.

What lessons should we learn from the election result?

What’s happened in terms of the leadership campaign and the analysis that’s come out of that — I think unfortunately it’s been a campaign where there’s a lot more heat than light. I would say that the lessons I’ve learned are ones that we saw in 2017, in 2015, in 2010 and throughout the rest of the century. Labour has to strive to be not just in government but in power — we’ve only real been in power once in 1945.

Good things were done under other Labour governments, but for instance under New Labour, they were always in the context of what Thatcher called her greatest achievement. It was done within the orthodoxy of neoliberalism; it pushed at the boundaries of neoliberalism, but it never broke or challenged it in the way that Thatcherism did the 1945 welfare state consensus.

What happened can’t just be blamed on Brexit, can’t just be blamed on Corbyn, can’t be blamed on the manifesto — definitely not the policies. There’s a deeper malaise. The economy, the voting public, technology have changed dramatically, but the Labour Party hasn’t. We’ve seen massive changes in the way people live, in the way they work, in the way they organise, or don’t organise, but Labour is based on a Fordist model of mass production for politics, which is dead or dying.

Out of 28 general elections in the last century, we’ve won eight of them — you can’t just look at the last general election, a deeper analysis is required. Labour, like social democracy and democratic socialism across the Western world, is in turmoil because it hasn’t been able to apply its values to the modernity in which we find ourselves.

Why do you think “Corbynism” couldn’t break through to renewing Labour on a new basis?

Corbynism began to get the economic arguments right. What Corbynism started to talk about in 2015 was an end to austerity, and trying to return to a sort of 1945 moment, trying to recapture a Keynesian economic approach — redistribution of wealth, trying to use social democracy to move us towards a more socialist economy in stages. But also at the beginning it was about democratising the party, which I think is what attracted so many of us. I see myself as coming from a more pluralist left, where the culture of democracy and membership engagement and members having a real say over policy really resonated.

We’d seen under New Labour a process where they came in and put their boot on the throat of the other forces within the broad church and declared unity. We saw a process where through the party machinery there was a drowning out of other voices. Corbynism was meant to undo that and begin to revitalise a more democratic party.

Five years on, out of ten, I’d give them three! The motivation was there at the beginning, there was a hunger for that. I think two key things went wrong. Some of the older traditions of the Labour left are very centralised, they share a lot of common with the right of the party — undemocratic centralism if you want to call it that — where a small group of people make a decision and hand it down and the rest of us are expected to follow that. There is a fear of decisions being taken in a more democratic way.

The other part was the 2016 chicken coup pushed the Corbyn project pretty much into the arms of what I’d call a stale trade union bureaucracy. There’s a bureaucratic mentality within our trade unions — unions face that same challenge that the Labour Party does. The Corbyn project begun to be run by people who got used to that way of doing things. And of course Momentum changed at the point too, and we moved into a new phase, where the more democratic impulses of the initial stage were suppressed.

Isn’t the demand for a sovereign Labour Party conference key?

I referred to that in my leadership manifesto, but I am a little reticent. Let me explain. I see a situation where members that elect delegates and so on are a very particular layer of people who are already engaged, who aren’t working, who don’t have childcare or other caring duties, and so you get a culture that is quite limited in scope. I’m thinking how do we apply 21st century networked technology so that if you have meetings people who are excluded by various factors can engage. The same applies to a national conference.

On the other hand there are problems with the way people deliberate and make decisions online. All I’m saying is I don’t want to box myself in, and rule out new, innovative ways of engaging members in decision-making. In the party we have now conference should absolutely be sovereign. That principle is vital but it could be expressed in different ways through different kinds of structures. When you get a larger group of varied people involved you tend to get better, more progressive decisions.

Of course there is a danger that you never have proper collective meetings or innovative engagement but largely bureaucratic decision-making through politicians’ offices.

What political ideas should the left be fighting for now?

There’s an idea that socialism is inevitable, whether that’s a Marxist view, or just the idea that given time people will organise themselves for a better society. The problem is that we’ve got a climate crisis, and that obviously puts a ticking clock on what we’ve got to do. If we can’t change what’s happening to the climate, we can’t stem the decline of biodiversity, we can’t deal with issues of big data, we’ve got a real problem.

We’ve now got five or potentially ten years of a Tory government when the clock is ticking on the climate. We’ve got to build alliances out of our comfort zone. The labour movement is quite a narrow and shrinking slice of civil society. We’ve got to recognise that we’re part of a wider ecosystem of civil society, whether that’s the green movement, the antiracist movement, internationalist movements — whatever those progressive movements are, wherever there are politicians and political movements who can see we need to challenge the Tories, those are the kind of political alliances we need.

This isn’t a “tribalist” Labour point, but to have an alliance to tackle the kind of problems you’re talking about, which are gigantic problems, doesn’t the labour movement have to renew itself and rebuild on a new basis, for instance for trade unions to get a grip again? You almost suggest the labour movement is fated to decline forever.

Sure, but the society of today is very different from a century ago.

Of course, but the society of 1900 was very different from 1800.

Yes, but the movements we had in the past, a trade union and labour movement and a party that are still very focused on looking back to a 20th century model of the economy, jobs for life and those kind of things. It hasn’t yet adapted to the kind of modernity we find ourselves in. I don’t necessarilly have all the answers, but I do think that unless we can adapt a more pluralist, less tribal approach, we won’t find them.

For instance, there are Labour members in Extinction Rebellion, and there are Green members, and yet there are antagonisms between Labour and the Green Party. We won’t agree on everything, but take how broad the Labour Party is. I think I have more in common politically with Caroline Lucas than with some people in the PLP.

One of the key things that makes us operate in political silos is the first past the post political system, which works perfectly for the Tories. Labour is hooked on the trappings of opposition.We need to change the set up so we can work together to push them off first place.

I’m on the Green New Deal group, and I was at a meeting of the all party parliamentary group for the Eastern region. I sat there and we had Tory MP after Tory MP, with loads of businesses in the Eastern region, talking about all the roads we need to build. I spoke up and made the point that we need to hardwire sustainability into everything that we do, and building roads is not part of that, and then one after another lots of the businseses in the room started to say, yeah, completely agree with you… We need to have a transport strategy, a housing strategy, an economic strategy which are sustainable.

At the end of it one of the people who made the best contributions was from Anglian Water. This guy said to me, I know we’re the bogey men of politics, I know what your party’s policy is, but we’re trying to move from shareholder profit-maximisation to a more sustainable model, where our contribution to the ecosystem, to decarbonisation, where all these things are the underpinnings of our business.

I’m sceptical, of course, because at the end of the day they’re operating in a system built around profit, the bottom line and exploitation. But they understand their business is one that’s unsustainable. Let’s engage with them. We’re not going to agree on everything, but they’re taking a step in the right direction. Given the climate crisis, while we’re in opposition, don’t we need to push them ever further and ever faster to do what needs to be done?

So this applies to a lot of the issues we’ve touched on, but particularly climate change, what’s the distinctively socialist perspective there? It’s like you’re saying that everyone can agree and there’s a misunderstanding?

A Tory recently admitted to me that they see the Green New Deal as a Trojan Horse for socialism. But I said to him that, from our perspective, we see immediate changes as still being on the basis of an economic system based on exploitation, that’s the basis of capitalism. We can ameliorate that, but as socialists we want to see it ended. In the process of moving from a really shit economic model like neoliberalism to socialism, there are a whole range of options in between. It’s not a switch that flicks from one to to other just like that.

But do we move through finding common ground or through conflict and struggle?

Even within building consensus, when it’s about building alliances to take things forward, it’s also about conflict within that. Building consensus is a struggle. It’s a battle of position, to move things further forward. It’s about building a new common sense and moving the dial about where is a better place to be. I’m a gradualist — it might come in jumps and fits and starts, but we have to keep moving.

To return to the question about trade unions, one of the things about Corbynism is you have this big ferment in the Labour Party, but it didn’t have much reflection in workplaces or in the trade unions. Why is that? What can we do going forward to build that link between politics in the Labour Party and workers’ organisation?

Trade unions are a particular way of organising labour within an economy, but that economy is changing very rapidly. But with new challenges like the rise of the robots, it’s not clear what form that organisation will take. I don’t think anyone quite knows. We’ve got a 19th century model of organisation in a 21st century post-industrial economy. The reason that trade union membership has declined isn’t just about decisions trade unions have taken, but rather longer term trends.

If you look at the way that people are organising in civil society now, it’s very different. Do trade unions fit into that model?

If you look at tech companies with marginal costs of zero, and there’s very little need for human input. That’s not the future of everything, but still…

Well, also there are tech workers and they have immense potential power – because if you have a small workforce with their hands over the process they can turn the switch off…

That’s true.

You were the only leadership candidate to sign the Free Our Unions pledge for all anti-union laws to be repealed. Can you say something about that?

If you look at the last forty years one of the reasons for unions’ decline is the legal hamstringing of their ability to operate collectively. What we’ve seen is the atomisation of not just society, but the trade union movement. The idea of solidarity has become increasingly alien to many people.

The legislation that was brought in by Thatcher and subsequently was about reducing working people’s ability not just to organise in their own sector but also to show solidarity with other groups. Trade unions will struggle to network and find new ways of organising if they’re unable to show solidarity, so I think one of the biggest and most fundamental changes is to restore that right.

Getting rid of this legislation will also allow trade unionists to engage with not just issues that effect them directly at work, but wider issues that effect everyone, above all the climate crisis. And that requires the right for workers to take action over political issues too.

Now I think people on the left as well as the right of the party are very reticent about this because the right won the culture war in the 1970s and 80s about how trade unions were depicted. Trade unions were blamed for Britain’s decline, but actually their role meant we had some of the highest living standards and lowest levels of inequality in Europe in the 1970s. There was a massively good story to tell about what the trade unions achieved, but we didn’t win the argument.

Culture eats everything for breakfast. We have to win these arguments. Take the argument now about the BBC. So many people on the left are angry with the BBC. I know the BBC is an establishment institution, but we have to defend the concept of public sector broadcasting.

It’s like the argument with the EU, you have to appreciate the value of something at the same time that you fight for it to be reformed. The same goes for public sector broadcasting, and that is a massive mistake which parallels what we allowed the Tories to do over the EU.

There are certain arguments about immigration, about strikes, which Corbynism has been afraid of having and by failing to do that it has undermined itself.

I suppose that’s partly true. We have to recognise that a lot of communities were saying to us, “our communities were devastated long before 2010”. But they had drawn the wrong conclusions about why, for instance about immigration, that had to be consciously challenged.

What’s your take on the leadership election?

Well, I’d like to be voting for myself! I’m glad we ran the campaign and got to raise the kind of issues we’ve discussed here. One thing I’d like to note is about the interview I did with Huck magazine, which some interpreted as me saying the issue with sexism and sexual harassment is that campaigns against them, like “Me too”, make life difficult. Obviously that’s not the issue at all: the issue is sexism in society and in men’s behaviour. I was trying to reflect on how sad it is that such campaigns need to exist – but sadly that’s the reality of sexism in our society: it’s very much still here and that should sadden and anger us all. I should have expressed myself and thought about it better.

On the election itself, I don’t think Corbyn won because lots of people were orthodox socialists. Many of the people who back Corbyn were more soft left. They were against runaway inequality, they were wanted to tackle climate change, they didn’t want an adventurist foreign policy, but it was a very broad coalition. A lot of those people don’t want to return to vapid centrism, where we accept what the Tories are saying but somehow within that apply “Labour values”; they want a leadership which is on the left but seems more competent in putting together a force that can take on the Tories.

Aren’t the right going to use that as their way back in?

If Keir Starmer wins, there are those parts of the left who will want to retire back to to the tomb as oppositionalists. It’s dark, it’s warm, it’s cosy. I don’t think we’ve got that time. We’ve got to engage. I don’t think Starmerism exists yet. I think there are people on the right who want to take it into a certain direction, but I don’t think it’s clear that’s where he wants to go. There’s a potential there for the radical left to be able to influence that. That’s why we need a democratic party where we’re not just lobbying the leader but having a real say over what happens.

I don’t think Keir can plausibly talk about an agenda for democratising politics without the politics of pluralism, of agency, of control, in the party itself. You can’t apply those political cultural principles without applying them in the party too.

Is there anything in the 2019 manifesto you’d drop?

No, the manifesto was brilliant, but you have to win the arguments for policies like that. You can’t just assume that you can announce the policies from above and create a sensation.

Look at the policies Labour won in the 1940s, there was a real campaign around them to make them popular, which really shifted the consensus and put the Tories on the back foot for forty years. If we want to be able to win the arguments on migration, on public sector broadcasting, on trade union rights, we have to win arguments in civil society and create a consensus.

Should we be trying to convince the upper echelons of what you call civil society or much wider swathes of working people?

A campaign is not just a poster and a march and a public meeting – sure Labour doesn’t do much of that either, I accept that. But it’s the process of winning the arguments in society that is essential.

The Labour Party should be a bridge, should be a conduit to help link numerous other groups that are already organising and campaigning in society.

The Tories are very good at presenting their ideology as the common sense of society, when in fact they are deeply ideological. We have to take the opportunity for our socialist ideas to become hegemonic.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *