When meting Clive Lewis your immediate impression is of a man who feels confident in his own ability and a person who is not afraid to speak their own mind. In the half hour that I interviewed him in one of the upstairs rooms of the Union of UEA Students’ premises, it became increasingly obvious that this first impression was correct: Clive Lewis happily gives his own opinions, even if it means openly criticising his own party.
Clive Lewis grew up on a council estate in Northampton and so the most obvious starting point to our conversation was: “why the move to Norwich?”
“I got accepted onto the BBC trainee scheme for journalism” he explained to me, “and after my year as a trainee contracted to BBC East Midlands I sought a full time position with BBC Look East. I grew up with BBC Look East and so I went down to the old building back in 2001 and I got the job so that’s when I first came to Norwich… To be working in the newsroom that I grew up with watching on television was quite amazing. It weirded me out at first”.
As a man who appears to have always been heavily political and staunch supporter of the Labour party, it seems strange that Lewis did not try to enter the world of parliament earlier and first sought to be a journalist.
However, when I questioned him on why he was not a prospective parliamentary candidate for a constituency until 2012, the first evidence that Lewis does not always tow the Labour party line emerged.
“When I finished at the NUS I kind of annoyed the Labour party a bit because I stood against some Labour student candidates because we disagreed over issues. I wanted a free education, I thought that was best and what the NUS should be arguing for, even if negotiations with the Labour government came out with a different outcome, you go in with the strongest possible hand which was obviously free education… So we hasdthis complete disagreement over this period where New Labour was in the ascendency and for socialists like me, that wasn’t always going to be compatible.
“I was told… how do I put this… that I had burnt a few bridges with the Labour Party back then… I was told to just go away for a little bit. But then the thing that made me want to go back into politics was when I was serving in Afghanistan in 2009”.
Explaining his experiences on what was one of the most deadly tours of the country, Lewis says that his experiences in the army suddenly made him realise what he still wanted to achieve in life: “It really hit home [when on tour] that I might not be going home, or that I might not be going home in one piece… I was thinking about all the things I hadn’t achieved in my life and all of the things that I wanted to do still and it dawned on me that I still wanted to make a difference in politics”.
As we moved away from his experiences prior to being selected as Labour’s candidate for Norwich South in 2012 we began to talk more about his views on Labour party policies. Here again he highlighted that he is very much to the left of the Labour party: “I believe that my party needs to move away at an increasing velocity from what I call the extreme centre.
“I think that the trajectory on which Miliband is now taking the Labour Party is the right trajectory, we might not be at the end of that trajectory yet but it’s heading in the right direction”.
However, while Lewis made clear that he was happy that Miliband was taking his party in a direction which he agreed with, he was not afraid to indicate that he still did not believe some of Labour’s policies represented his own opinions.
When I asked him his thoughts on Labour’s plans to reduce tuition fees to £6000, given that he had fought within the NUS to keep higher education free, he made his thoughts quite clear: “That figure needs to go”.
During our meeting he also highlighted his staunch opposition to Labour’s crack down on immigration policy:
“On the record, I’ve questioned our rhetoric on immigration… I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for immigration and the fact that my dad came from the West Indies. Everything this country has done for me I am so grateful for and I’ve made the most of it. I don’t think that should be denied to others who want to come here and contribute to our economy and society”.
However, despite his disagreement with Labour’s immigration policy, Lewis firmly stated to me that international students had no reason to fear a Labour government: “The Labour party has been quite specific that we are not targeting overseas students, they will not be in any target or any quota system on immigration. They are free. They are fantastic for our country”.
Given his clear differences in opinions with some aspects of Labour party policy I asked the Norwich PPC whether he believed that Labour needed to be more radical in their move away from the political centre ground:
“The problem is, if you look at the polls on economic competency, the Greens are offering, I think, a very left wing, radical alternative to the economy but they’re kind of bumping around six and seven percent in the polls. They’ve doubled that from three percent to six, that’s great, but why haven’t the British public flocked to their banner, to their economic outlook?
“When you look at the polls, even Labour ,who I think have quite a moderate approach to reforming the economy, isn’t getting the traction and support from the public. The public overwhelmingly trust the Tories, the people who delivered austerity… that begs the question, we on the left, those who want to see a fairer and slightly more radical approach to the economy, we haven’t made the argument with the British public. Some people say ‘well that’s because Labour haven’t been radical enough’ but that’s not just a failure of the Labour party, that’s a collective failure of the left”.
Just before we parted I gave Lewis the opportunity to explain why he as an individual was the right person for be elected as the MP for Norwich South.
His answer almost summed up everything that he had been trying to say over the last half an hour: “I’ll bring to the job passion and life experiences. I’ve packed a lot in from being a student leader, through to being a BBC reporter, a soldier in the army, I’ve worked in telephone call centres, I’ve worked in factories, food factories, I’ve had real world experiences of life. That’s the first thing but secondly, I think I will speak up, I’m happy to say what needs to be done”.