It’s a freezing Saturday morning and Clive Lewis is open for business. The Norwich Open, usually home to a range of club nights, youth activities and gigs, is also hosting the Norwich South MP’s regular constituency surgery. Surprisingly, in such turbulent political times, the waiting room is empty, and we’re quickly shown into the room. We meet the Labour MP and Shadow Business and Energy Secretary at an interesting juncture in British politics.
An ex-journalist, soldier, and self-confessed “passionate European”, Lewis is often billed as a high profile supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In person, he gives a somewhat different impression. Professional, media trained, and a slicker political operator than many in his party, it’s hard not to feel Lewis’ frustration with the more old-school style of leadership currently at the top of the party. Corbyn may be many things, but a ‘digitally-savvy, 21st-century politician’ he is not.
Lewis, as with many in the Labour Party, is currently caught between a very large rock and a very hard place. Stating that he “fought passionately for the Remain campaign,” representing a divided constituency in a divided country can’t be making life any easier.
However, decisions do have to be made, and the day before we met Clive he had confirmed on his Facebook page that he will vote in favour of the upcoming Second Reading of Article 50, despite Norwich voting to Remain in the EU by 56.2 percent. He tells us that “the Second Reading doesn’t trigger Article 50, it doesn’t trigger Brexit, it triggers the right for Parliament to have a debate on the Bill that the government have put before us”. However, Lewis makes his own stance on the hottest topic in years abundantly clear, telling us emphatically that: “if the Bill that comes out of the other end of the debate and the readings, if it is still a Tory Brexit, if it doesn’t have support for workers’ rights, if it doesn’t protect the environment, consumer rights, if it doesn’t have report back mechanisms to Parliament, if it doesn’t allow transparency and if it doesn’t give Parliament and the people a say over the final deal, within a time frame… then I won’t vote for it.”
It is not just Lewis’ constituency which is divided over the EU, the Parliamentary Labour Party are scrapping like cat and dog over the official Brexit position, and there have been times when he has considered his position. “Some people are resigning over the Second Reading…I came very close to doing it myself”. The three-line whip forcing Labour MPs to vote in favour of the Second Reading has caused disharmony among MPs who feel that leaving the EU will not effectively represent the views of their constituents. Jo Stevens, MP for Cardiff and Shadow Minister for Wales resigned from her Shadow Cabinet role the morning before our interview.
Despite his concerns about the whip, Lewis believes that the party would have faced criticism whichever decision they made. “Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet who wanted to whip: I understand the argument that they made. We’re damned if we did and we’re damned if we didn’t. We would have looked appallingly weak…we’ve got to hold a position on this and I respect that.” He continues by saying that the reason that he will comply with this whip is because he would support an eventual anti-Brexit whip, should the negotiations leave a “Hard Tory Brexit Bill”.
Lewis is typical of a large number of Labour MPs, torn between the London ‘liberal-metropolitan-elite’ and Northern heartland Brexit voters. Although, for all of the juxtaposing statements, his motivations in these European negotiations are clear. He is determined to get the best deal for all of his constituents, Remainers and Brexiteers: “I represent all of Norwich…what I’m going to do now is take the Supreme Court decision which I think was right and turn the Brexit that the Tories want to initiate into a better type of Brexit…I am not just paying lip service. I want to see this through until the end.”
These carefully orchestrated comments on Brexit are in stark contrast to the remarks that left him in hot water earlier this month. A Parliamentary slip-up is surely something that every MP experiences during their Commons career, as Lewis discovered in January, when he faced criticism from both sides of the House after declaring “public good, private bad” when talking about green investment.
As the cliched political stereotype goes, the Conservatives are the friends of businesses and bankers with their big bonuses, whereas Labour will always choose public ownership over private profit. Lewis admitted that his lines played right into those headline-friendly hands. “What the Tories have done is cry ‘arrrgh, socialist! Left wing Labour, Corbyn Labour, public good, private bad!’”
“I was talking about the Tories wanting to sell off the Green Investment Bank….Banks aren’t prepared to invest in innovative technologies because they can’t assess the risk. So in the sense of the GIB, it was public good, private bad. I stand by the comment in relation to the GIB. The public sector, taking the risks that the banks won’t is the right thing to do because I think those environmental, green, low-carbon technologies are the future of this country and why it’s critical that the GIB stays in public hands.”
However, he admits that, given another opportunity to speak, he may use an alternative turn of phrase. “I’m a human being it wasn’t a prepared speech, I was responding to something that the Tories had said and I came and made a comment off the back of that. In hindsight, yes of course you might phrase something differently, but what you learn is that the Despatch Box is very unforgiving, so context is critical. People want to talk things out of context they can and they will. It happens all the time, but I think that if people go back and look at the actual debate, [the context] becomes quite clear. You don’t want to be a hostage to fortune, I allowed myself to be a hostage to fortune in this sense.”
Speaking of ‘hostages of circumstance’, what else could we talk about if not Brexit. Again. Norwich has one of the youngest populations pro rata in the whole of the UK, and seeing as many young people have complained/tweeted about being ignored, or having lost control now that we are leaving the EU, we asked Clive whether he had anything to say to his student constituents, and he had very little sympathy for apathy. “My message to students would be this. Those who engage in the political process, those who vote – whether it be in a referendum, whether it be in local council elections – those are the ones who get listened to. If you want to see politics move in a different direction, then you have to engage in it yourself. You are not voiceless, you do live in a democracy. It’s not a perfect democracy, ie you have to get up, stand up and do something.
“There are organisations, there will be parties who will be doing that, but you have got to engage.”