Waiting in the side room of Clive Lewis’ office at OPEN Norwich, we wonder whether the Norwich South MP wants to be Labour leader after his pal (most of the time) Corbyn. He’s got all the right qualities. We can hear him laughing next door: charming. Tick. He was in the army. Toured Afghanistan. Tick. He’s weathered some scandals. Tick. Sounds like a pretty good résumé. He’s made it as part of the establishment. He was an officer in the army, a BBC reporter, and now he’s a politician. Few people have done that by the age of 47. When he’s done chuckling next door, Mr Lewis invites us in, and we begin our interview.
Anti-Semitism in Labour:
Some say Corbyn’s inability to deal with accusations of anti-Semitism in Labour is a key reason he isn’t leading Theresa May in the polls, even with her management (some say mismanagement) of Brexit.
‘If we had dealt with [anti-Semitism] more effectively and quickly and robustly than we had, it would have then made the political space for us to be able to say ‘OK we’ve dealt with it quickly, robustly. It’s happened.’’
Mr Lewis remains proud of Labour’s progressive history, and tells us Labour ‘brought in the first equality legislation, the first anti-racist legislation, the first race discrimination legislation. We have done that in the face of Tory opposition throughout the post-war period.
However, ‘just because you’re left wing doesn’t mean you’re immune to sexism or racism or any of the other isms.’
Lewis has struggled with scandals himself. Not of anti-Semitism, but sexism. He was cleared of sexual harassment allegations in 2017, though later footage emerged of him saying ‘get on your knees bitch’ at a Labour conference. He explains: ‘I’ve grown up in an environment where calling, in private normally, male colleagues, I have used the term bitch.’
‘Do I still think that I can think things through in a sexist, racist way? Yes I do. It’s a constant struggle. It’s not something you achieve Zen enlightenment on where you’re suddenly no longer sexist, no longer racist. It’s a constant struggle because you live in a society which is imbued with it.’
‘What people do and say behind closed doors is their business,’ he says. But language is important. He explains only recently he scolded himself for making a unfair assumption about a black person he saw.
‘I made assumptions about how they were going to be and how they were going to interact with me. I was so far off of the mark. And I felt bad as a result. I’m black myself, and yet I can still think like that. MPs are not immune to those forces.’
‘But we’re constantly trying, I’m constantly questioning,’ Lewis says. ‘We’ve been a racist society for 400 years. We’ve been a sexist society for even longer. You can’t be living in a sexist, racist society without it in some way affecting you.’
To deal with anti-Semitism, Lewis thinks Labour needs ‘a program where those people are either suspended or re-educated. And there’s provision for both. Re-education sounds very PolPot-ian. But I mean educated in the fact that that isn’t an acceptable view to hold in the Labour Party.’
Some may not see Lewis as a role model. Indeed the Norwich South MP isn’t sure any MP can be ‘a positive role model, especially with the hash we’re making of Brexit and politics generally.’
Mr Lewis admits: ‘You can accept yourself being a role model. And that is tough because you put role models on a pedestal. I don’t like being on a pedestal because the thing with pedestals is you usually fall off them.’
‘I’ve watched Ed Miliband. I’ve watched Gordon Brown. I’ve watched Tony Blair. I’ve watched Jeremy. [Being Prime Minister] is a very unforgiving job. I mean if you look at Tony Blair now he’s a marmite figure.’
According to Lewis, ‘If you going to do anything in politics you going to make enemies. If you’re going to do anything worthwhile. I can’t think of any political leader in my lifetime who has left office unscathed.’
Though he will ‘never say never’ to Labour leadership, at the moment Mr Lewis says ‘it’s not really appealing.’
‘But at the same time if you felt you’re in a position where you could make a fundamental difference and do some good – why would you be in politics and not want that to happen?’
But he won’t move against Jeremy Corbyn. ‘That will never be me,’ Lewis says.
This year UEA has invested an extra £250,000 in student support services after four student deaths in ten months. Additionally, over 8,800 students have signed a petition demanding direct action to what they call a ‘mental health crisis.’
Lewis tells us, ‘We’ve got a failing mental health service. I’m one of a handful of MPs that have said mental health services should be put into special measures i.e. taken direct control of by the Department for Health.’ We ask him whether UEA is doing enough for young people with mental health problems. He says, ‘No is the answer.’
The Norwich South MP adds he feels young adults are disproportionately affected by mental health issues owing to developing brain chemistry and a generational divide linked to wealth, employment, and job security. ‘That all adds to the stress and the strain,’ he says.
‘So do I think enough is being done? No, quite clearly not. It’s been a failure for young people across the city and across the county. I think you only have to open the Evening News to see that’s the case. It’s not rocket science for me to be able to tell you that it’s not good enough.’
According to government statistics at least 95 UK university students took their lives between 2016-17, and suicide remains the leading cause of death in young people. For Lewis, a properly funded mental health service and NHS is key to the solution.
‘You need to tackle the fundamental issues which are going on, which is austerity.’
‘We wonder why mental health issues are at an all time high, because there’s such anxiety, and that’s before we even get onto climate change and the existential threat of biodiversity collapse which is going to affect your generation more than mine.’
A key reason Clive Lewis did not join The Independent Group (now renamed Change UK) is climate change.
Lewis says Change UK’s founders all voted to expand Heathrow airport, but ‘this is incompatible and inconceivable to vote for if you understand the climate crisis coming upon us’.
He tells us, ‘The existential threat of biodiversity collapse is going to affect your generation more than mine because you’ve got longer to go.’
‘Science tells us we have ten years to half the amount of greenhouse gases that we put into the atmosphere globally. Half again in the next ten years, and half that again in the decade after that if we’re going to have any chance of keeping temperature under a rise of 1.5°C. If you miss any one of those ten year markers, you’ve blown it.’
For Lewis only a radical shift from neoliberal economics and centrist politics will ensure humanity reaches these markers.
Lewis says it’s ‘not about people knitting muesli’, but ‘moving to an economy which is sustainable and understands the intrinsic value of what it is to be a human being.’
‘I think we’ve lost our way over the last 40 years. We can find it again. But it means having different notions of what growth are, or what is economic success. I don’t think destroying the planet is economic success.’
Lewis thinks a radical government can find a better way for society to live. ‘It sounds like pie in the sky, but the alternative is ecological destruction and the end of global civilisation. So let’s give it a go.’
We spoke to Lewis again in the wake of Extinction Rebellion’s protests in April. He told us: “The climate activism we’ve seen in recent weeks has been humbling and inspiring and has been a striking and vital wake up call to take rapid and profound action. The climate and biodiversity emergency is this current generation’s cause. All generations must hear the voices of those young people and act right now.”
Brexit has hogged the headlines for three years. Many people believe it’s an issue that will define a generation. Deadline after deadline has passed, promises broken, and few people claim to know when, or even if Brexit will happen. For Clive Lewis the problem is Theresa May. ‘To be quite frank she’s blown it,’ he says. ‘What she’s actually saying is it’s my way or the highway.’
Lewis adds: ‘It’s had to be a hard Tory Brexit rather than say ‘OK how do we bring the 58 to 42 percent together but still respect the outcome of that referendum?’ And there’s been none of that, now for her to say it’s my way or the highway to be quite frank it’s just symptomatic of how she’s approached the whole thing.’
But Lewis thinks he has the answer. He wants a second, ‘final say referendum’. He says having two part referendums ‘should make sure that you don’t have a complete plonker like David Cameron – trotters up Cameron – who basically in the interests of his own political party called an ill and hastily conceived referendum’.
But Lewis’ second referendum wouldn’t be a decision between a hard or soft Brexit. ‘It clearly has to be, ‘do you want to make the massive economic and constitutional jump outside of the EU with all of the potential disruption that that entails? Or do you want to stay?’’
Lewis believes the Labour leader and Lewis’ long-time ally Jeremy Corbyn needs to be ‘showing bold leadership on this issue’ and back a final say referendum for the sake of the country and for a better chance at securing a Labour victory in the next election.
Lewis says there are three things Corbyn has to do: ‘He should push on giving the public a final say on whatever Brexit deal comes out of Parliament. He should and is make [sic] a massive emphasis on climate and biodiversity loss because this is the elephant in the room and on social and economic justice.’
‘Two of them he is doing fine, two out of three isn’t too bad. Two out of three is good.’
But for Lewis, the final say referendum is a sticking point. ‘That third one I think is necessary.’
That said, even after the breakaway of some MPs to form Change UK Lewis says he is ‘still very much behind the Corbyn project when it comes to the kind of radical transformative changes that we’re talking about’. Lewis says he was never tempted to join the breakaway group.
The Norwich South MP understands not everyone agrees with him. He acknowledges he has ‘to listen to my constituents, listen to the arguments in Parliament, listen to the arguments made by professionals’.
But Lewis says he is not a delegate sent to parliament by his constituents. ‘I’m not a delegate,’ he says. ‘I’m a representative.’ He adds, ‘Sometimes you do have to do what you think is right. But there is also a price for that. You lose your position. You piss off people in your party and you might piss off some of your constituents.’
Knife Crime and County lines, austerity and policing:
Many people will agree Norwich is a fairly peaceful place, but a growing problem is county lines. These are drug gangs linked with rising knife crime, largely from London, who exploit children, using them as mules to traffic drugs to counties like Norfolk.
‘Theresa May is basically saying police numbers and austerity have had nothing to do with knife crime. Well she’s got to say that because if she concedes that austerity and cutting in police numbers which have happened on her watch as both home secretary and Prime Minister then she’s obviously admitting to being responsible for that. I think inevitably she’s going to deny it.’
Lewis blames the rise of crime and county lines on the 2011 Tory cuts. ‘You’ve got a probation service which has been privatised, handed over to G4S who’ve then handed it back and it’s collapsed.’
‘You’ve got social work reform which has gone bad. You’ve got prisons in chaos, underfunded, and not doing the rehabilitation that they should do. You’ve got a perfect storm if you will: homelessness, reduction in police numbers, police and crime support officers completely obliterated from our police force’.
The Norwich South MP adds: ‘Is it little wonder then that you have people coming through on county lines, people who are vulnerable, people who can then be taken on board and used in this way, people who end up on the streets, people who end up in a situation where it is easier to move into criminality?’
Clive Lewis’ answer to the problem, perhaps surprisingly, lies with Tony Blair. Lewis tells us ‘Tony Blair had the right idea when he said ‘tough on crime tough on the causes of crime.’’
He explains ‘the reason that resonates within the British public was because the British public understood intrinsically that people make choices. And if you make a choice to stab someone or to become a criminal there may be a myriad of factors which narrow down your life chances to get you to that point but nonetheless you made that decision and you did that and there is a component of responsibility for your actions.’
But Lewis isn’t throwing traditional socialism on the rubbish heap and jumping on the Blairmobile.
His resolution revolves around challenging ‘the fundamental issues’. It’s about combatting ‘austerity and a kind of deregulated, low pay, insecure workforce where the very fabric of the welfare state is beginning to fall apart and haemorrhage’.
Universities and political correctness:
Years before becoming a politician Clive Lewis worked at the BBC as a security guard, before getting a diploma in journalism, working on local newspapers, and eventually becoming a senior broadcast journalist and the main reporter on the BBC’s Politics Show East.
Lewis tells us one reason he stopped working for the BBC is that he ‘found BBC culture quite limiting, quite restrictive.’ According him the problem is only getting worse.
In 2017 Lewis admitted at a Momentum rally he practised biased reporting while working at the BBC, saying ‘I was able to project my own particular political positions on things in a very subtle way.’
And now? Lewis says ‘they’ve taken political objectivity and impartiality to an extreme. It’s only recently the BBC has announced that it’s downgraded the necessity within the editorial guidelines for there to be climate sceptics in debate on climate change. I think that’s fucking ridiculous.’
‘Unfortunately what the BBC ends up doing is sitting on the fence and wherever those inequalities are, wherever power is, the BBC reinforces that because they’re not challenging it.’
It’s not that Lewis wants to make the BBC more left wing, but to make it more responsive to democracy ‘rather than to neo-liberal capitalist practices, which is where I currently think it is.’
When we ask how people should then address more controversial topics Lewis tells us he believes potentially troubling views should be heard. ‘It’s a really difficult issue because you want people to be able to engage in those ideas and you want them to be taken apart,’ he said.
‘The problem is when you have people who are espousing alt-right or fascist ideologies and that’s where people begin to have no platforms. I don’t think a blanket no platform is always the best way. The one thing you do need if you have no platform policies is an education program to explain why.’
Lewis doesn’t believe there is a political correctness or free speech problem on campuses, and rightly so. In 2016, an assessment from Wonkhe found not a single Students’ Union in the UK had banned a speaker in the preceding 12 months, noting ‘press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality.’
He told us he believes the false narrative of a ‘free speech crisis’ is a backlash from forces on the right wing. ‘It’s not entirely, but mainly the right who feel safe spaces have in some way undermined their private sense of entitlement.
‘But I think they over step a line once they think their freedom of speech is more important than other people feeling safe on campus. And yes, it is a political decision, it has to be made.’
Summing up his thoughts on free speech and political correctness at universities, Lewis noted there is healthy debate taking place on most campuses, and suggested people who think otherwise should try to understand why we have rules and regulations to create safe spaces in the first place.
‘What is more important: a person’s right to insult and undermine and to incite political hatred, or other groups’ rights to exist in a safe space?’