Interview, Main Stories

“From day one, there has been a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic… Boris Johnson wanted to be popular and didn’t want to make those difficult choices”: an interview with Labour MP Clive Lewis

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to Mr Clive Lewis MP.

Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South since 2015 and former candidate for leader of the party in 2020. A politician with strong views and someone who is not afraid to hold back, even if at times that means rebelling against his own party. Due to the ongoing pandemic, I was unable to interview him in person, as would normally be the case. Instead, I spoke to him over Zoom, during which we discussed a variety of topics including Covid-19, anti-Semitism, Keir Starmer’s leadership, and student welfare during lockdown.

COVID-19

Boris Johnson and his Conservative government have faced fierce criticism for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of writing, over 120,000 people have died in the United Kingdom, meaning the country currently has the highest death toll in Europe. “From day one, there has been a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic”, says Mr Lewis. “If you look at countries that have experienced these pandemics more recently, you will see they took this very seriously, very quickly”. Throughout the crisis, he believes the Conservative Party has faced a constant underlying ideological tussle between the economy and people’s health: “[this] meant Boris Johnson wanted to be popular and didn’t want to make those difficult choices. Eventually he came out of lockdown too early, against a lot of scientific advice, and we never completely obliterated the R rate as they did in countries like New Zealand and Taiwan”. Following the lifting of the first lockdown, the government introduced an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme which encouraged the public to visit bars and restaurants. “Once we started to get back up and running as an economy and people started intermixing”, says Mr Lewis, “how many people caught Covid and became spreaders to others? We saw that death rate begin to spike again and we went back into lockdown… So it’s cost us more in the long run and that’s because of decisions government made”.

Despite this, recent weeks have seen significant progress in the government’s vaccination programme, with all UK adults expected to have been offered their first dose by July 31st. I am keen to ask Mr Lewis, despite all the criticism from the Labour Party, if he believes the government deserves any praise for their rollout of vaccines. “Yes, praise for the fact they’ve put their trust in the National Health Service and public experts in order to deliver this”, he says. “You could say they’ve learnt their lesson from the test, track and trace”, a £22 billion system operated by a number of private companies. “I think the consequences of getting this wrong”, he argues, “meant, despite their ideological obsession with the private sector, even [the government] could see there just wasn’t the infrastructure, there wasn’t the experience, and there wasn’t the expertise to be able to deliver a big project like this [privately]”. But the Labour MP admits they have got this right, emphasising his hopes that they “learn a few lessons from that further afield”.

However, many argue the Labour Party have been critical of the government without offering any solutions of their own. I ask Mr Lewis what he has to say to those who highlight how easy it is to criticise from afar. “They’re right in many ways”, he tells me. “[People] want to see things working. If there is an unparalleled virus which is killing hundreds of thousands across the world, then many people will understandably be very worried and be willing the government to do well”. He acknowledges the challenging circumstances Boris Johnson and his cabinet are facing: “It’s difficult. You’re in a post and you’re trying to make these decisions and trying to make the right ones. There’s all these factors… all these things which can prevent you from doing what you need to do”. But, he adds: “it’s my job to say ‘well, the reason you’re in the tough situation you’re in – yes, we all acknowledge you’re doing the best you can – but the reason you’re only able to do what you can and those limitations are there is, in part, because of the political choices that you and your party have made previously”.

Brexit

Since the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, Mr Lewis has been a vocal supporter of a second ‘People’s Vote’. This was an issue which led to a series of clashes between him and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with whom he had previously held close ties. Much of the British public claim such a stance undermined democracy and the will of the people, a belief Lewis asserts is “wrong”, arguing: “the process by which the referendum came about, there was so much hubris. It was basically to get the eurosceptics out of David Cameron’s hair… The referendum was [his] way of putting this to bed, shutting them up”. Of course, as Mr Lewis points out, the outcome was not as the Conservative leadership expected and, on June 24th 2016, Britain had voted to leave the European Union. The result led to Mr Cameron’s subsequent resignation and, in the years following, calls for a second referendum intensified. Many pointed to what had been seen in countries like Ireland and Denmark. In 2001, the former had voted to reject the Treaty of Nice, before a subsequent vote in 2002 saw its approval. Likewise, Denmark followed a similar process regarding the Maastricht Treaty, rejected in 1992 and approved in 1993. “If you look at big constitutional changes around the world in most mature democracies”, says Mr Lewis, “then there is normally at least a two-stage process: there’s the initial vote, a cooling off phase, and then a second vote”. In response to such an argument, many have questioned how many referendums would have to occur before a final decision was made. However, Mr Lewis argues the country was in deep division, exemplified by the hung parliament in 2017, and, as such, the question should have been asked again “now that people had been given the time to think about this”. Mr Lewis says the outcome of the second vote would then have been accepted, no matter the outcome, adding: “it wasn’t about less democracy. How can giving people – not politicians – but people, more choice, how can that be less democratic?”

Mr Lewis continued to speak out against Brexit, even when his party would not. On December 24th 2020, Boris Johnson and the Conservative government finally agreed a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. In a move which rebelled against instructions from his own party, Mr Lewis abstained from voting for the agreement. “Unlike the European Parliament, we didn’t get a chance to scrutinise and debate it”, he argues. “In the UK, we were told Boris Johnson had signed it and he wants us to rubber stamp it. But there was an opportunity to debate this, we’d been given time to do so. But our government chose to basically get parliament to rubber stamp Johnson’s decision without any scrutiny and without any formal debate – apart from I think we were given one day”. Mr Lewis says his decision was not about the trade deal, but about “our democracy. I was not prepared to vote in a way which handed that power to our executive, especially this executive which I have great concerns about. That’s why I rebelled”.  

2019 general election results

It has been just over a year since the 2019 general election, a vote which saw Labour’s worst defeat since 1935. The party’s so-called “red wall”, a group of Labour stronghold constituencies across the midlands and the north of England, crumbled as areas such as Blyth Valley and Burnley became Conservative for the first time in decades. Many have argued such a defeat was the outcome of the party’s further shift to the left and the failure to take a stance on Brexit. I ask Mr Lewis what he believes the reasons were behind such a catastrophic defeat. “I think we could have put a saint in as leader, they will make sh*t up”, he says. “There are clearly elements of power in our society, in our economy, in our democracy… which are not controlled or contained by the ballot box”. His belief is that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership challenged, “in a transformative way, those with hereditary wealth, power, and privilege” such as financial institutions and corporations. “This isn’t a conspiracy”, he says, “you only have to read [Karl] Marx to understand this is a valid political theory”. He believes it is only possible for Labour to win if they accept a lot of the terms and conditions which say “you can rule, but only on these terms”. He says: “what Corbyn and what that Labour administration represented was ‘no, we won’t. We will do it on some of the terms, but on a lot more transformative terms which are going to affect the balance of power’”. He acknowledges, in this sense, implications were inevitable as such a position is “never going to go well with people that want to hold on to that power”.

Anti-Semitism

For a number of years Labour has been plagued with accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2020, a report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found them responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act due to their handling of anti-Semitism. In response to the findings, though stating anti-Jewish hatred was “abhorrent” and “one anti-Semite is one too many in the party”, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended by Labour due to his remarks claiming “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”. I am keen to ask Mr Lewis, given his previous support of the Corbyn leadership, his thoughts on this issue and whether he believes it is still a problem within the party. “We are a party of anti-racism”, he says. “We have a difficult history, a difficult relationship with anti-racism, and I think there’s what we say about anti-racism – and I include all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism – and what we do”.

He points to the ‘socialism of fools’, a left-wing anti-Semitism. “When you get a conflation of concern about Israel”, he says, “where the left are often seen as being concerned about the human rights and injustices that take place there, some people overstep the mark in terms of who they blame, how they lay blame, and how they attack what they perceive to be those injustices. They can and often do step over the line into anti-Semitism”. Lewis also believes “there are some people who too easily buy into this process of being anti-capitalist and anti-banker, for example, and then equating that with anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish people being bankers”. However, he is keen to separate those who do it deliberately and those who don’t: “where there are overt racists, overt ant-Semites who know what they’re doing and are trying to propagate that anti-Semitism, there is no place for those people. But there are a lot of people who make mistakes, who, when they have done things which could be perceived as being offensive, say ‘I’m mortified I have done this’”. Rather than those individuals being thrown out of the party, he believes “we should hold on to them”, adding: “let’s educate and keep them in. People need to know they can make mistakes”.

Mr Lewis does not believe “zero tolerance is either possible or desirable, and one of the reasons I don’t believe it is desirable is because you’re either a tolerant party or you’re not”. He believes zero tolerance “is not realistic and there’s political gimmickry attached to it. In my opinion, it’s like ‘look at what I’m going to do on this’”, adding: “how can we have these conversations about race, about identity, about patriotism, about our history, about where anti-Semitism comes from, where racism comes from, the underpinning ideologies, how do we have that conversation unless people are able to make mistakes but it’s coming from the right place?”

He believes the issue lies deep-rooted in society and, as such, all political parties must be vigilant: “the Labour Party is part of the United Kingdom. We live in an institutionally and structurally racist, sexist, homophobic, discriminatory society. Therefore, there will be racism, including anti-Semitism in the party. But, because of the party we are, of social and economic justice, of wanting race equality, race justice, we have to strive to be better”. He says there is a problem of all kinds of racism, including anti-Semitism within the party, and that’s because people are taken from a wider society where it is also an issue. “I’m quite happy to look at ourselves – I’m not going to do a ‘what about the Tories’”, he says. “The Tories are a party that have been closely associated, historically and to this day, with a racist approach… I’m not going to judge my party by them, their history speaks for itself. We can’t compare ourselves to them, we have to be better by order of magnitude, by the very nature of who we are and what we stand for and what they stand for”.

Keir Starmer’s leadership

Mr Lewis has been a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer. Most recently he condemned Starmer’s use of the Union Jack in a leaked presentation, while also voicing his opposition to the Labour leader’s decision to drop his pledge to bring back the freedom of movement with the EU should he win a general election.

Following such criticism, I ask Mr Lewis if he believes Keir Starmer is the right man to lead the party. “He is because he won that election”, he says. “He won it a year ago and we’re a democratic socialist party, and I believe that Keir Starmer and his leadership should be given a chance”. Many within the party, particularly members of the Socialist Campaign Group, have been critical of Mr Starmer’s leadership. However, despite being part of the Group, Mr Lewis says: “I didn’t buy into a war of attrition from day one of his victory. To me that was wrong. He has to be able to try and do his thing and take us in a direction I think many would… call a democratic socialist centre-left direction of travel”. He emphasises his desire to see Mr Starmer as Prime Minister in 2024, but there will be occasions where they are led in a direction some members don’t believe is strategically useful or wise: “There is a balance between being cheerleaders for your party, which we have to be because there are so many people trying to do us down, and saying ‘hold on a second, is this such a good idea, maybe we need to discuss this a bit more before we go down this path’. Now, to me, that is constructive criticism”.

Though Mr Lewis acknowledges the challenges MPs such as Mr Starmer face during a pandemic, “if you’re building a house, you kind of need a pencil sketch of the house you’re trying to build. No one is expecting detailed policy, but I think there has been a vision of values vacuum which is becoming difficult to justify”. In particular, Mr Starmer has come under fierce criticism for his dismissal of calls to defund the police and his labelling of the Black Lives Matter movement as “a moment”. “This does begin to paint a picture which I think we, as party members and MPs, have a right to a fair critique of”, says Mr Lewis. “If the roles were reversed and I was leader, I would want people to be supportive, but I’d also want people to say ‘hold on a second, is this the right way forward? Have you thought about this?’ Good leaders listen. If the criticism comes from a good place, then that’s a valuable service you can offer”.

So, is Keir Starmer the right man to take Labour forward? To this, Mr Lewis reiterates: “he is the democratically elected leader of our party. I might want to see him do different things at different times, but he is the leader and he gets to make those choices… he will arguably be taking us into the next election, and as a Labour MP and someone who wants to see a transformative Labour government, I want to see him delivering on those policy pledges”.

Student mental health

During the first 2020 UK lockdown, nearly 73% of students said their mental health had declined. Universities have also registered a sharp rise in the number of suicides and attempted suicides over the last couple of years. Mr Lewis has been an outspoken critic of what he has in the past labelled a “failing mental health service” within the United Kingdom and has met with University of East Anglia representatives a number of times to discuss the crisis. “I think the mental health situation is a very real issue”, he tells me. “I think we know mental health issues affect all ages, all people, but there are a disproportionate number of them [affecting] young people”. He believes this is something that should be of a large concern to government and to universities, asserting: “I would say one of the problems associated with mental health is this sense of powerlessness to affect your own destiny and that can have real implications on people’s mindset, on depression”.

Mr Lewis highlights a “recipe for mental health problems” during the pandemic as he underlines a combination of students not having a clear idea of what they should be doing, the backlash when they get things wrong, and the “pressure of supposedly being a financially independent adult who then isn’t, because they’re being told go home and study”. He points out many students may have felt pressured into returning home because friends and housemates have all returned to their families: “people are thinking to themselves ‘I don’t want to be in that house on my own, isolated. I want to be around people’, and so they’ve gone home. But their conditions of their home life [may not be suitable]”. Mr Lewis explains his situation as a child growing up on a council estate and highlights how challenging he would have found the current situation many students face. “If I came back in the summer holidays, I slept on the sofa or my brothers had to bunk up”, he says. “So if I had to then do my studies in the house as well where my brothers are clanging about, watching TV, well how does that work? There are all kinds of pressures on young people and I don’t necessarily feel the government has thought this through”.

Mr Lewis believes this is all part of a deep-rooted issue. “Because it is not acute, you often feel that the government believe [mental health] is something that can almost be swept under the carpet”, he says. “But it’s literally an invisible killer… There are a lot of people suffering on their own, some who may not feel they need a specific service to get treatment, but who nonetheless are suffering. Sometimes it is very difficult to go and get help, for the help to be there, or to feel help is accessible. So I think the government could be doing more on mental health and I think there is a potential pandemic of mental health across society but increasingly, and in particular, across students at university”.

Student financial hardship during the pandemic

Though some universities, including UEA, have offered rebates on rent to first years, many second and third years have been forced to continue paying rent to private landlords despite being at home with families. Mr Lewis believes the cost of the pandemic should “fall on the broadest shoulders… anyone who has accrued debts and arrears through the pandemic should have them wiped and should be given a clean slate so they won’t be evicted”. He emphasises, should landlords then feel they are under financial pressure, “it should be them who apply to government for this pot of money”. He believes the government should then analyse this hardship and say: “Ah I see you own outright four properties and your financial hardship is, well you won’t be able to go skiing in Switzerland next year with your family for six weeks. You might want to take your application elsewhere”. However, acknowledging some landlords may genuinely require assistance, Mr Lewis says: “at the same time, there may be [someone] who has invested their life savings, a choice they made themselves, that has taken the hit and can now apply to government and receive the support they need”. Ultimately, he emphasises “the support needs to go to those with narrower shoulders, like students, like families. They should not be bearing the brunt of this. It should be the landlords who bear the brunt of it and, yes, they didn’t ask for this pandemic either, but it should be up to them to apply to government, and government should set the criteria for what constitutes hardship amongst them”.

Regarding the calls for a compensation of tuition fees, Mr Lewis points out it is up to the government, not the university, to do so. “The loan that people take out for tuition and maintenance is a contract between students and the student loan company, which I understand is underwritten by government”, he says. “So universities can apply pressure, and I think UEA is for different outcomes, but ultimately it is up to the student loans company, who answer to the government”. He highlights universities have mothballed services, and students “will expect to come back and see a functioning university”. This means universities could give the money back to students, but this would leave a hole in their budget. “This hole”, he argues, “would have to be filled by the government”.

Looking ahead, Mr Lewis continues to be in touch with UEA representatives throughout the pandemic. As our interview comes to a close he acknowledges that students “have not had the experience they should be having”. He does, however, add: “I get the gut feeling that UEA management, while not perfect, make a lot of difficult decisions with students’ interests at heart… UEA, from my understanding, are one of the better universities for this and I’m really pleased with that, but they can always do more”.

03/03/2021

About Author

William Warnes

Global Editor - 2019/20

Co-Deputy Editor - 2020/21



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