Q&A with Labour MP Clive Lewis

The UK’s political system doesn’t lend itself to cross-party cooperation, but that hasn’t stopped Labour MP Clive Lewis from crossing the aisle. Green World talks to Lewis about his work with Green MP Caroline Lucas and how democratic reform including Proportional Representation and decentralisation of politics must form part of Labour’s offer for 2024.

Clive Lewis MP
Clive Lewis MP

Image: UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0)

Green World

You’ve been a co-sponsor of the Decarbonisation Bill with Caroline Lucas. How did the Bill come about and what’s behind your collaboration with Caroline?

Since I entered Parliament in 2015, I've been a natural colleague of Caroline Lucas. I’ve always admired Caroline's politics from afar as an MP and I've never really had the tribal mistrust that a lot of my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) have of Caroline and the Green Party. 

Here in Norwich, the Green Party is very strong, and that’s caused quite a lot of tension between the two parties. That’s been difficult for me to navigate. One of the reasons we [Labour] won in Norwich was that I made the decision very early on as a candidate that the way to beat the Greens in a First Past The Post (FPTP) system and win liberal voters was not to attack them, as was the Labour strategy, rather it was to say, ‘Fair point, here’s what we are going to do about it’. 

That’s been my approach. It’s not about attacking, it’s about looking at what you have in common. So when I entered Parliament I wanted to work with Caroline. I think she was taken aback by how quickly the phones of former colleagues like Jeremy [Corbyn] and John [McDonnell] in the Socialist Campaign Group went dead. That was a foretaste of what was to come in 2017. 

During Brexit, Caroline and I worked very closely together on Another Europe is possible, and then on the Green New Deal (GND). I made a name for myself in Labour for talking up environmental issues when I was Shadow Business Secretary, so when I came off the Shadow Cabinet I was interested in carrying that on, and Caroline approached me and I jumped at the opportunity to do so. We work in the GND group, where there’s now a crossover of progressive ideas.

I had also started to talk up the concept of a Progressive Alliance in 2017 and I was getting attacked by the left and right of my party in the run up to the 2017 election. Ultimately, one of the sad things is Jeremy Corbyn would probably be prime minister now if he’d done a deal in 2017 with the Lib Dems and the Greens. We were 5,000 votes away from being in power. That’s something I think will haunt me and many others.

So that set the groundwork and I think it made it easier for Caroline to ask me after 2017. There was and continues to be a lot of anger towards the Labour Party, including under Jeremy. There was a lot of hope, including from natural Green voters, many of whom came back into the Labour Party, and they were disillusioned when it became clear that Corbyn wouldn't cooperate with other parties and ‘Labourism’ prevailed.

There was a growing sense of anger that Labour was stripping the Green Party of voters and members and they were refusing to engage in any meaningful cooperation, which meant that the fact I’d stuck my head out above the parapet meant out of many other MPs, working with me was slightly more palatable than others.

How important is cross-party collaboration in advancing a progressive agenda?

Much of our politics is centred around 19th century party political silos. Even as progressives, we find ourselves trapped in this. It’s hard to define what a progressive is, but the progressives I’m talking about have two key definitions. First, you are willing to challenge the power of capital. Even if it’s just a small erosion like the Lib Dems want, then I’m prepared to play ball with you and it's the step in the right direction, because we’re on a cliff edge, so if you’re prepared to take two or three steps in the right direction, that’s good. And the second is that you want more democracy and not less. And if those two things can be answered then you come under a broad progressive tent.

You’ll find some Tories – very few – who technically could be considered progressive, they are few and far between, but that opens up a wide range of groups and civil society that can work to achieve progressive change. The reason I’m making it so broad and moving away from the ‘Labourism’ that dominates my party – the attitude that only the Labour Party has the right to call itself a progressive party and lead progressive politics – is because I can see it’s not fit for purpose. We talk about cliff edges – technological, ecological, democratic, climate – and we as progressives need to work together to avoid these. One of the mistakes we make is only working together within our party political structures, but we need an alliance of progressives across the political spectrum. 

That can take people out of their comfort zone. People become instinctively tribal and identify with one particular silo of that progressive ecosystem but we need to weedle ourselves out of that because the crises upon us are only going to get worse. I hear people say, ‘I can’t wait for things to get back to normal’. This is the new normal. What’s going to come next? People that want things to go back to normal need to understand that if we don’t sort this out, this is how it ends. If you look back to the last decades of the Roman Empire, this is what it was like! Crisis after crisis until finally the barbarians came over the hills and sacked the city. 

So that’s one of the reasons why progressives working together becomes so important, and unless we can work together we’re done. From a pragmatic perspective, that’s enough for me to say I’m not going to be constrained by silly silos. I look at the Labour Party track record over the past century. We’re hooked on finishing in second place because of a system that is overwhelmingly in favour of the establishment and the Tory Party being in power. If any political organisation ever has a genuinely transformative leadership in place, you see what happened to Corbyn, see what happened to [Bernie] Sanders. This is not just about Corbyn and Sanders making mistakes – they made lots of them – but the fact that it happened to both of them I think shows there are structural issues as well working against them to stop them coming into power.

Part of that is a liberal metropolitan professional political class that would rather see Tories in power than politicians prepared to transform society. That’s a fundamental problem for the left, because many centrists are progressives, but they are not working for transformative change and that’s problematic for us and we’ve got to be able to get ourselves out of that hole.

Our democracy is currently experiencing a range of challenges. How can we head these off and further democratise UK society?

Democracy is about giving people more control over their lives. The last Labour manifesto of 2017-2019 touched on that. It’s about more rights at work. If you look at a number of German industries, for example, workers have a say over the direction of travel and production. I find it quite ludicrous that we live in a democracy but once you step over the threshold of work we step into a totalitarian regime where those with capital hold all the rights and have all the say. We need to give people a share in the proceeds of how things are run.

It’s about redistributing power to a local level. That doesn't necessarily mean handing power to local authorities, though devolving power is important. You can devolve power in more creative ways with new technology, the democratisation of water, energy, farming and land. 

It’s about people’s ability to have a say and control over their lives, their health care, their mental health, giving people the opportunity to have more of a say over the things that affect them. It’s about an overall moving of power away from the centre. You’ve seen during Covid-19 the rise of community groups set up working together. By giving them more resources, more ability to be transparent and accountable, to work in their communities and to have influence, there’s the potential to have democracy on a real local level.

But there are other things I'm in favour of, which are things like Universal Basic Income, moving to a four-day working week, reducing the working week, which, when crossed over with the rise of technology, you can begin to see an alternative for what our society looks like.

Covid-19 has shown us that we’ve been on a conveyor belt that you can’t get off. If you stop you come off and fly off the edge. All of a sudden with Covid-19, the conveyor belt has stopped and you can see people are going, ‘I don’t know what to do’. Some people carried on walking, but others said I don’t like being on this conveyor belt, I don’t want to commute and buy my Pret-a-Manger sandwich every morning. And people have woken up. 

The whole mantra of neoliberalism is: ‘There is no alternative’. You must consume and you must work until you drop. That was the lie we were sold. And Covid said: ‘There is an alternative’. You can have your life and the world doesn’t end. For the Tories, they are fearful the spell has been broken. They are desperate for things to get back to normal. They are terrified of people saying they don’t want to go back to normal. This is something progressives now have to work on, because the opportunity window will fade very quickly. 

What kind of coalition needs to be built to bring about proportional representation (PR)? Where are the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and Labour members on this?

I think the PLP has gotten better but it’s not there yet. Unfortunately, there's a large section of the PLP that thinks that all you need to do is change the leader. Ultimately, here in the Labour Party, too many in the PLP and membership have put a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the powers of a leader. Many want to go back to the Blair years. That era is gone. The neoliberal era of endless growth is gone. There's no point in trying to rekindle Blair, as there is no point in trying to rekindle the 1945 moment as the left does. You need to look for a 21st century moment. The key thing about PR is I don’t think anyone believes that Keir Starmer is going to be able to overturn the Tory majority by 2024 under FPTP, especially with what’s happening in Scotland. So how do you get the Tories out in 2024? It’s through a Progressive Alliance, working with other parties: SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems, the SDLP in Northern Ireland, and the Green Party. What is the glue for that alliance? It will have to be PR and a wider constitutional convention that gives us a democracy fit for the 21st century.

There is no way those parties are going to enter into meaningful dialogue with the Labour Party on a deal for the Labour Party to get into power only for Labour to then just follow its own programme and call an election in 18 months time and get a majority. No one will trust the Labour Party again. So the cement that will build that alliance is saying: ‘Let’s fix our broken democracy’. Brexit and the response to Covid are results of a broken democracy. So let’s get over the line, have a constitutional convention, which I have put forward to Keir’s team

PR is the way you will achieve part of that but PR isn’t a silver bullet and there are other things we need to do. But PR would enable us in 2024 to have an offer to other political parties to say, ‘listen, let’s get over the line, let’s get PR in, democratically through a constitutional convention, and then reform the UK and political structures within it’. Then once that's happened I think British politics would see a realignment. It would be in the best interests of democracy if that took place.

So where we are on that, in the Labour Party, is that there is an umbrella campaign, with groups like Labour for PR and Make Votes Matter, which include trade unionists, activists and more. This year's conference obviously is cancelled and I don't think there's a process to change policy, but we were planning to get that as a priority motion to get PR as policy for the party. I think we’ve got a fighting chance of being able to do that.

Where do you stand on reform of the House of Lords? How would you like to see the second chamber changed?

Firstly, I think the option should be part of any constitutional convention. So it’s not about politicians deciding from on high the democratic structure for the country. Secondly, there is an argument that the whole second chamber is a very narrow view of centralised political structures in London that hand out laws in a more democratic manner to the rest of the country.

The only reason we have to have the House of Lords is because we have such a centralised system. If you had strong regional governments that were democratic, accountable and transparent, then they could function as the second chambers. Look at the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd. If you had something strong and powerful in the regions, there’d be an opportunity for them to look over national legislation. 

If you did have a reformed second chamber, you’d want it to be democratic and you’d want it to be elected. There are some downsides and I would mention them. Having two elected representatives in the same area would create political tension between the two representatives, the parliamentary representative and the second chamber representative. Who has political democratic supremacy? I have never been able to reconcile that. Some people say well that’s fine, that’s politics, but I say there becomes an issue of democratic legitimacy.

Secondly, and it’s something I've noticed since entering Parliament, the quality of the debate in the Lords is an order of magnitude beyond what you get in the Commons in a number of areas. You have some of the world's leading scientists, business people, environmentalists, and others who’ve led rich lives where they bring that experience to law-making and oversight of legislation. I don’t think we should throw that away willy nilly. I’m not saying we should have a gerontocracy, but there must be some way that that experience can somehow still be part of the process of democratic engagement within our system and I wouldn’t want to see that thrown away. It’s not beyond the ken of our abilities as a society to be able to factor that into whatever constitutional convention came out of that.

Clive Lewis is Labour MP for Norwich South and former Shadow Business Secretary.