Clive Lewis: ‘It’s time to tell the truth’

Clive Lewis: ‘It’s time to tell the truth’

On Labour, loss and scandal — Just a week after Labour’s historic election defeat, the competition to replace Jeremy Corbyn is already in full swing. Tonight, as he announces his intention to run, we catch up with Clive Lewis MP to talk through scandal, loss, and his plans for the future.

A week on from their historic election loss, the Labour Party are still reeling. After achieving the worst result in almost a century, leader Jeremy Corbyn indicated that he would step down as soon as a replacement leader and deputy (former deputy leader Tom Watson stood down before the election) could be elected. In doing so, he fired the starting pistol on what many see as the battle for the future of the Labour Party. 

The race is set to expose many of the faultlines and divisions running through the party. As of this morning, only Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has formally declared her intention to run, with others expecting to announce in the coming weeks. Another potential candidate is Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Secretary Of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who has been endorsed by outgoing shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

This evening, Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, formally announced his intention to stand. After working as a BBC journalist for 16 years, Lewis attended Sandhurst military academy and worked as an officer in the Territorial Army, serving a tour in Afghanistan in 2009. He was elected to Parliament in 2015, and was appointed to the Shadow Cabinet four months later after Corbyn became party leader. After famously resigning from a frontbench position in order to vote against the triggering of article 50, Lewis was brought back to the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Minister for Economic Sustainability and has worked at length with Green MP Caroline Lucas to table the Green New Deal bill.  A vocal proponent of a People’s vote, Lewis has butted heads with various factions of the party in his short time in Parliament, and is no stranger to controversy (he told a fellow contest at a party conference gameshow to “get on your knees bitch”, and was involved in an alleged groping scandal in 2017).

As he launches his bid to lead the party, Huck went down to exclusively chat to him about controversy, the devastating election results and his plan to bring the party back out of the wilderness. 

Jeremy Corbyn has spent the last four years being mauled by the media. It’s something the next leader of the Labour party will have to deal with. How are you, someone who is not a stranger to controversy, going to survive that?
When I joked about having a threesome with a goat and Ed Miliband in 2015, I learnt very quickly that when you speak to the media, existential musings about alternative realities probably aren’t the wisest thing to do. I’m a passionate person, sometimes I speak from the hip. It’s about finding a balance between being yourself, and at the same time being someone that understands that you have a large responsibility on your shoulders.

No one has a perfect track record, I certainly don’t and I didn’t come into politics to suddenly become boring. But at the same time, I also understand that you’re not elected as leader of the Labour Party to entertain people.

I’m definitely not going to compare myself to Boris Johnson but he certainly has a personality. I think the standards that we accept for who our leaders look like and what they sound like are clearly very different on the left of politics than they are for the right. For the right, scandals tend to be about money and power. For the left, they tend to be about sex and culture.

And what about the scandals surrounding you?
If we’re talking about the “on your knees” comment, I apologised straight away for that – but when that story broke, the context was missing completely. I hadn’t said that about a female staff member. I’d said it to a man, that I know, onstage at a quite rowdy gameshow. That doesn’t justify it, but it puts it into context. I knew as soon as I’d said it that it was wrong, and that I shouldn’t have done it. I also learnt that perhaps participating in Novara Media game shows at conferences is not something I should repeat. 

In terms of the allegations that happened at the party conference in 2017, they were dismissed, the case was dropped by the party. When people understand the facts – which is that during a selfie I put my arm around her and my hand slapped her thigh. She claims I squeezed her bum, but I can’t remember that. It’s entirely possible that I did hug her in for the selfie, and it could be seen as a squeeze, that’s something that I have to accept. 

I’ve spent 40 plus years as Clive Lewis, and one of the things you have to come to terms with is you are no longer just Clive Lewis – you are Clive Lewis MP. It does come with responsibilities, and so someone asking to be in a picture with you, and you putting your arm around them and hugging them in, [I have to remember that I’m doing it as] Clive Lewis MP, in the public eye. So there is a power dynamic, which means that you just can’t do that. So I have had to change how I engage with people – women especially. It’s a really sad thing to say, but it is a sign of our times. I also have to think about that when I’m alone with female activists. You never want to be in a situation where someone can make a claim when it’s their word against yours. Those are the things you have to think about now: you shouldn’t have to, and I never did before, but I think since the #MeToo movement, there’s a more heightened sense about those power relationships. 

I also had to apologise to someone for picking them up and spinning them around, and that’s something I would have done without thinking in my time as Clive Lewis. I’ve gone through my life without having a reputation for being a groper – as far as I’m aware no one at the BBC in the 12 years I worked there claimed that I was a groper. I’m sure that someone would have said if that was the case, or if I’d unduly touched someone in the wrong way. And you know, in the army it never happened. So for me to now, as an MP, suddenly start thinking that I can get away with groping people, which I’ve not done for the vast majority of my adult life… why would I start now? 

As you said, politics is an incredibly male-dominated field. A lot of people have been saying that the next leader of the Labour party should be a woman. You’re running for leader, so you clearly don’t believe that do you?
If there was a woman in the race who I think had the politics and the strategy to be able to get us out of the hole we find ourselves in, I’d back her. Let’s be really clear here: it’s an existential threat that the Labour Party faces at this moment. If we go down to another electoral defeat it’s looking very unsure whether the party will continue to exist as a force in British politics. So be under no illusion of the risk, and the scale of the challenge that is before us. 

This is about strategy, policies and leadership, and while gender and geography are important it’s about who has the best politics and who has the best vision. If there is a woman in this campaign that I think demonstrates that, then I would support them, but I don’t think there is. There could be other entrants, but I’m struggling to see them. Now that’s not me being arrogant, and saying that only I know what’s best for the party: I think there are other people who have bits of the story and the narrative, but I don’t think they have all of them.

I’m an outsider. We know the great outsider was Jeremy Corbyn, and you can see now how he was in the right time in the right place which is so often the case in history. I might not be in the right time or right place. [But] part of the liberating aspect of being an outsider is that you don’t really have to compromise on the truth, you don’t have to build a cage for yourself, you can tell it like it is. I think now is the right time for that, given where we are. But telling the truth seems to be a really important thing now – I’m highly unlikely to get any of the big unions on my side, that means I can talk about things that perhaps other candidates can’t. 

So what is your strategy?
If we are going to be able to rebuild this country, we have to be able to ensure our party is in the right place. I want to say we should adopt a policy of PR. I want to say that we need to start working with other political parties. The FPTP system is broken, so that needs to change. 

I don’t think, given the dire situation we find ourselves, that simply believing that Labour has a monopoly on wisdom and can do this on their own is a credible position. There are elements in our party that are very tribal, I’m not one of them. I’m proud of being a socialist and being in the Labour Party, but we need to work with other political parties. People always think that means going into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – it does not. It means laying down the gauntlet to parties like the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

If you look at the history of the post-war period, it’s only in 1997, by moving to the right quite significantly, that we were able to have a convincing majority. I don’t want to shift, fundamentally, to the right. I want to stay pretty much on the left if possible because I think many of those policies that came out – like public ownership and the Green New Deal – were fantastic and resonated with the public. Not only were they resonating with the public, they were also the right thing to do, because if you look at the scale of the climate crisis, and if you look at the crisis of democracy we’re facing, nothing short of a radical manifesto offer will do. But we have to be able to communicate it to those communities that need to hear it.

The party is more divided than ever. How will a Clive Lewis leadership bring in people from across the Labour party?
You have to have faith and hope in peoples’ humanity. What I think people are increasingly sick and tired of in the Labour Party is seeing these swings from left and right. I just feel that people have had enough of that. I also think if we can’t demonstrate that we can work with others nicely, then how are we ever going to operate nicely with ourselves? By having a collaborative, open transformative approach. One of the things that has been so disappointing about the Corbyn Project is the way that it has been so slow to reach out to people of a different tradition. I was never an insider – for a brief while I was maybe on the outskirts of the doughnut. But I was never an insider. It’s really a small group of people, you have to be obedient to what it is that they believe is in the best interest. It doesn’t feel democratic, it doesn’t feel open engaging. 

…[That said], those on the right of the party have consistently acted, as far as I’m concerned, in a completely despicable and un-comradely way. People would argue they had good reason, because of anti-semitism, because of the factionalism. But that factionalism crosses both left and right, and I think the vast bulk of people in the party don’t want to simply keep swinging between the left and the right. They actually want to move forward and they actually want to have a party which is as unified as it possibly can be. I think that is possible, I think if we have the mindset for having an open tolerant, democratic Labour Party then that can spread to other political parties. I think that’s what we need to do.

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