Turning Labour outwards

Submitted by Matthew on 6 January, 2016 - 12:10

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, spoke to Solidarity.


Do you agree with the Shadow Chancellor that it would be desirable to overthrow capitalism?

I am a democratic socialist. But there are as many definitions of socialism as there are of capitalism. I think the neo-liberal version of capitalism is a world away from the post-war capitalism that we had in the 50s and 60s. Do I want to see an end to neoliberalism and this version of capitalism? Yes.
Do I think that there is a role for capitalism in the future? Well, I happen to be a pragmatist. I don’t think there is an appetite in our democratically-elected system, at the moment, for complete destruction of capitalism.

McDonnell is not talking about the overthrow of capitalism, he’s talking about making capitalism work better for more people in a fairer, more effective way.

The right want to take us into a dark, dystopian future in this country and we are offering a democratic, socialist way forward that can make our economy and society a better place. I don’t see that as being incompatible with capitalism. Who knows where we’ll be in 40, 50, 60 years?

What should the relationship be between the Parliamentary Labour Party and Party members? Do you think the free vote over Syria was the right thing to do in light of Labour’s conference policy?

There is a divide between some members of the PLP and the centre of gravity within the membership, and we need to think about how to square that circle.

On Syria, did Corbyn make the wrong call in giving members a free vote? No. I think he should have done it sooner. I understand the dilemma. We had a policy. People within the PLP interpreted the policy differently. Some people thought that the caveats had been met, others didn’t.

During the original vote on operations in Iraq, Corbyn said that matters of war are matters of political conscience. I think he was spot on. I think the Tories are wrong on this too – you shouldn’t whip, you should vote with your conscience. It’s a massive issue to send people to war, to do damage, potentially to kill people.

I understand some people think he should have whipped and I understand why he might have been tempted to do that, thinking, what’s the point of being Leader, standing on a platform of having a very different foreign intervention policy, if I can’t stop my party from voting to bomb?

MPs are not only responsible to their membership, they are also responsible to their constituents. And many MPs would say that their constituents thought they were doing the right thing.

Look at Corbyn over the Blair years. He often voted with his conscience, with what he thought were true Labour, socialist values.

There have been a number of expulsions of left-wingers from the Party. What do you think of this? Is there a place for Marxists in Labour?

I won’t comment on individual cases, because those will be dealt with by a formal process and we have to have confidence in that. As for your second question, if you can be a Marxist and hold the democratic values and principles of the Labour Party, then yes, of course I see no problem with.

What democratic changes and reforms are needed in Labour?

Without getting into specifics, what we have seen in our party over the last 20 years is a system that has become more centralised, more top-down. A big part of Jeremy’s campaign was about opening up the Labour Party to the membership, giving them more say in the positions and the policy of the party. Not just making sure that annual conference can be the primary, sovereign democratic forum for deciding what policy is, but also the National Policy Forum.

I think that anything that gives the membership more of a say is a good thing. But that has to be balanced with the ability to run a party in a modern, technocratic democracy, in a way that isn’t just going to be complete chaos.

Do you think that being a Labour MP should be a job for life, or is reasonable for Labour MPs, like councillors, to be subject periodically to mandatory reselection?

I don’t think mandatory reselection is something I agree with. People might say, “well you’re an MP, you would say that”. If my CLP is unhappy with me, there is already a process, a trigger ballot process, for them to say, “Clive, we’ve watched you for the last five years as an MP and we don’t want you to be automatically re-selected.”

So when I come up for automatic re-selection, they can open it out to other candidates. I think that system is fair. I can understand why that has caused a lot of problems for the Labour Party, with the boundary changes coming up and so on, people are worried about a purge; that’s not something I have ever agreed with — we have a difference of opinion on that.

The intense media scrutiny of everything that Momentum does is leading to a sense of paralysis, a reluctance to make decisions or to speak or act boldly or decisively. Do you agree? How do we break out of it?

Momentum is an organisation whose democratic structures have yet to be decided. It’s in a transition stage. And I can’t answer for Momentum because I’m not a spokesperson for Momentum. Momentum was not set up as a machine to purge Blairites, to deselect MPs. It wasn’t even set up to be an internal group, to focus on the internal mechanisms of the Labour Party.

It was always designed to be an organisation that worked with the Labour Party — it will now be for Labour Party members only — and which campaigned actively, to be involved with community campaigns, campaigns against the abolition of the Human Rights Act, against the Trade Union Bill, to keep the NHS public. Now, people might reasonably say, “why can’t your CLP do that?” But the reality is that some CLPs — not all — have become election machines. And rightly so, because we are in the business of winning elections. But there are a lot of people who have come into the Labour Party who also want to be able to do things beyond that.

There are lots of people who supported Corbyn’s platform who for whatever reason are not members of the Labour Party. Do you mean to say that these people have no legitimate role in Momentum?

Is there a place in Momentum for the Socialist Party, for the SWP, for parties who have stood and campaigned against Labour and who do not entirely share Labour values? No, there isn’t.

Momentum is clearly a Labour Party organisation. We might do campaigns, say on the Trade Union Bill, where we have a day of action in the city centre, collecting signatures — we’re not going to stop anyone else from getting involved, if we share the same campaign aims. But in terms of the decisions being made inside Momentum, those are for Labour Party members.

Should it not be for Momentum to decide on its own membership policy?

Clearly. And it is not right for the advisory group of Momentum to be in the hands of just a few people. We want it to be in the hands of Labour Party members who are part of Momentum. That’s where we should end up.

There is going to be an interim period of six months, and then the people who are involved with Momentum are given a democratic say over Momentum.

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