Thoughts on Clive Lewis' 10 January campaign event

Submitted by AWL on 11 January, 2020 - 10:09 Author: Rick Parnet
Clive Lewis MP

I attended Clive Lewis’ Labour leadership campaign event at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton on 10 January. (For his full speech at the event, see here.)

There were lots of good things about it. Clive made an impressive pitch about why he’d chosen that venue, about “Labour heartlands” in the big cities, about not taking the BME and migrant working class for granted, about his political engagement starting with his migrant, black, trade unionist, socialist father. The general thrust and tone of what he said on antiracism, on immigration and on progressing democratisation of the party were positive. And of course it would be very good to have democratic-minded left-wing MP with a strong record on many issues, particularly migrants’ rights and internationalism, lead Labour – particularly a black MP.

Having said that, I was disappointed by the politics of what Clive said. It seemed to me largely a continuation of his campaign’s political weaknesses from the start.

There was no attempt to address accusations of sexism and the fairly disastrous comments he made to Huck magazine in mid-December. Really the point is that he should have addressed these issues long before now.

More generally, the program Clive set out was limited and vague. There were major things missing and heavy emphasis on the wrong things, even where I did not disagree.

The campaign is bringing out a manifesto soon, which may develop things further. Given that Clive may be out of the contest on 13 January, this seems a little late in the day.

For now the campaign seems to have no or very little social program, very little to say about how society should be reorganised, beyond questions of political democracy. So Clive talked and quite a lot about proportional representation, scrapping the House of Lords, the right to a new independence referendum in Scotland, and a Constitutional Convention. (In response to a question about the monarchy, I thought he called for a referendum on abolishing it, but he then tweeted that he only meant on reducing its expenses, and that he has “lots of respect for the hard work they do”…) But nothing on public ownership, housing, council services, the NHS, social care, the welfare state, trade union rights…

This is doubly disappointing because Labour conference has recently passed solid left-wing policy on almost all these issues (the Labour manifesto contained plenty of good ideas too). Surely it should not be ignored?

That relates to another disappointment, on Labour Party democracy. Clive made the right noises, about breaking from a top-down culture in favour of real democratisation, but there were very few concrete specifics. In particular what was missing was the idea that conference should decide the party’s policy and direction. A question on this was the only one, I think, that he didn’t answer.

In fact I’d argue a commitment to conference-led democracy and to campaigning for left-wing policies passed by conference could be the basis of a really strong campaign.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the speech contained very little about climate change. There were two clear references to the scale and significance of the climate crisis, but little about what we should advocate to tackle it. Again, it was as if the debates on a Green New Deal at and around conference had never happened. The things Clive did advocate came nowhere near to event outlining the kind of radical changes we need: “It’s not just in the big picture demands for investment spending, but the smaller changes – locally-owned renewables, smart grids, remote working”.

Perhaps more surprisingly still, there was nothing in the speech about Brexit, either how to fight the Tories’ plans or what Labour should advocate longer-term. The stuff about migration and migrants’ rights pointed in the right direction, but was very general – again, nothing much concrete. No one asked about any of this from the floor, so these decisive issues were barely discussed.

There were barely any reference to trade unions or workers’ struggles. Clive said:

“The world that made Labour strong in 1945 – a world of big factories, strong trade unions, solid labour movement institutions – has long gone. Today, we live instead in a world of where manufacturing is employs just one in ten, private sector union membership has crumbled, and the institutions that helped glue working class communities together have withered.”

Actually this probably idealises or greatly oversimplifies the situation around 1945, but leave that. What do we advocate now? How do we rebuild strong working-class communities which allow wider layers of the class to get educated and organised and become a force in politics? This is what I assume Clive had in mind when he talks about the labour movement exercising “power” as distinct from just winning “office”.

In so far as the speech provided answers, they seemed to be limited to a vague faith in technology allowing people to find unelaborated “new ways of people collaborating and working together”; and Labour councils doing more of what they’re already doing. Really?!

Clive specifically indicated the “new ways” of “collaborating” are distinct from trade unionism. But isn’t rebuilding trade unionism actually a very large part of what we need to do? (Building a Labour youth movement, with active local groups, would have be a good thing to advocate too.)

In fairness, Clive did respond well to a question about the anti-union laws, insisting they should all be repealed and relating this to people’s need to really take back control in different aspects of their lives, including at work. He is the only one of the leadership candidates, so far, who has signed the Free Our Unions pledge on these issues. But they don’t seem to feature much in what he wants to focus on.

Ironically, since sections of the migrant working class of London which Clive effectively dedicated his speech to have demonstrated in recent years some of the kind of forms of union- and community-building we will need to generalise to revive a labour movement that can exercise real power.

Beyond and above all this, it is not clear what Clive’s guiding vision of society is. Is it different, fundamentally, from capitalism, or what?

Last but not least, there is a major question of political strategy which needs interrogating. In response to another question, Clive advocated discussions with other parties, particularly the Greens but also the Lib Dems, about political alliances. He did sharply criticise the Lib Dems and argued that fruitful discussions would be difficult while they are so right-wing. Nonetheless, his response seemed to confirm what we already know, that he favours some variant of reciprocal standing down with the Lib Dems in certain areas of the country. To put it minimally, let me say that this “tactic” and how it relates to the idea of independent working-class politics needs properly discussing in our movement.

If Clive makes it through the MPs’ nominations the choice in the election will be broader and more interesting, but it will pose many of these questions about his campaign with greater sharpness.

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