Clive Lewis on the left after Corbyn

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 9:00
clive lewis

Clive Lewis talked with Sacha Ismail

What Corbynism started to talk about in 2015 was an end to austerity, and trying to return to a sort of 1945 moment, trying to recapture a Keynesian economic approach — redistribution of wealth, trying to use social democracy to move us towards a more socialist economy in stages.

But also at the beginning it was about democratising the party, which I think is what attracted so many of us. The idea of democracy and membership engagement and members having a real say over policy really resonated.

New Labour came in and put their boot on the throat of the others within the broad church and declared unity. We saw a process where through the party machinery there was a drowning out of other voices. Corbynism was meant to revitalise a more democratic party.

Five years on, out of ten, I'd give them three! I think two key things went wrong. Some of the older traditions of the Labour left are very centralised, they share a lot of common with the right of the party — undemocratic centralism if you want to call it that — where a small group of people make a decision and hand it down and the rest of us are expected to follow. There is a fear of decisions being taken in a more democratic way.

The other thing was the 2016 chicken coup pushed the Corbyn project pretty much into the arms of what I'd call a stale trade union bureaucracy. There's a bureaucratic mentality within our trade unions — unions face that same challenge that the Labour Party does.

The Corbyn project begun to be run by people who are used to that way of doing things. And of course Momentum changed at the point too, and we moved into a new phase where the more democratic impulses of the initial stage were suppressed.

Isn't the demand for a sovereign party conference key?

I referred to that in my leadership manifesto, but I am a little reticent. Let me explain. I see a situation where members that elect delegates and so on are a very particular layer of people who are already engaged, who aren't working, who don't have childcare or other caring duties, and you get a culture that is quite limited in scope.

I'm thinking how do we apply 21st century networked technology so that if you have meetings people who are excluded by various factors can engage. The same applies to a national conference.

On the other hand there are problems with the way people deliberate and make decisions online. All I'm saying is I don't want to box myself in, and rule out new, innovative ways of engaging members in decision-making. But in the party we have now conference should absolutely be sovereign. That principle is vital but it could be expressed in different ways through different kinds of structures. When you get a larger group of varied people involved you tend to get better, more progressive decisions.

Of course there is a danger that you never have proper collective meetings or innovative engagement but largely bureaucratic decision-making through politicians' offices.

What political ideas should the left be fighting for now?

There's an idea that socialism is inevitable, whether that's a Marxist view, or just the idea that given time people will organise themselves for a better society. The problem is that we've got a climate crisis, and that obviously puts a ticking clock on what we've got to do.

If we can't change what's happening to the climate, we can't stem the decline of biodiversity, we can't deal with issues of big data, we've got a real problem.

We've now got five or potentially ten years of a Tory government when the clock is ticking on the climate. We've got to build alliances out of our comfort zone. The labour movement is quite a narrow and shrinking slice of civil society. We've got to recognise that we're part of a wider ecosystem of civil society, whether that's the green movement, the antiracist movement, internationalist movements — whatever those progressive movements are, wherever there are politicians and political movements who can see we need to challenge the Tories, those are the kind of political alliances we need.

One of the things about Corbynism is you have this big ferment in the Labour Party, but it didn't have much reflection in workplaces or in the trade unions. Why is that? What can we do going forward to build that link between politics in the Labour Party and workers' organisation?

Trade unions are a particular way of organising labour within an economy, but that economy is changing very rapidly. But with new challenges like the rise of the robots, it's not clear what form that organisation will take.

I don't think anyone quite knows. We've got a 19th century model of organisation in a 21st century post-industrial economy. The reason that trade union membership has declined isn't just about decisions trade unions have taken, but rather longer term trends.
If you look at the way that people are organising in civil society now, it's very different. Do trade unions fit into that model?

If you look at tech companies with marginal costs of zero, and there's very little need for human input. That's not the future of everything, but still…

Well, also there are tech workers and they have immense potential power - because if you have a small workforce with their hands on the process they can turn the switch off…

That’s true.

You were the only leadership candidate to sign the Free Our Unions pledge for all anti-union laws to be repealed. Can you say something about that?

One of the reasons for decline over forty years is the legal hamstringing of unions to operate collectively. What we've seen is the atomisation of not just society, but the trade union movement. The idea of solidarity has become increasingly alien to many people.

The legislation that was brought in by Thatcher and subsequently was about reducing working people's ability not just to organise in their own sector but also to show solidarity with other groups. Unions will struggle to network and find new ways of organising if they're unable to show solidarity, so one of the biggest and most fundamental changes is to restore that right.

Getting rid of this legislation will also allow trade unionists to engage with not just issues that effect them directly at work, but wider issues that effect everyone, above all the climate crisis. And that requires the right for workers to take action over political issues too.

People even on the left are very reticent about this because the right won the culture war in the 1970s and 80s about how trade unions were depicted. Trade unions were blamed for Britain's decline, but actually their role meant we had some of the highest living standards and lowest levels of inequality in Europe in the 1970s. There was a massively good story to tell about what unions achieved, but we didn't win the argument.

Culture eats everything for breakfast. Take the argument now about the BBC. So many people on the left are angry with the BBC. I know it’s an establishment institution, but we have to defend the concept of public sector broadcasting.

There are certain arguments about immigration, about strikes, which Corbynism has been afraid of having and by failing to do that it has undermined itself.

I suppose that’s partly true. We have to recognise that a lot of communities were saying to us, “our communities were devastated long before 2010”. But they had drawn the wrong conclusions about why, for instance about immigration, that had to be consciously challenged.

What's your take on the leadership election?

Well, I’d like to be voting for myself! I’m glad we ran the campaign and got to raise what I see as crucial issues.

In terms of the options now, I don't think Corbyn won because lots of people were orthodox socialists. Many of the people who back Corbyn were more soft left. They were against runaway inequality, they were wanted to tackle climate change, they didn't want an adventurist foreign policy, but it was a very broad coalition. A lot of those people don't want to return to vapid centrism, where we accept what the Tories are saying but somehow within that apply "Labour values".

They want a leadership which is on the left but seems more competent in putting together a force that can take on the Tories.

Is that the right’s way back in?

If Keir Starmer wins, there are those parts of the left who will want to retire back to to the tomb as oppositionalists. It's dark, it's warm, it's cosy. I don't think we've got that time. We've got to engage.

I don't think Starmerism exists yet. I think there are people on the right who want to take it into a certain direction, but I don't think it's clear that's where he wants to go. There's a potential there for the radical left to be able to influence that. That's why we need a democratic party where we're not just lobbying the leader but having a real say over what happens.

I don't think Keir can plausibly talk about an agenda for democratising politics without the politics of pluralism, of agency, of control, in the party itself. You can't apply those political-cultural principles without applying them in the party too.

Is there anything in the 2019 manifesto you'd drop?

Look at the policies Labour won in the 1940s, there was a real campaign around them to make them popular, which really shifted the consensus and put the Tories on the back foot for forty years.

If we want to win the arguments on migration, on public sector broadcasting, on trade union rights, we have to win arguments in civil society and create a consensus.

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