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15 December 2022

“It’s dangerous for democracy”: Clive Lewis on candidate selection, radicalism and the future of BAME Labour

The left-wing former leadership candidate on where Keir Starmer is going wrong.

By Zoë Grünewald

Labour’s factional grumblings are resurfacing. Keir Starmer has been accused of over-zealous intervention in parliamentary candidate selections. Some on the left find him insufficiently radical and are not satiated by promises of constitutional reform and devolution blueprints.

If anyone can distil what’s going on with the left, it’s Clive Lewis. The Labour MP for Norwich South since 2015 is a long-standing proponent of the left of the party and has been vocal about racism within Labour. He was one of the 36 MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn as a leadership candidate in 2015 and served on his front bench. On Corbyn’s departure Lewis ran for the leadership against Starmer – suffering, in his words, a “bruising” defeat.

I meet Lewis in his Westminster office. We agree to talk for half an hour, as he apologetically indicates he’s feeling a little guarded. We end up talking for over an hour, with Lewis postponing his lunch appointment twice. “This is cathartic!” he laughs. He has a few things to get off his chest.

I start by asking Lewis if he thinks Starmer is shutting out the left in the candidate selection process. Lewis begins diplomatically, referring to Starmer’s critics in third-person – “they think”, “they feel” – as if he is removed from them. Purging dissenters during the selection process is not unprecedented, and Lewis acknowledges this. “It definitely happened under Corbyn. It happened under Ed, Tony and Gordon to varying degrees.” But it’s clear which side of the debate he subscribes to, and soon he slips comfortably into his own opinion. “There is now a growing body of evidence and a growing sense that the scale of what’s happening is not healthy,” he tells me.

Some argue that Starmer’s meddling in selections is a shrewd move to restore party loyalty. The Labour Party faced serious divisions under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and in 2019 suffered one of its worst electoral defeats. Starmer has stormed ahead in the polls and a Labour victory at the next election looks very likely. Yet Lewis suggests that the leader’s popularity is more unstable than we’ve been led to believe: “I don’t know that there are that many thousands of Starmerites in the party, but there are certainly Milibandites and there were Corbynites. So I think there’s a sense that the project needs to build something.”

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For Lewis, interference in candidate selections isn’t only revealing, but dangerous. “Short term, it might look like a neat solution for a leader who doesn’t really have a base in the party,” he says, “but if you develop a culture of fixing and if you take that into government, that’s going to have repercussions. These things get discovered. And that’s problematic because, at the moment, there is already a crisis of democracy.”

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It is this “crisis of democracy” that Lewis returns to throughout our conversation. He reflects at length on Brexit, explaining that voters were ill-informed and the process was wrought with un-democratic decisions.

[See also: Mick Lynch: “Starmer’s Labour could be another version of the Tories”]

But, he says he was “wrong” to campaign for a confirmatory referendum. This is a surprising admission, considering how fervent a supporter Lewis had once been, once saying that Corbyn’s leadership would be “in peril” if he failed to support a “final say” public vote. “When I was campaigning for a confirmatory second referendum, I did so because what we had before us was a f***ing s*** sandwich,” he says. “But people entered into that referendum in good faith. Then to turn around and say we need a second referendum… you’re playing into the hands of people who say you’re undermining democracy.”

Lewis is definitive now about not re-joining the EU. “I genuinely believe that leaving, joining and rejoining the EU is a displacement activity,” he says. “We have to sort this country, our own back-yard and the union out, first.”

This is another example of the crisis that he is fearful accusations of fixing Labour Party selections could exacerbate. “If you’re already dipping your hands in that muck before you come into government, then that’s dangerous for democracy generally,” he says. “I think the question that members and the public have to ask themselves is that if even a fraction of this is true, what kind of culture is being created?”

His doubts go deeper. He says he fears that Labour’s policy direction is not bold enough to meet the challenges ahead for Britain. He dismisses the radicalism of Starmer’s promise to abolish the Lords and enhance devolution. “People will say we’re being quite radical. Well, I’ve looked at it, and actually, it isn’t sufficient. It’s, ‘What do we need to do to keep what we’ve got.’ And we’ve got to be far bolder than that.”

It’s hardly surprising that Lewis, a staunch anti-capitalist campaigner, isn’t satisfied that Starmer is concentrating on constitutional reform. Allies of the Labour leader argue that the radicalism lies in the detail – new powers for local authorities and an overhaul of parliament – and that the plan is both pragmatic and transformative.

We finish by discussing the resurgence of BAME Labour, a party-affiliated group representing black and ethnic minority members, which has been branded a “travesty of justice which would disenfranchise thousands of BAME members and deny their democratic voice” by the left-wing campaign group Momentum. BAME Labour is organisationally independent from the party, and held a reserved seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

BAME Labour has faced much controversy over the years, with members unhappy about its governance and transparency. Corbyn tried to reform the group’s structures during his leadership to offer black and ethnic minority members new forms of self-organisation, after an internal review heavily criticised BAME Labour. Now, the NEC is scrapping Corbyn’s plans and has announced their intentions to revamp the original structure. This some argue, betrays decisions made at the 2018 annual conference to replace BAME Labour with a new wing.

I ask Lewis how he thinks the restoration is being handled. “Awfully,” he replies, without skipping a beat. He argues that there is a real appetite “for self-organisation… something which gives us a modicum of independence” among black and minority MPs in the party. “A goodly number of black and ethnic minority people want to be able have a limited self-organisation, not quite black sections, but something which gives us a modicum of independence like our female colleagues and members inside the party,” he says.

[See also: “The Tories have given up”: Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll on revitalising the north-east]

BAME Labour has been fraught with issues, Lewis explains, having “been run as a fiefdom for many years”. “Many people feel that… what was created was to keep black people in line,” he explains. “It risks going back to the worst and darkest days of that. No one knows who’s controlling it, where the moneys going. People are joining and handing money over, but its opaque. To go back to that entity is a slap in the face to black members.”

“It’s quite clear that the way we’re being treated isn’t acceptable,” he concludes, “and I think it tells you a lot about the culture of the Labour Party at the moment.”

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