"Questions of democracy are where to focus our energies"

Submitted by AWL on 29 June, 2021 - 3:22
Clive Lewis

Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, spoke to Sacha Ismail in late March.


There could still be another 30,000 deaths as we approach the end of lockdown, and maybe much more. Even with the vaccine program at full tilt, in the absence of a proper test and trace system, an isolation system and social support for people, it’s still potentially a dire situation and could still overwhelm the NHS. [This was even before the "Indian variant" of Covid was widely discussed.]

NHS workers have launched their demand for a 15% pay rise. Do you support that?

Yes, absolutely. We need to aim high. I’m completely behind their demand.

What are the main things you’re working on at the moment?

Well, in addition to issues connected to the pandemic, I’m working on the Green New Deal at international level - more on that very soon. Also issues around data democracy and privacy and Proportional Representation. I imagine that might not go down so well with your readers?

Well, I don’t know, but as an organisation, we support PR in some form. Just not necessarily all the politics currently linked to it.

Ok, that’s interesting. We’ve debated the Progressive Alliance before and I’ll come back to that. In terms of PR, there’s a lot of work in CLPs now, in the run up to Labour conference, and I think about a quarter have come out in support. There’s a lot of work going on in the unions too. In those debates I think people understand PR is not the end game. There’s a whole range of democratic issues. PR is a demand to focus on and also it potentially unlocks the ability to make progress on the other issues.

I think broadly across society there is a cry for deeper democracy, although it manifests in different demands. Many of the issues on the climate crisis also reflect that, the fact we can’t get democratic control of what is happening to our planet. The climate crisis is a symptom of something deeper, a crisis of democracy.

The system we live in is very far from a perfect democracy. We have relative freedom of speech. We have a limited right to protest, but that is now under threat too. But society is dominated by opaque power which is subjected to decreasing democratic control. There is still a political sphere which the kleptocratic powers the Tories represent have to engage. That’s where the battle space is. The left has to win hegemony within this liberal democratic space, so we can change things and move the debate on.

I think it’s pretty clear the Tories are not going to give up First Past the Post willingly. It’s been linked to their hegemony since 2010, and actually going back much father. Meanwhile the Labour Party has won only eight election victories out of 28 in the last century, and probably only one on its own terms, after the war, where it actually made significant changes.

How do you think the Labour leadership will react to a push to win PR as party policy?

I don’t think they want it. It’s not very clear to me where serious, organised opposition is going to come from, but I imagine there’ll be a disparate collection of different parts of the party and labour movement who’ll oppose it. It’s entirely possible we’ll get it passed at conference and then nothing will happen.

One of the problems for the leadership is that if you’re serious about PR, it’s almost implicit that Labour will unlikely to win a majority by itself again, and that it will have to negotiate with other progressive forces. And that in turns implies not just after the election, but before, in order to win a progressive majority. You have your own manifesto, your own policies, your own priorities, but you also have negotiations with others. It’s standard in many European countries, but for us it’s really pretty alien.

I’m interested to hear your view. You say you’re for PR, but would you not accept that’s the logic of it?

I think this is one part of why we’re sceptical that PR is really fundamental to the solution to the labour movement’s problems. We think it’s more democratic and on that basis we should support it, but we’re not in favour of coalitions with straightforward capitalist parties. What we’d advocate is minority Labour government that then fights for majority support.

You can have a minority Labour administration with a supply and confidence arrangement. You could pledge in your manifesto to have a process for changing the voting system, a constitutional convention or similar, so that would be clear and there are no surprises for people and it has democratic legitimacy. I think you also have to say clearly you will have a budget to tackle inequality and tackle climate change. Once you’ve got a new voting system you can hold elections and then on the basis of PR you can hopefully have a minority Labour government supported by other parties again.

What you do have to do, before you get PR, is come to some kind of agreement for where different parties stand so the other progressive parties can do their part in the areas where they are electorally stronger. I don’t think you can evade that.

Could you say more about how you see the way forward for Labour?

The left rightly criticises the current Labour leadership, and it’s right to. Its mindset is bureaucratic, and it seems to pivot all too easily to attacking the left, attacking party democracy, to centralisation. Its go-to stances on the overseas operations bill, on spycops and the rest are basically capitulation. I guess that goes without saying. But even if the leadership starts doing better, the problems Labour faces are much deeper than that. Who does the Labour Party represent in the 21st century? When it came into existence at the start of the last century, there was a growing, vibrant trade union movement. There was a clearly defined proletariat, working-class communities, in cities and towns where industry had grown.

Yes, of course, we still have a big trade union movement now, but it is very much weakened and extremely bureaucratised and in many ways similar to the bureaucracy in the Labour Party. Of course there are many Labour politicians still well-connected to their communities, and trade unionists still well-rooted in the workforce, but overall the relationships are radically eroded and decayed. Apparently more than half of the GMB membership didn’t vote Labour.

These problems are only likely to deepen, post-Brexit. We’ve now got the problem of Scotland. The problem in Scotland isn’t that the nationalist leaderships are so unbelievably talented and skillful – look at Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond laying into each other. No, whatever problems they have, they’re riding the crest of a wave. There is something happening in Scotland, which is that people have a desire for control over their lives. They don’t want the domination of Tory Westminster. Brexit has obviously exacerbated that, that’s what’s changed fundamentally since 2014.

There’s still crises in Northern Ireland and even Wales, and of course if Scotland breaks away that will impact in those areas too. Then you’ve got the question of England, the only part of the UK without its own government. A democratic solution in England is going to be a necessary part of a democratic solution to the whole thing. For more overall that implies a confederated structure. And that might mean a more regional solution, because it’s not the case that every part of England is going to want to just look to a Tory-dominated English parliament.

I think we’ve got to accept the democratic inevitability of another referendum in Scotland. But I would say to the Scottish people, be very careful, think about this, do not just leave a regressive, authoritarian England in your wake. Think about Canada and the US. Canadians have often described to me that living in Canada is like ‘living above a crack-den’, because in so many ways America is such an unstable neighbour.

The Tories have no answers to these questions; instead they try to promote Britain as a great power in the world, British Empire 2.0; hence their policy on nuclear weapons and so on.

Addressing all these issues brings us back to PR. If you look at the situation I’ve described, I think you’ve got to question whether Labour will ever win on First Past the Post again, whatever our vision and the leadership we have. If we do, it will just be an episode in the same crisis continuing and deepening. It seems to me what we need to do is cooperate with others to get rid of the Tories, get ourselves over the line into government, and carry out electoral reform as a minimum.

Then we need to think about deepening democracy, in the ways I’ve described, but also citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries. Why not have a citizens assembly instead of the Lords? Why not have citizens on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, you can have economists argue and advocate and then a group of people take decisions within that framework. They’ll be much more likely to take decisions based on the best interests of their communities and the country, as opposed to financial institutions and those with vast wealth.

We have to embrace this change and realise we can’t impose socialism from above. It will have to come through democratic processes. We don’t have a monopoly on wisdom. There are people who aren’t in political parties, who aren’t in the trade union movement, who are just as progressive and radical as most people in the labour movement, maybe more. They need a Labour Party and a trade union movement which are radical; they’re not engaged with us at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaged in politics. We need to adapt to that.

You seem to pose the crisis of democracy in basically political terms, but isn’t it also and more fundamentally a matter of capital’s every increasing power in society?

Yes of course, the capitalist class is increasingly powerful, they are running away with power and the Tories represent that. We have a surveillance capitalism which is becoming deeper and darker every day. You’ve got the growth in the wealth and power of the rich, the growing inequality, the climate and ecological collapse . The inevitability of socialism is no longer a given. So, I guess I think we need to fight on two levels. We need to work out how we can beat the Tories, form an electoral alliance, oust them from office and institute PR. But then we as a labour movement have to have a policy of deepening democracy and tackling the climate and ecological crisis. As the pandemic has, or should have reinforced, that’s an international task. We need international democracy, with new global institutions that can take on the power that is increasingly vested in the hands of corporations and financial institutions. Without that any hope of solving the climate crisis is pissing in the wind, frankly.

What kind of international institutions?

After the war you had the Bretton Woods system, which was preferable to what we have now, but with all kinds of inbuilt biases, very much a postcolonial system. It’s clear that by the 1970s this was in crisis, in that in most democracies you had the growing demands of students, of workers, of women, of other oppressed groups, demanding equality, better economic conditions but also fundamentally more democracy. And internationally you had the Non-Aligned Movement, you had the UN asserting itself. You were moving into a position where you had a more democratic global negotiation between the rich and poor countries.

The response of capital was to create a new system where the harsh discipline of the market overrode it all. They handed power at a national and international level to unaccountable financial institutions, and you got the imposition of structural adjustment on poorer countries and in effect eventually the richer countries too. If you look at the US it’s a world power and yet it’s been brought to its knees by its trade deficit, the stripping out of its industrial base in the Rust Belt and all the rest, with all the political consequences in terms of Trumpism.

We need to reassert the power of political, democratic institutions which can actually challenge and block what multinational corporations are doing. That has to include institutions specifically dealing with the climate and ecology too. But if we want to think about a global democracy, that implies bodies very different from existing international political institutions, which are generally not democratic.

Why do you think the Tories’ support is so stable, or seems to be?

I think if Labour articulated a vision for making fundamental changes to deepen democracy, it would be in a much better position of political manoeuvrability where it could be heard with trust by people who currently no longer trust the party.

I’d add however that the Red Wall seats, so called, are not a homogenous whole. Just because people voted for Brexit, that doesn’t mean there weren’t multiple different reasons for that, and in fact there were multiple different reasons why a section of people there switched to the Tories. What is a common factor is that we’re not doing a very good job of articulating alternatives to these communities.

We did a big piece of research on the Green New Deal last year, and we found consensus across all kinds of divisions and groups on all kinds of things, on pay and workers’ rights, on green space, on dealing with the climate crisis, on people have more time to spend with friends and family. There are obviously policies which flow from that – a Green New Deal, a four day week, Universal Basic Income… But when you pose these things in the framework the left often uses, people switch off. We have to develop our narratives.

You can see the government understand this with its talk about “levelling up”, about greening Britain about the rest of it. We need new ways of talking to and relating to people, and deepening democracy has to be at the core of that. This also implies a democratic Labour Party where the membership decides what we do and is able to enthusiastically take the message that’s decided out in communities. In many ways what we’ve seen from the leadership is the exact opposite of that.

I want to go back to the issue you raise about the labour movement losing its historic base, what’s happened to trade unions and so on. Doesn’t any distinctively socialist politics, but also any push to deepen democracy, imply rebuilding workers’ organisation, including trade unions, on a fresh and better basis? Rather than seeing all of it as old hat...

I’m not blaming trade unions. Successive governments have created an extremely hostile environment for trade unions. But the outcome has been to make trade unions much less effective and relevant. Now, of course, there have always been issues of trade union bureaucracy. But the fact remains that unions have not been able to adapt to a changing world, so far.

If we can get over the line and get a progressive government which expands democracy one of the things we can do, of course, is make changes which will help the trade union movement resurge. We can fight for an agenda which says this isn’t just about democratising government, it’s about democratising local communities, institutions like the BBC, the NHS and of course in a way most important, that means workplaces too. In the workplace you go through the door and you go from a limited democracy into a dictatorship of capital.

I feel that if you give people a sense of empowerment and democracy, and they get a taste for that, they’re not going cross the threshold to go to work and leave it at that. I think a very important role for trade unions is to enhance and deepen democracy in the workplaces. Even in other countries right now, like Germany, there is more of a voice for workers than exists in the UK. We should be more radical than that, but it shows how much we have to fight for.

I would say questions of democracy are where to focus our energies.

In terms of the recent upheaval [following the death of Sarah Everard] would you advocate?

As a black person and a socialist I certainly take a view of racism that is structural, and I think you can extend that to violence against women. Part of that is recognising that the state is not just a protector of black people and women against violence, it is also a perpetrator. You need really deep rooted changes on a structural level. And in terms of democratisation tackling police powers is very much part of it. It’s a question of democracy, transparency and accountability.

Look at the events in Bristol and it’s very clear that Avon and Somerset police operate on the basis that their allegiance is not to the people but to the state. Policing by consent is within those limits, among others. The police are like the uniformed wing of the state. Of course the context is probably the most authoritarian and unaccountable government we’ve had for centuries. They are sending strong signals down to the police that protest is wrong, that protesters equals thugs, and let's should stop them protesting.

We need a deep and meaningful conversation about policing in this country, but of course as a first step in that we need to stop the Police Bill.

The antisemitism controversy in the Labour Party seems to have gone quiet for a bit, but obviously it’s not gone away. What’s your view on it all?

I’m sure some would argue the leadership is taking this really seriously and we’re getting it sorted and so that’s why it’s quiet. I think on the contrary it’s not a good sign and suggests the issue is not being taken seriously.

In terms of how this debate has developed, or should have developed in the last year, the Black Lives Matter movement has made the case that you have to approach antisemitism within the context of racism more broadly – but simultaneously that it has to be tackled, because not tackling any form of racism is unacceptable.

The debate we have had is largely about disciplinary policies, but more fundamental are the educational policies we’ve put in place or rather haven’t. Talking about “zero tolerance” is absolutely right on one level, but on another level it kind of misses the point, because we want people to learn from their mistakes and views to change. Some people will obviously cross a line and they need to be expelled or appropriately disciplined. But more broadly we want to make progress with people’s views and also with developing our view as a party on how to fight racism and oppression. So we need proper discussion about what antisemitism is, about where it comes from, what causes it and how we combat it. We should do the same for other kinds of racism as well. That’s the way forward for me.


For discussions of Workers' Liberty's perspective on some of the issues raised here, see:

"Progressive alliance" or socialist politics?
Lib-Lab is a way backwards, not forwards

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