clive lewis for labour leader: a democratic socialist who can take charge
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson was brutally honest about the matter: he believes that Labour is an existential crisis caused by the divisions between the Labour grassroots, and Parliamentary Labour Party, due to the ongoing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn is a poorly polling leader among the general public and there is overwhelming antagonism against him from the majority of the PLP. But it’s indisputable that Corbyn won the leadership with a massive mandate from members in the 2015 leadership election, and now under his stewardship the party membership is topping 400,000 people, even surmounting its size under the then-popular Tony Blair in 1997.
So Corbyn can’t be described as a complete disaster. He stands on a solidly socialist and anti-austerity platform which appeals to Labour members and which is recruiting thousands to the party, including many young people previously uninvolved in party politics.
Under Corbyn, Labour has made critical issues like improving mental health services and access to housing priorities. Under the guidance of John McDonnell, the party advocates a skilled, high-technology economy based on investment and diversification, in contrast to the deindustrialisation and low-skilled, low-waged labour market that has plagued the UK since the Thatcher years.
McDonnell has suggested that Labour considers a universal basic income to resolve the unequal and precarious economy of a capitalism that is failing to catch up with automation. This is a modernising agenda, not a dinosaur one.
After Brexit, George Osborne has been forced to abandon his fiscal targets, exemplifying the failure of austerity. The national debt is higher than ever and - disgracefully - 200,000 more children were recorded as living in poverty in 2014/15. So there is a firmer grounding than ever for an anti-austerity pitch from Labour.
But all of this has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn is criticised for not possessing the leadership qualities, or media savviness, to make him appear to the public as a credible prime minister in waiting.
When Corbyn first announced he was running for the leadership, he was given 200/1 odds of winning and described himself as a vessel for the anti-austerity socialist current in the party, who would give a voice to these values in the contest.
Clearly Corbyn’s opponents, and even Corbyn himself, underestimated this tendency in Labour. Corbyn seems never to have imagined he would actually become leader in the first place. Corbyn has spent his career as a backbencher and international campaigner for human rights - not as a team manager.
But as it currently stands, there is no indication that Corbyn will stand down, and it appears that he will again win a leadership contest against whoever represents the PLP majority opposed to him.
How many Labour MPs currently dissatisfied with the leadership would be more sympathetic to the policies and values Corbyn stands for, if they were represented by a more convincing figurehead?
Corbynism is now orthodoxy among the Labour grassroots
Even if Corbyn did stand down, there would still be an existential crisis in Labour. How can the party elect a leader whom the pro-Corbyn grassroots would support, and who would also seem politically competent enough for the PLP?
The best candidate to address this polarity is Clive Lewis. Lewis, the 44-year-old MP for Norwich South who was part of the 2015 intake, is a Corbyn loyalist currently serving as Shadow Secretary of Defence, promoted after the mass shadow cabinet resignations following the Brexit vote.
Ideologically, Lewis is on the left of Labour. He is firmly socialist and anti-austerity, supporting abolishing university tuition fees, academy schools and the Trident nuclear weapons system.
Given that Corbynism is now orthodoxy among the Labour grassroots, there is no doubt that Lewis could be elected if he were nominated in a future leadership election - especially if he received an endorsement from Corbyn himself. It could be described as a self-coup.
However, Lewis has an exceptional personal and professional background that makes up for him being a Corbynite and parliamentary newcomer. Like the Tory leadership contender Stephen Crabb, Lewis was raised by a single parent on a council estate. He gained an economics degree from the University of Bradford and was elected vice president of the National Union of Students, before working as a reporter for the BBC and as a trade unionist.
He then joined the British Army and saw combat as an infantry officer in Afghanistan. Unlike Corbyn, Lewis would not be plagued by accusations of ignorance on foreign policy issues or being an apologist for extremism. Nor would Lewis be subjected to rhetoric of being “unpatriotic” or a “threat to national security”: he was even open about undergoing counselling due to suffering post-traumatic stress.
As a young, black, charismatic MP with a unique life story, Lewis could seize the torch of the Corbyn movement, while also having the experience and capabilities to be accepted as a leader of the opposition and potential PM by the PLP - even if many of them differ with him ideologically.
Lewis already made the ultimate commitment to national service and leadership in the army. He was not born to privilege and nor can he be accused of being experientially confined to the Westminster bubble.
Lewis may be inexperienced in parliament, but being an outsider can prove to be an asset. David Cameron was when he became Tory leader in 2005. As was Ed Miliband when he became Labour leader in 2010. Both had only served one parliamentary term before their election. Andrea Leadsom, not even a Cabinet minister, is being pitched as a dark horse in the Tory leadership contest.
Lewis’s journalistic training provides him skills to communicate with the media. His statements and speeches in and outside of the Commons showcase an intelligent politician who effectively, and articulately, argues his standpoints. These are all traits Corbyn is attacked for lacking.
Labour as it exists could be in terminal decline, with the conflict between the grassroots and PLP seeming unresolvable. It might be preferable to have a leader more adapted to the inner workings of Westminster. But given the chance, Lewis could be the best choice for a unifier who could prevent the rupture, as he represents the radical socialist values the membership is committed to, while also being a figure the PLP could only have respect for.
Lewis himself said that the prospect of him becoming Labour leader would be a “kiss of death” to his career. On the contrary, his leadership could be a kiss of life to resuscitate the party.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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