“Help! Let me out of here,” jokes a grinning Clive Lewis, bashing his fists against the glass security wall separating him and I at Parliament’s Portcullis House, much to the amusement of a nearby receptionist. By the time the Labour MP for Norwich South has swiped me in and I’ve followed him up to his office – with its view of Big Ben and the river Thames – it’s obvious his sense of frustration is no joke.
Lewis is on the left of the party, and generally a Corbyn loyalist. However, on Brexit, he has broken ranks with the party leadership and believes that a second referendum is the only way to overcome the impasse. VICE caught up for a chat with the left-wing People’s Vote stan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: You voted Remain in 2016, but you haven’t always supported a second referendum.
Clive Lewis: Everyone has been on a journey on this. After the first vote I remember getting into arguments with diehard Remainers, a minority, who refused to accept the outcome of the vote. But that wasn’t my position, nor that of my constituents. I’m a democrat. When I went to my most staunchly remain ward – Nelson – I was taken aback by the number of Remainers who accepted there would need to be a Brexit. “Just make it the least damaging Brexit it can be,” they said.
Things have changed since then. Firstly, May has polarised the country. People who once accepted the result are now marching for another vote. Her deal appeals to nobody, and we’ve watched on as Brexit has turned into a fight within the Conservative Party. Secondly, I can now appreciate fully the direction we’re heading in. Those pushing for Brexit now on the Conservative Party benches are deregulators.
The analogy I’d use is, we were blindfolded when 17.4 million people voted for Brexit. It meant different things to everyone, an unknown. Now we can see, and it turns out we were stood at a cliff edge all along. If we step forward with no deal we may well fall right to the bottom, but May’s deal? A compromise? A harder Brexit? We’ll end up with our legs broken and knees disjointed part way down. Once you’re halfway, the final fall becomes inevitable. I think now just don’t jump at all.
Some people on the left fear another referendum would allow the racism and xenophobia of the first vote to reappear. Why would you want to open that up again, with another divisive poll?
But it’s already here! It’s not as if since then bigotry has dissipated – it has been emboldened. That aside, do you really think leaving the EU for a customs union alone – with the UK having no voice, no vote, and no veto while still feeling the massive economic impact – will stop the far-right? It’ll be presented as a sellout, a betrayal. These are the perfect ingredients for the far-right, far more dangerous than giving the public another democratic say.
Why then do you think chunks of the left haven’t got behind a second referendum, including the Labour leadership? I popped along to one People’s Vote marches; it didn’t appear to be full of left-wingers.
Well, the vast majority of the PLP and Labour Party members have got behind it. I accept that it isn’t everyone. I’m going to pick my words carefully here… there’s a part of the left which is disproportionately powerful in Corbyn’s office and has always seen leaving the EU as part of a longer term project against Nato. I don’t think the vast majority of the public concur with that, and I don’t buy into it either.
But there are plenty of people who think the leadership's position makes sense in the circumstances.
Yes, I’ve spoken to MPs who were Remainers, on the left of the party, who say they’re increasingly becoming Lexiteers.
If you look at people in the People’s Vote campaign: the TIGs [The Independent Group], Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell etc, you can see why people on the left would have an automatic, instinctive issue.
Let’s not forget many of the people in that campaign, people I’ve mentioned, are in part responsible for the mess we are in: austerity-lite, deregulation, lack of trade union rights under the last Labour government, not tackling inequality, anti-migrant rhetoric and detention centres. Some people will never be part of a project those people are part of.
Do you think if the People’s Vote had a different approach and tone, the left would get behind it more?
That’s why Best for Britain, Another Europe is Possible and Love Socialism Hate Brexit were all set up. People like me want to say listen: we agree with the final say, but we’re come at it from a left perspective. There are lots of people sympathetic to another vote but put off by the messengers. I and many others are an alternative.
It’s just the start, though. Look to Yanis Varoufakis and the people’s movement they’ve launched across Europe [with the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025] – there’s a 12-point plan for democracy and a green new deal, tackling inequality and the tech giants. It’s a progressive programme for Europe. The reason Europe went from being a social Europe (with all its faults) to a neoliberal Europe is in part because of the influence of the UK. The way I see it, Attlee made wide-ranging changes to our economy, just like Thatcher did 40 years later from the right. I’d say Corbyn and McDonnell will make as far-reaching changes to the UK again. If Thatcher could be so influential in the EU, why can’t Corbyn be at the front of leading a democratic socialist revolution across Europe today?
You resigned from the Shadow Cabinet when Labour whipped MPs to trigger Article 50, before being taken back into the fold. Would you resign from your position again if Labour whipped to get a Brexit deal through Parliament?
I cannot see any circumstances in which I could countenance voting for a deal which I thought wasn’t in the strategic, long-term interests of this country, and would hinder a progressive, Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. People might say that’s fucking arrogant, but I don’t think I could do that in good conscience, setting us off on a course which would harm my constituents economically and ramp up far-right activity. In politics, sometimes, you dig your heels in and draw a line in the sand and refuse to compromise. For myself at least, voting for a deal would be a terrible error.
That sounds like a long way of saying yes, Clive. Cheers.