openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Labour MPs must ensure Clive Lewis is on the ballot paper for leader

If the Labour Party is to properly address today's big issues - including climate change, democratic reform, and the Tories' toxic anti-immigrant agenda - then Clive Lewis needs to be in the race for leader.

Fran Boait
10 January 2020
Clive Lewis, speaking at an Extinction Rebellion protest in April 2019
Clive Lewis, speaking at an Extinction Rebellion protest in April 2019
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

In the aftermath of the election result, losing by over 10,000 votes in a target seat, I felt shame and naivety that we ever thought we could win.

Those emotions can easily lead to the wrong conclusions about the future direction of the Labour Party. To a tendency to narrow the debate. To return to electioneering within a first past the post system, with all its triangulation over messaging.

But such narrowing would be a mistake. The challenges facing our politics in the years ahead – economic, political, environmental, international, and cultural – are only going to get more complex.

Not only did I not win Gloucester, but next door in Stroud Labour’s David Drew lost his seat, and the Liberal Democrats failed to win (pro-Remain) Cheltenham. It is easy to think as I look at the sea of blue across Gloucestershire and most of the South West , that the only way to win some seats to Labour is to shift to the right, to suck it up that the Tory's 'won the argument', and to do away with truth telling. But that ignores the millions of people that voted for Labour this time, and it ignores the anti-Tory vote taken as a whole.

A fairer voting system would look very different. All of Gloucestershire’s six MPs are now Conservative. But a proportional system could have delivered 2 Labour MPs, 1 Liberal Democrat, and 3 Tories – reflecting the true diversity of how people want to be represented.

Nationally Labour could have won more than a dozen extra seats this time if seats matched how people actually vote. In the current system millions of votes simply are not represented. Clive is the only candidate putting electoral reform front and centre of his campaign.

But the result wasn’t just about the numbers. People who hadn't decided who to vote for were often angry, confused and frustrated when they thought about politics. Even if I could persuade them of the big picture, it felt like they were then too exhausted to then consider the positive vision Labour was offering. It’s tough to challenge ten years of Tory narrative in just one 10 minute conversation on the doorstep. But that isn't a reason to stop talking about these things. Clive isn't shying away from challenging the deep-rooted Tory narratives.

And the top toxic narrative that the right love to exploit is of course an us and them anti-migrant sentiment. I spoke to countless people on the doorstep who said there was too much immigration, often raising it in a discussion about why waiting times were too long at the hospital.

I told them that my understanding from NHS professionals is that underfunding and privatisation is causing the strain, not migrants. This was met with some suspicion, but generally also acceptance. I spoke about the race to the bottom on workers’ rights, and how Labour wanted to bring up pay and standards for all so migrant workers wouldn't be pitted off against UK workers.

Again, this new and unfamiliar argument was often met with suspicion but acceptance. It felt like people wanted to believe what I was saying – but 10 years of being told migrants are the problem had told them otherwise. I was told on several occasions that the UK was sinking due to the number of immigrants.

The answer here isn't to triangulate a conversation about controlled migration. Ed Miliband tried that, and it failed. The answer is to counter the right’s narrative and with a better one, a truthful one. There are too few Labour MPs and left commentators willing to take the migrant conversation head on. Clive is willing to do that and it is needed in this race for the next leader.

There aren't any short cuts to fixing a broken system. But with climate change looming, and the rise of the far right globally, we can't afford to stop speaking truth to power. Reductionist thinking and triangulating messaging won't only fail, it will let down another generation.

Labour needs a candidate willing to talk about how we solve the climate change emergency, about race, and about constitutional reform and collaborative leadership.

Not having Clive Lewis on the ballot paper for leader would cut off key debates needed within Labour, and be doing a disservice to our membership and supporters.

Fran Boait was Labour PPC for Gloucester.

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