Clive Lewis interview: If business wants the single market they must increase workers' rights

"It quickly becomes obvious why Lewis' name has been repeatedly mentioned as a possible leader of the Labour party"
"It quickly becomes obvious why Lewis' name has been repeatedly mentioned as a possible leader of the Labour party"
Natalie Bloomer By

The group of Royal Mail workers attending a Q&A with Labour's Clive Lewis in Northampton don't seem particularly excited to be here. The management and senior officials from the local Communication Workers' Union (CWU) are more than happy, but the look among many of the regular staff is one of scepticism. They're expecting another politician who knows little about their lives.

But it takes just minutes for them to warm to him, helped largely by the fact that he mentions that he's from "The Barn", the name used by locals to describe the Standens Barn council estate in the town. Suddenly they are smiling and laughing along at his jokes. This is a politician from a similar place to them and they want to hear what he has to say.

It quickly becomes obvious why Lewis' name has been repeatedly mentioned as a possible leader of the Labour party, a job he says he's not interested in, doesn't want and is not experienced enough for. He never once appears flustered by the questions he’s asked. He is funny and likeable. A story he tells about being at school with the comedian Alan Carr goes down particularly well in the room.

"The head teacher approached me and asked me to keep an eye out for this boy who he said was 'a bit delicate but very funny'. It turned out to be Alan. I was supposed to be his sort of bodyguard but I don't think he was very keen."


The shadow secretary of state for business, energy & industrial strategy - a title he says took him weeks to remember - also has a back story. He didn't go straight into politics from university. He was a journalist for BBC Look East for several years and in 2009 he completed a three month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The questions put to him from the workers range from whether the Royal Mail should be renationalised - Lewis wants to look at new models of ownership - to whether it's true he wants all foreign workers to be forced to join a union. The headline to stories reporting this, he says, were quite different to what the articles actually said. He believes the anger and division that has been on display over Brexit can be linked back to the loss of trade union rights.

"As a party we need to be clear and say to business: 'If you want us to challenge and defend access to the European single market, then we want to see a more partnership-like approach to working with your workforce'," he tells the room.

"The reason we are in the situation we are now is because, for many years, some businesses and the economic system haven't worked in the interest of working people," he says. "Many haven't been able to collectively bargain or demand better pay and conditions. There would be less pressure and less pointing fingers at immigrants if people both here, and those coming from abroad, were encouraged to join a trade union."

Lewis' own father came to the UK from Grenada in the 1960s and worked in a factory. He says that he told him stories about the racism he faced at the time but that there is a big difference between then and now.

"I lived in a council house, as did all of my friends. People had good public services and a secure home. He [Lewis' father] joined a trade union and the workers were treated equally. You didn't have people coming over from Jamaica or India and undercutting British workers, they got the same terms and conditions as everyone else."

The need for strong trade unions is not something the workers here are likely to dispute. The Mail Centre is one of the busiest in the country, with 400 people working on some shifts and has more than 1,100 employees in total. The Communication Workers Union says 96% of those are in the union.

Before the Q&A, I asked Lewis if he thinks Labour is speaking to people on estates like the one he is from.

"Labour has to tell a story," he says. "Not just about the problems people are facing - we all know about that - but about how to fix them. That's my job and it's the job of the shadow Cabinet. It can't be done overnight, but that doesn't mean that we can't and shouldn't do better."

But he believes the party needs to do more to encourage working class people into politics.

Clive Lewis made his maiden speech in June 2015. He's already being talked about as a possible future leader of Labour.

"It's a particular problem for us because of the people we say we want to represent," he says. "I was really lucky that I had an employer at the BBC who allowed me to continue working in a non-editorial role while I stood as a candidate. If it wasn't for that and the fact that my dad gave me a sum from his pension pot to live off during the general election, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

"For a lot of people, there's first the issue of living standards and not being able to afford to get involved, but on top of that politics increasingly looks like something for other people. It doesn't look or sound like them."

He says that the House of Commons is like "Hogwarts for adults" and that it has been "designed to awe and intimidate". He believes that there remain elements that are still a throwback to when "people like him" weren't really meant to be there.

Listening to Lewis, it's easy to forget the mountain Labour has to climb to even be close to returning to power. With the new leader of Ukip, Paul Nuttall, being spoken about as a threat to the party in the North, how does he think Labour should reconnect with its core voters?

"The message of the Labour party has to be that we understand. We may not agree with the reasons you give but we get what you are saying," he says. "When I talk to people on the doorstep and they raise the issue of immigration, I listen to them because it's a genuine concern.

"I don't turn around to people and tell them they are racist," he says. "I say to them 'let's dig down a little deeper, what is it you feel has been taken away from you?' When you listen to them, you earn the right to be listened to. Then you can explain that, by investing in public services, it is something that can be fixed."

Lewis' politics may be as far to the left as much of the Corbyn camp but his ideas and presentation feel like less of a thowback to the 1980s. Perhaps he really does have no intention of becoming leader, but his performance in this sorting station gives a good indication of why those rumours are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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