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EXCLUSIVE: Labour's new defence chief slams 'selfish' Corbyn coup plotters

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis tells MEE why Labour and the country need unity, now more than ever
Clive Lewis in front of Norwich Market, 2015 (Wikipedia/Kinversam)

Watch the full interview here:

Labour's newly appointed shadow defence secretary has slammed the "self-indulgence and selfishness" of Labour MPs seeking to oust leader Jeremy Corbyn and warned that Britain risks becoming an "inward looking, insular country" in the wake of the UK's Brexit vote.

Clive Lewis, a loyal Corbyn supporter, told Middle East Eye that he believes that now is not the time for Labour infighting.

“For now the Labour Party needs to be united not divided, that needs to be the job of the Tory party," he said.

Lewis is one of the new generation of MPs thrust into senior roles under the now threatened leadership of Corbyn. 

The son of a single father, he grew up on a council estate in Northampton and was the first in his family to go to university. A former BBC journalist, his qualifications for his new defence role include frontline combat duties in Afghanistan where he toured as an infantry officer with the Territorial Army. In 2011, he was elected MP for Norwich South, and re-elected with an increased majority in 2015.

Lewis was ushered in under former Labour leader Ed Miliband and is fiercely supportive of the politics of Corbyn. It was Lewis, in fact, who suggested the veteran left-wing backbencher should run for the Labour leadership last summer.

In the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU, the Labour party is in chaos. Hours after the Brexit announcement, two Labour MPs motioned for a vote of no-confidence in Corbyn, scheduled for Tuesday.

Over the following days, 48 members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet resigned. Lewis was promoted from shadow climate and energy minister to shadow defence secretary. 

MEE caught up with him in the muddy fields of Glastonbury two days before his promotion

'United not divided'

Lewis called the current attempt to oust Corbyn as “the height of self-indulgence and political selfishness”, and urged MPs working to remove Corbyn to “start thinking about what is in the best interest, of not just the party, but the country. And this isn’t in the best interest of the country."

Even if "Remain" won the vote by a narrow margin, Lewis said, he believed an attempted Labour coup would have taken place because “there are some people that have never accepted the democratic mandate Jeremy Corbyn has".

Will the coup plotters succeed? “I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. But I know a lot of members... do not think this is the right time to be doing that.” Labour party members, he said, do not want to see “an internal firing squad".

Lewis insists that to blame Corbyn for the EU referendum result “is futile” and just “another opportunity to attack him”.

The blame, he said, should lay with Prime Minister David Cameron who “called this referendum to sort out an internal Tory party matter". Cameron “tried to shoot his UKIP fox using a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon… that’s like blaming Jeremy Corbyn for not getting people into the nuclear bunkers quick enough."

“Jeremy’s only been in power for a year. The changes to the Labour Party have only just begun. But now we have to start talking about changes to our country." Lewis suggested that this must start with “engaging people who [have] become de-politicised.”

Referendum on politics, not Europe

Lewis believes that people who voted for Leave were focused less on Europe and more on a dissatisfaction with politics in general. It's time, he said, for politicians to listen.

“For a lot of people, what this was about was 'are you happy with the political class and the political establishment and what they’ve been doing for the last 35 years?' And this was a resounding 'no'.”

He blamed “Thatcherite economic policy” for impoverishing citizens and making Britain a more unequal and poorer country. "We need to take ownership back of our country… [and] democracy," he said.

Labour under Corbyn, he said, would offer investment in communities that have been chronically underfunded and would oppose a Tory austerity budget which he called Chancellor George Osborne's "punishment".

He challenged those who accuse Leave voters of being racist, saying many just want to make sense of "why their lives have gone down the pan". But he is concerned about the potential for a post-Brexit economic crash that could lead people “to look for scapegoats".

He sympathised with ethnic minority and immigrant communities reeling in fear post Brexit and called on them not to be “passive recipients" and to get politically engaged.

“There is more to this than voting. It’s about standing up and being counted. It’s about speaking up, it’s about uniting with other people who share the values that we are an open, tolerant community," he said.

Immigration has ultimately “been good for our country," he said. We need to respect “people from other countries and what they have contributed and what they can contribute".

Positive from negative?

After last week's vote, Lewis said his "initial concern was about the shockwaves" and effect this will "have on our comrades in Europe," Podemos, Syriza and the like. "I feel like we’ve left them behind” - especially with the "rise of the far-right in Austria, in Italy, in France, in Hungary, in Greece."

Social democratic politics must win out over the next few weeks, months and years, he said.

“It’s important now that all of us go out and speak to our friends, neighbours and stand up and be counted. Get involved, become political active... create another Europe, a social Europe, that stands up to corporations,” he said, adding that perhaps Britain could carve out a new democracy “in the interest of people, not just necessary for the finance capital of banks”.

“Maybe something positive can come from this referendum and people will say 'I don’t want to go down the dark path that Nigel Farage and others are laying out for us," he said. "Because if you don’t take an interest in politics, politics will take an interest in you and you might not like it.”

Forging new relationships

What does he think the world thinks of Britain now? “I think we’ve sent a message to many people across the world that Britain is an inward looking, insular country," he said.

Lewis worries that the referendum could create shockwaves for Britain's special relationship with America, most immediately, he said, by encouraging an atmosphere of "insulated, isolated and, in many ways, xenophobic atmosphere" that will empower Donald Trump's race to become the Republican nominee.

Although critical of America's foreign policies over the past 40 years, the US, he said, could be “a force for massive good in the world", but it will depend on who becomes the next president.

As election season continues across the Atlantic, Britain will be left trying to rebuild it's special relationship - and forge a new one with Europe.

"We are between the two. We now have to be a bridge in someway," he said.