From a Northampton council estate to the Houses of Parliament

NN Journal speaks to Labour MP Clive Lewis about how his childhood in Northampton helped shape his politics

By Natalie Bloomer

At the age of 16 Clive Lewis was told that A-Levels would be “too demanding” for him and that he should probably consider something vocational instead. The next morning, his father, a factory worker and local union rep, stormed up to the school in the Weston Favell area of Northampton and demanded to know why his son was being discouraged from following a route to university, something both his parents wanted for him.

It was a moment that could have changed the course of Lewis’ life but instead of having a negative impact, he says it made him even more determined to succeed.

"Back then [the 1980s] if you didn't want to learn you didn't learn, it was very easy to go off the tracks if your parents didn't watch you like a hawk. The schools were a product of that social experiment of large areas of social housing. There was a bit of a culture of thinking kids at these schools wouldn't go that far. It sounds like it was all negative but actually I got an awful lot out of my time at school, it made me the person I am today."

Lewis moved to Northampton with his parents when he was just three. The family lived on the Standens Barn council estate in the town, an area which he says was designed with everything you needed to build a community: housing, schools, health centres and nearby jobs. 

“There had been massive investment in new towns and areas like Northampton but if you look at them now they've been largely left to deteriorate. The investment hasn't continued, you look at new developments now and they are dependent on just a new road being put down or some drainage."

Both his parents and his grandfather worked at the Henry Telfer factory in Moulton Park which is now occupied by Greencore, the site of a major Covid outbreak among workers last summer. While working there, his father, an immigrant from Grenada, became a shop steward and later went on to be a regional officer for the trade union. It was conversations with his father that first sparked Lewis' interest in politics.

“I would come running in on a Sunday afternoon and ask to watch the science fiction show Space 1999. The thing was it was on at the same time as Brian Walden's Weekend World so I'd sit next to my dad and wait for the ad-breaks hoping he would switch over for a couple of minutes. But I would be sitting there with my dad and sometimes my grandad watching this political programme and I'd start to ask questions and I'd listen to the two of them discussing issues too."

One of his first political discussions outside the home came during an English lesson when a boy in his class started criticising the striking miners. The child was the son of a policeman who had been bussed up north to help police the picket lines.

"He was saying all this stuff about the miners being scum and needing to be crushed and I just hit back. It turned into a proper debate and the teacher let it play out. I was called into the head of year's office later and asked where I got my political views from. I never knew if the other kid was asked the same thing."

Lewis became the first person in his family to attend university and after completing journalism training in 1997 he landed his first proper job at Northampton's Chronicle & Echo. From there he moved to a newspaper in Milton Keynes and later worked for BBC Look East. It was during his time at the BBC that he decided to make the move into politics. 

"The moment I decided I wanted to get more involved in politics was when Cameron and Clegg did the rose garden speech. I was in the newsroom and I turned around to my editor and said 'I'm tired of just telling people how long the rope is that will hang them, I want to cut the rope instead'."

He became involved with the Labour Party in Norwich and when the local MP there Charles Clarke stood down Lewis took his chance. He entered parliament in 2015 and within a year was shadow defence secretary and later shadow business secretary. He says that as a boy from a council estate he found parliament intimidating at first. 

"The whole thing about parliament is that it is designed to break you down. The way you speak in the Chamber is not natural unless you've been to private schools and in debating societies. For most people it's alien, it's basically modelled on a nineteenth century gentleman's club.

"My first time at the despatch box was for a debate on Trident. I stood there and in front of me was Boris Johnson and Theresa May. I'd only ever asked questions from the backbenches and there I was at the despatch box as shadow defence secretary. 

"Corbyn stood up and he got more support from the Tories than the Labour backbenches, they were all yelling at him and I was just thinking 'well it's my turn next'. The Chamber was absolutely packed, I could actually see the Tories looking a bit sorry for me. I gave my speech with my lot yelling at me from behind but as I stood there I was thinking 'I'm a council estate boy standing at the despatch box debating nuclear weapons with the prime minister and foreign secretary'. 

"It's an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life whether I ever get to high office again or not. It was extremely intimidating but it was also an extreme privilege but you have to keep your feet on the ground and growing up in Northampton gives you that grounding. 

“You don't want to become a bit of an arse, you don't want to get lost in illusions of grandeur, that's what happens to a lot of people who come in there. It's part of what parliament is there to do - all the pomp and ceremony and the whole 'honourable member' stuff. It's easy to get sucked into, but if you hold onto your roots it holds you in good stead and my roots are in Northampton."

His six years in parliament have already seen the Brexit vote, two general elections, two new prime ministers, the rise and fall of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and now a global pandemic. He thinks that going forward Johnson's government will be culturally very right-wing but that economically they will spend a lot of money on the so-called 'red wall' and on 'levelling up'.

"It won't be enough money, but I do think this is where their focus will be.  I think they will do it through big corporations, a kind of state capitalism. It will entrench privatisation and privilege and it won't tackle inequality in the way it should, nor will it be decarbonised in the way that it needs to be. The Tories under Johnson are not Labour's usual opponents and we need to have a clear and vibrant vision to challenge them. My fear is that under Keir Starmer we don't currently have that. 

"If Labour is going to win back towns like Northampton, which it must do, we have to have an offer that people understand, it has to be expressed in words and a way that people can respond to. People have to have confidence that it is a future that works for them. 

“There's so much that needs to happen but once the pandemic is behind us we'll need our membership. We'll need people out in big numbers who are well versed in what's going wrong and have the right analysis and can articulate what Labour is about and will do to help them and their town. Without a bright vision and the people to communicate it you are always going to be struggling. It sounds simple but it's a big part of winning back places like my home town."