Policy Exchange [CC BY 2.0]
Tom King, BA Politics
David Lammy has been a busy man. Defending his Tottenham parliamentary seat while touring the capital campaigning in key marginals to raise his profile in the race to be the next Mayor of London. Ahead of the dissolution of Parliament, he welcomed The SOAS Spirit to his office in Westminster – all surely with an eye to the voters beyond Labour’s membership who will get a say in the party’s mayoral primary – to discuss how SOAS shaped his politics and the pitch he’s offering Londoners in his bid for City Hall.
Before I can even turn on my voice recorder, Lammy is already gushing about his time at SOAS. “I found a real family at SOAS” he says, “I didn’t want to grow up”. He recounts how the mix of cultural, class and religious backgrounds as well as the School’s left-wing and non-eurocentric political consciousness shaped the person he is today. “SOAS remains one of those very, very special institutions”, he says fondly. Lammy is at pains to express his gratitude to the School – “SOAS is the reason I became the first black Briton to go to Harvard Law School” – and he remains in touch; taking up a lecturing post after Labour’s defeat in 2010. Although, he says it’s “weird” to return as the ‘Right Honourable David Lammy MP’ favouring instead to remain “low key” in a hoody and jeans.
‘SOAS remains one of those very, very special institutions’
Growing up in Tottenham and winning a scholarship to a state-funded boarding school in Peterborough, Lammy says he ended up at SOAS thanks to “a bit of luck”. Set straight As to get into Cambridge, he missed the offer and instead returned to London to study Law. “I am very grateful that I ended up at SOAS” he tells me, “Actually as a person I think I’d be slightly different if I’d have stayed out of London”. Lammy describes it as a “huge political moment to be going to one of London’s pre-eminent political institutions” with poll tax protests (“and I was on those marches”), the campaigns to free the ‘Guildford Four’, the ‘Birmingham Six’ and the ‘Tottenham Three’, the crumbling of the South African Apartheid regime and the consequences of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. All this contributed to forging Lammy’s political identity, but most importantly, he says SOAS “gave me the backbone to sometimes be provocative and challenge”.
This new Lammy, who has criticised Labour on their more recent approach to immigration and defied his party to vote against the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, is certainly a more provocative and challenging political animal than that of his earlier career. Tipped for big things since he was first elected for a brief spell as a London Assembly Member in 2000 before quickly making the move to Parliament in a by-election aged just 28, Lammy stayed loyal to his party and was appointed to a string of ministerial positions while Labour was in government. Now, having opted to spend five years on the backbenches, he says openly “I don’t agree with everything that comes out of the Labour Party’s lips. I have never agreed with every Labour Party leader we’ve had for my entire life”. Lammy, perhaps recognising the need for a prospective mayoral candidate to been seen as independent-minded, addresses the issue without prompt; “I love not being so subject to collective responsibility so I’m perhaps more outspoken than I was in the earlier part of my political career”.
Even before Labour’s defeat last week, Lammy returns persistently to a “real challenge”, the “question mark”, “a bigger profound issue”, not only in his own party’s offer to the electorate, but in how politics more generally connects to people. “The bland, spun, ‘same-y’ nature of the major political parties” has left us with a politics that feels inauthentic, he says. In part, this is a consequence of the increasingly narrow background of politicians. “I’ve been critical of this move for everyone to have done PPE [Politics, Philosophy and Economics] at Oxford, for everyone to have gone and worked for a think-tank, and then effectively to get a job in the Shadow Cabinet. We’ve got to be broader than that”. The issue, too, is that the current crop of political leaders are baby-boomers or ‘mini-baby-boomers’; all having benefited from free education, home ownership and full employment. It is no surprise, then, that there is a deep sense of disillusionment, particularly amongst younger people, when “the world has overheated and we need to cool it down, we crashed the economy and you guys inherit that, full employment? A thing of the past, Buy your own home?” he questions exasperated, “rents soaring, get a council house? Where? Not possible”. All of these, Lammy says, present a challenge for Labour to demonstrate they are up to the task of addressing these concerns. Are many young people not turned off Labour by their association with austerity? “Yes, I think you’re right”, Lammy says “I do think there is a respectable, bright bunch of folk who want a different kind of politics and want mainstream politics to arrive at a different place, particularly with regard to the economy”. For political parties, the question is how to bring this group of voters together with others to build election-winning alliances. His answers, here, indicate someone grappling with the anxieties many people feel about a rapidly changing world with widening inequalities, not just between rich and poor, but also between young and old. Anxieties which Labour’s election offer went part-way, but ultimately failed, to address.
Lammy was the first big name out of the blocks in the race to be Labour’s London mayoral candidate and has since been joined by Diane Abbott, Tessa Jowell and finally Sadiq Khan. Many have felt Khan, a close ally to Ed Miliband, had used his role as Shadow Minister for London to raise his profile for a bid while criticising those who formally announced their candidacy before the general election. So, has this annoyed Lammy? He laughs loudly before answering, “No, because Sadiq’s a good guy” and quickly praises the work he’s done in the Shadow Cabinet. That being said, when pressed he adds that “the feeling is there is a fix in favour of one candidate” and continues, even more stridently, “it doesn’t really look like an open primary to me, it looks like an incredibly closed primary in which actually there’s been an attempt to do it in the same old way to get the same old outcome, which is an outcome the party want”. In particular, he’s concerned it will be too difficult for Labour supporters to sign up to be involved in the vote – its the first time the ballot will be opened up beyond party members – and that the summer scheduling will mean many students miss out on the chance to have their say. Since we spoke, Labour has opted for a longer process that brings the London ballot in line with the election of the party’s national leader.
‘The housing crisis is here in London and the South East’
While I prod into the process and behind-the-scenes politics, Lammy is keen to steer his answers on to policy and the narrative of his candidacy. “I don’t know whether you can come from Broadwater Farm and get to City Hall really; I just don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that I’m going to try, and I do know that I’m going to put on the table issues that I think are really important”. And what will Lammy be bringing to that table? Getting into his stride, he rattles off “housing, council housing, housing that people can afford, rents, I raised issues around gangs and crime…and London’s economy”. He says that Labour’s approach to affordable housing has neglected the pressing need to build council houses and suggests a shake-up of council tax – “I don’t think it makes sense for a lecturer at SOAS to be paying the same council tax band as Roman Abramovich, frankly” – so that London’s boroughs would have the funds to invest in new homes. Speaking increasingly passionately, he stresses the need for devolution; “I want to see that money come back to London, to come back locally to do the things that we need in London. In the end, the housing crisis is here in London and the South East. This is where we need the houses to be built. Perhaps we would be building the new generation of council houses if we actually had the money to do it”.
‘This is a really, really tough place to live’
Returning to the theme of inequality, Lammy says “This is a city in which its the best place in the world to be, particularly if you’re super-rich, but if you aren’t making the Living Wage….this is a really, really tough place to live”. That’s why, last year, he launched the ‘Fairness in Football’ campaign; drawing attention to the vast gulf between the wages of top footballers at London clubs and the security guards, catering staff and cleaners, who are often paid the minimum wage. He’s urging the London teams to pay at least £9.15 an hour. Chelsea is currently the only Premier League club to commit to paying the Living Wage, which still looks like peanuts compared to the £9,000 an hour many football stars take home.
‘I’ve been stopped and searched. I know what that feels like’
In his lifetime, David Lammy has seen two riots in the area where he grew up, and now represents. Four years ago, the police shot dead Tottenham-man Mark Duggan prompting riots that spread across the country and lasted nearly a week. “All riots take a spark and that spark is always an act of perceived oppression by the police or armed services in some way and someone usually dies”, but Lammy is clear that there were much wider causes stemming back years that culminated in those six days of chaos. “What it’s about,” Lammy tells me “is not having a stake in society”. He talks about the breakdown in trust between communities and the police, in part, because of the overuse of stop and search on young and black and minority ethnicity Londoners. Too often, he feels, police were proceeding “on the suspicion that he looks like someone who might be carrying a bit of weed and therefore I’m going to stop him. No, no, that is not good enough”. At this point, Lammy is at his most passionate, emphasising the need for the next Mayor to ‘get it’ based on personal experience. “I have been stopped and searched. As an adult. As an MP. I don’t always wear a suit and a tie. I’m sometimes on the way to the gym. I’m sometimes driving with a mate in a fancy car. I’ve been stopped and searched. I know what that feels like”. The day we meet he is raising the case of a 21 year old athlete who was left with a broken neck after an incident with six police officers and Lammy is demanding answers for his parents from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This injustice is why he declares, thumping the table, that the IPCC “should be abolished because it is not up to the job”. He worries that many of the same issues which contributed to the 2011 riots remain unaddressed and says that the Metropolitan Police needs to urgently diversify to win consent from London’s communities. Beyond policing, though, he believes local councils need to be compelled to provide youth services. Would he reverse the cuts to youth centres as Mayor? “Absolutely, I would hope to be able to find the funds to put back into communities”.
The current Mayor, Boris Johnson, returned to the House of Commons last week, meaning he’ll serve out his final year at City Hall whilst also being a Member of Parliament. Lammy has made clear he’d quit Parliament if elected Mayor, but does he think his successor as MP for Tottenham should be chosen from an ‘all-black shortlist’? Labour has successfully bolstered the number of women in its parliamentary group using all-women shortlists and tries to replace its women MPs with candidates chosen from women-only lists where possible. So far, the party hasn’t opted to take similar positive action to increase BAME representation. Lammy feels that Labour has been complacent with regard to ethnic minority communities and that “In the absence of affirmative action, you’re basically in the place of goodwill and goodwill is not delivering at the moment”. He’s previously called for all-black shortlists to be used where local parties have consistently failed to select black candidates but stops short of insisting his replacement be chosen from one; saying “it’s not for me to say entirely how that would work”.
The race to be Labour’s candidate and then on to the mayoralty is now formally underway. “The candidates are diverse, [there’s a] very different range between Tessa Jowell, Diane Abbott and myself”. Lammy hopes that the more open process will motivate voters beyond the party’s base and that Londoners will say “I like what so-and-so is saying, I’m going to participate, I’m going to vote for so-and-so…vote for me!”, he adds laughing.