Show Hide image

Tale of a city: For richer, for poorer

David Lammy questions whether London can be a place for all.

London is a city of extremes. Penthouse flats in One Hyde Park sell for £40m, while just a few miles away people pay £500 a month to live in a garden shed. The City offers some of the highest salaries in the world, yet in many boroughs, a third of young people are on the dole. The world’s rich flock to London’s private clubs and hospitals, but for every Jubilee Line stop from Westminster to Canning Town, residents can expect to live a year less. Can London ever work for us all?

I’ve lived in the capital nearly all of my life. My two sons were born in the same hospital as I was: the Whittington in Archway. I’ve been a London pupil – at Downhills Primary in Tottenham – and a London student – at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I witnessed the fall of Margaret Thatcher and the start of the first Gulf war. I’ve worked long hours for little pay, frying chicken at the KFC on Tottenham High Road, attempting without any success to flog satellite dishes on commission in Holloway, and as a security guard as the Goldman Sachs building was going up.

I’ve also worked alongside some of the world’s finest legal minds as a barrister. I’ve seen the city of extremes – from both extremes. I know that London can be one of the most exhilarating cities in the world, but also one of the most difficult to live in, because I have seen it for myself. I still see it today in my own extended family, working as nurses in the NHS and shop assistants on the minimum wage.

London offered my father a home and the chance to run a small business when he moved here in 1956. It was, and remains, one of the most open-minded, tolerant places that anybody could hope to call home. But that home became a harsh, sometimes lonely place, as Dad’s business faltered and he lost his way, drinking heavily, leaving my mother to bring me up together with my four siblings.

Since my father arrived in London, Britain has been through two social revolutions. The
first, based on Sixties social liberalism, made Britain a more tolerant place. The second, based on Eighties free-market liberalism, injected some dynamism into a faltering economy. The apex of this tolerance and wealth was London. Many of the social changes worked for us all. Important battles over race relations led to black people in Notting Hill and Brixton and Asian people in Southall and Walthamstow becoming accepted by the majority of Londoners as friends and neighbours. Homosexuality was legalised and the gay scene, which already existed in many parts of London, was welcomed into the open. Women entered the workforce in greater numbers, fulfilling dreams that had gone wasted in previous generations. All made London a better place to live.

London also led the way in the Eighties freemarket revolution. Big Bang in the City opened up the financial industries, as London went from being the capital of a national economy to a centre of an international one. Pension funds rose on the back of the stock market, jobs were created in the City and tax revenue flowed into the Treasury. Cheaper credit helped many get a foot on a housing ladder that felt more like an escalator as prices continually rose. People felt wealthier, despite the sense that those at the top were pulling away from the rest.

Yet both these revolutions – social and economic – have their downside when they are not moderated by something else. The social liberalism that battles tirelessly against discrimination must be matched by an equal determination to ensure that society is integrated, too. In a good city, people of different races, ages and social classes interact with, understand and feel comfortable with one another. An emphasis on children’s rights means little without something to say about family relationships. A rights culture can do harm when it comes at the expense of backing teachers and parents to provide structure, boundaries and discipline. Social liberalism cannot be a substitute for a social fabric.

The same is true of the market liberalism that has dominated British politics for so long: left unchecked, it can harm society rather than enrich it. Family life becomes harder not easier when people struggle to make ends meet. I met a young dad who has been forced by low pay to work as a taxi driver by day and a security guard by night just to keep a leaking roof over the heads of his family, whom he never sees. On his taxi route, he can see Canary Wharf; those who work there might spend more on a night out than he spends on food for his family in a year. Is London working for him?

The truth is that people must have a stake in society if they are to feel a sense of belonging. The average Londoner working full-time earns just under £34,000 a year. The average London house price is £360,000. There is a problem when the average Londoner can never earn enough to buy the average London house. Home ownership is a popular way of putting down roots in a community – yet our economic model is making that impossible for many. Who are often forced into the hands of private landlords who push up rents and push down quality in response to increased demand. In Tottenham, I have seen whole families living in squalid rooms with no running water, no bathroom and no kitchen – and paying most of their income for the privilege. Every London MP will have similar stories.

Other cities compartmentalise their problems. In Paris in 2005, riots took place in the banlieue (the outskirts), away from the rest of society – someone else’s problem. London isn’t like that; last year’s riots were a Zones 1-6 problem. Great affluence lives cheek by jowl with extreme poverty. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has its problem estates, just as Highgate millionaires live in my own borough of Haringey, one of the poorest in the country. London has no equivalent of the Bronx. Your problem is also my problem. During the riots, you could see the burning buildings of Tottenham, Wood Green and Enfield from the manicured lawns of Chigwell. It means that London works for us all, or it works for none of us. All in, or all out.

David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.