Until recently, David Lammy seemed destined to be one of politics’ nearly men. The 45-year-old Tottenham MP, who was once predicted to become Britain’s first black prime minister, failed to make the cabinet during the New Labour years (having been elected in 2000). In the party’s 2015 London mayoral selection, Lammy finished fourth.
Over the past year, however, he has enjoyed a political renaissance. From the back benches, Lammy has distinguished himself as a relentless campaigner – on Grenfell, Windrush, knife crime and Brexit. In an age of diminished oratory, his speeches are among the few that resonate beyond Westminster (Lammy has 383,000 Twitter followers).
“I get slightly weary of ‘Oh, David Lammy’s passionate’,” he told me when we met recently in parliament’s Portcullis House. “God, if the rising xenophobia, the rising hate crime, the sinking economy shouldn’t make people passionate, I don’t know what bloody well should.”
For Lammy, the political has been profoundly personal. He lost his friend Khadija Saye, a 24-year-old Gambian-British artist, in the Grenfell fire a year ago. “She was a young person who reminded me a lot of myself: a second-generation immigrant who succeeded through sheer hard work.”
He added: “My own view is that [the fire] amounts to corporate manslaughter, or negligence manslaughter. And actually, while a lot of emphasis has been placed on the Grenfell inquiry, as much emphasis should be placed on the police investigation.”
Lammy has been criticised, most recently by the novelist Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books, for saying that the true number of Grenfell victims (estimated at 72) may have been concealed in order to prevent “civil unrest”. The MP maintained that he was simply describing what residents felt. But he added: “I don’t claim to be an impartial spokesman. I lost someone dear to me, I’ve remained very close to her family and other victims.”
As one of the few Afro-Caribbean MPs, and the son of Guyanese immigrants, Lammy was similarly moved by the Windrush scandal. “Frankly, it ought to have been a bigger scandal, it hasn’t gone away,” he told me. “It’s nasty politics. It’s why I said in parliament to Amber Rudd: ‘If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas.’ The political class in Britain have crawled into bed with the far right: a lot of that rhetoric has become mainstream, a lot of it has become policy.”
Does he include Labour in that criticism? “Absolutely. I was pretty robust when Ed Miliband thought it was a great idea to put ‘controls on immigration’ on Labour mugs going into the 2015 election. And I voted against the 2014 Immigration Bill that brought in much of the ‘hostile environment’.” (Lammy was one of just six Labour MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, to do so.)
Lammy and his four siblings were raised single-handedly by their mother in Tottenham (their father left when Lammy was 12). After working at KFC and as a security guard, Lammy became one of the first black Britons to study at Harvard University (where he later befriended fellow law alumnus Barack Obama).
Unsurprisingly, Lammy is roused to anger by educational injustice. For years, he has lambasted Oxford University for its derisory number of black students (eight colleges admitted just one or two from 2015-17). Oxford responded by retweeting a post by a student describing Lammy’s criticism as “bitter”. “Bitter for what?” Lammy exclaimed, pounding his fist on the table. “I’ve got nothing to be bitter about! I’m one of the most fortunate people in the country.”
Lammy spoke fondly of Corbyn, whom he has known for decades (the Labour leader’s Islington North seat borders Tottenham). But he did not disguise his greatest difference with his neighbour: Brexit. Lammy called for parliament to halt EU withdrawal immediately after the Leave vote in 2016, a position he maintains today. “It’s not fashionable to say, but it was an advisory referendum.”
Lammy added: “I worry that so many Labour colleagues seem supine in relation to their electorates. We are not delegates, we are here to speak truth to power with our conscience.” He is motivated, above all, by the desire to ensure that his working-class constituents “are not made poorer” as a result of Brexit.
Is he hopeful that, even under the Eurosceptic Corbyn, Labour may yet back a new referendum? “I saw something change in Jeremy Corbyn after the last election,” Lammy replied. “The seduction of power is very real, not power for its own sake, but power on behalf of the people that you want to assist in the country. I see that in Jeremy, I see it in his eyes, I see it in his posture…Usually when you start to see that, leaders are responsive to what they think will get them over the line.”
Would he like to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet? “I think I’m being pretty effective at the moment. I’m conscious that some of the folk I’m speaking up for really need me speaking up for them… I don’t tend to focus very much on things I have no control over, so that question is better directed at Jeremy Corbyn and his advisers.”
As he spoke of Corbyn’s qualities, Lammy added: “I hope I’m someone who is also associated with an authentic approach to politics.” But though Lammy is a natural dissident voice, unconstrained by the party line, he confessed with some relief: “After the referendum, I felt like a stranger in my own party. I don’t feel quite like that now.”
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis