David Lammy: “I grew up looking at a London that I often didn’t feel a part of"

In a first of a series following the mayoral runners and riders on the campaign trail in London, Stephen Bush talks to David Lammy about Stuart Hall, housing, immigration and growing up poor.

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"I grew up looking at a London that I often didn’t feel a part of," David Lammy tells me.

He would sit at his bedroom window and ask himself: “How do you get to a good school, how do you get to a good university, how do you get a good job, the how is always a very big thing in working class and immigrant families.”

Lammy’s father arrived from West India with “six shillings in his pocket”, and worked as a taxidermist, but a combination of recession and changing social mores meant that his father was unable to pull in customers, and he turned to drink. When Lammy was just 12, his father left for the United States, leaving his mother as the family’s sole carer.

His mother worked two, on occasions three jobs. “There were tough times,” Lammy says, “[But] I sit here as a barrister and a member of Parliament. And I’m very aware that this city gave me all that I have.”

He gestures to the window of his office.

“Everyone knows that the cranes going up are not building houses for them,” he says, “We think we can use the word ‘affordable’ and not get absolutely pilloried! The private sector cannot deliver the level of housing that we need, it never has. How many council houses did we build last year? We built forty.”

“In this election, it’s depressing how narrow the range is,” Lammy says, telling me that the contest will be fought on “immigration, the economy and the NHS”.  The campaign to come after that will be about “drilling down into the detail”. “How we actually deliver a million homes, what do we meant when we make offers of apprenticeships…a lot of my colleagues talk about raising the amount of apprenticeships. Great! But the issue is the quality.”

“If the rise of apprenticeships is in retail, if most apprentices are over 35, if the second largest number of apprentices are in hairdressing, you have to ask yourself…is this really the vision for apprentices in the city?”

The general election,  Lammy argues, will by necessity focus on the middle classes, the swing voters – Lammy himself, who’s “always been a big campaigner”, has just got back from a trip to Brentford and Isleworth, a suburban marginal.  It will be easy for politicians and journalists, he tells me, to forget that one in four Londoners are unemployed, that four in 10 children in the city live in poverty. “These are the real issues that will be centre stage in a mayoral election, which will be on the doorstep in a general election but will not be discussed at a national level.”

That mayoral campaign – along with his parliamentary office – is just over a month from shutting up shop until the end of the general election campaign when we sit down to talk and Lammy is in a reflective mood.

Over the last five years, having turned down the opportunity to sit on the frontbenches, Lammy has written extensively, including a well-received book on the riots, Out of the Ashes, and a tribute to Stuart Hall, the respected social theorist, who Lammy knew well.

“I think Stuart was a polymath,” he says, “History will be very kind to him. He was able to critique Thatcherism within the context of a Britain that was, if you like, having to move on from colonialism and having to rediscover what it is the great of great Britain.”

The essay for which Hall is best known now is The Great Moving Right Show, written a few months before Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory. Hall foretold a significant and lasting shift to the right that is still being played out in Britain today. Although the result in 2015 feels more up for grabs, I wonder whether he detects a similar shift in Britain today?

“I think so,” he answers, “I think what Stuart would say is that Margaret Thatcher launched a full-frontal assault, [first] on one nation Conservatism and pursued an agenda of neoliberal economics with real zeal. And, frankly, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the left was so on its knees and so engaged in internal fighting that she won many of those battles.”

But, he adds, “Cameron and Osborne are in some senses being more pernicious than Margaret Thatcher.”  Just as she turned the British public sphere on a more American coruse, they now want to do the same to social security In Britain. The financial crisis, Lammy argues, is just an opportunity. “Stuart would have seen that for what it was, and called it for what it was.”

The same rightward tides are pulling at Labour – and Britain – on immigration, too. The party, Lammy tells me, faces a rhetoric from Ukip and the Conservatives, that “if you can’t buy a house or your child’s stuck at home with you, then the reason for this problem is immigration. And the temptation for mainstream parties is to follow this course, and it’s a very dangerous course”.  “Clearly we can’t have open borders, we don’t have open borders,” his hands bang as the table as he talks, “[but] you cannot run from globalisation, and it’s perverse for the country that went out, built ships and sailed to every corner of the world to try to fight that.”

“The NHS would collapse without the 30 per cent of doctors who are from abroad or the almost 40 per cent of nurses who are from abroad,” Lammy argues, “The challenge for the rest of the country  is how do we make sure they are able to participate in the rewards that globalisation brings.

Unlike many of his generation – Lammy has been in parliament since 2000, after Bernie Grant died – opposition has treated Lammy well. He’s found a voice that was perhaps absent in office, and I wonder if he’s almost enjoyed the time out of office, having served in government since 2002.

“Opposition is not a lot of fun,” he replies, forcefully, “Certainly for my constituents it’s not a lot of fun. Representing Tottenham, I feel on the frontline of cuts to local government, cuts to welfare, of falling police numbers, of long waits for the GP and a rhetoric that’s very unsavoury around immigrants.”

“Sometimes,” he adds, quietly, “You feel powerless."

He pauses. He finds his voice again. 

"I want desperately for the Labour party to form the next government.” And, the interview over, he goes out to help do just that. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.