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25 March 2020updated 30 Mar 2020 3:14pm

David Lammy’s search for meaning

The Labour MP’s new book, Tribes, is half-memoir, half an account of the world’s problems and how they can be fixed.

By Stephen Bush

David Lammy and I enjoy what may be a unique position in the history of political-media relations: the only time in which a journalist has been the subject of a freedom of information (FOI) request by a politician. One of Lammy’s many recurring campaigns concerns diversity – or the lack thereof – at Britain’s top universities, and in 2011 his latest set of FOIs had turned up the arresting statistic that in the year I began studying the University of Oxford had admitted just one black British student: me. 

That wasn’t quite accurate: because how you identify is a movable feast, many people who might have otherwise ticked the “black British” box ticked something like “Black African” or “Mixed – White and Black” or some other variant. I can’t, if I’m honest, remember which box I ticked. My answer changes from day to day: the range of options available when you fill out a diversity and monitoring form means that you can either be “black British” or simply “Mixed”, so every time I complete one I must decide whether my desire to assert my British identity outweighs my uneasiness about claiming to be “black”.

In this case, what mattered more was that while I might not have been Oxford’s only black student, I was Oxford’s only black student working on the student paper. When reporters started trying to hunt down the institution’s lone black Brit, I was the one who ended up in the newspapers – and as a result, I was the one who met Lammy when he visited a few weeks later.

When I moved back to London, I would occasionally bump into Lammy on the bus home, and he would ask how I was getting on and what I was up to. Later, when I became a political correspondent we worked together on a number of issues. But one in particular sticks in my mind: an interview I conducted with him for the New Statesman a few months before the 2015 election. 

He was running for the London mayoralty and facing a difficult challenge against Tessa Jowell and Sadiq Khan, the two candidates favoured by Labour’s power-brokers. As is typical of Lammy, our conversation was wide-ranging and covered topics from Stuart Hall to the rise of Ukip. In public he was scrupulously loyal, but in private he was deeply uneasy: both about the looming election and about the prospects of winning the EU referendum that would follow if David Cameron was re-elected.

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I also detected what appeared to be frustration: here was a man who had been a minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who had written a critically acclaimed book about the London riots, Out of the Ashes, who was consistently writing and campaigning on one issue or another, but who seemed to be more appreciated outside his party than within it.

Shortly after Labour’s 2015 defeat, Cameron would commission him to lead a review into racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. His successor as prime minister, Theresa May, implemented many of the recommendations and gave Lammy’s work further impetus with her own racial disparity audit, which logged and tracked the various ways that Britain’s underprivileged groups, from the white working class to the recently arrived, are let down by the system. 

Yet under Ed Miliband’s leadership Lammy was languishing on the back benches. Like many of his peers, Lammy had been sufficiently close to the Blair-Brown wars that he could not be lauded as a “clean skin”, unlike those elected for the first time in 2010. But he was not an active combatant in the conflict, which meant he could not be sacked or overlooked without triggering stories about the extent of internecine conflict in the Labour Party. (Others who experienced a similar fate include Meg Hillier, now chair of the public accounts committee, and Diana Johnson, the backbencher who has led the fight for justice in the NHS contaminated blood scandal.)

Lammy has been working on Tribes – a book that is half-memoir, half an account of the world’s problems and how they can be fixed – for a long time, and many of its themes have been occupying his thoughts and writing for a long time too. His subject is the conflict between overlapping sets of identities, and the consequences that has for politics. 

With the exception of his committed pro-Europeanism, Lammy’s world-view is largely of a Blue Labourish bent: his thesis is that as economic and technological change strip away people’s sense of community locally, they turn for a sense of belonging to extreme political identities, be those the young black men in his Tottenham constituency joining a gang, the nephew of a Muslim constituent who ran away to join Isis, or the pensioner who sent Lammy a series of death threats. His solution: radical devolution of power, taxes on wealth, and for the government to put greater energies into articulating “Englishness”.

The book skips along well, enlivened by Lammy’s own life experiences. He’s not afraid to laugh at himself: he highlights the ridiculous idea that he could have become a firefighter, as his careers adviser suggested. The book begins with Lammy taking a DNA test that reveals his tribal heritage, and ends with him uniting a group of geneticists in laughter at the idea that these tests can accurately reveal your ancestry.

Tribes is primarily concerned with the condition of men and boys: many of the academics and thinkers Lammy quotes are women, but his focus is the economic condition of men, who once gained purpose through skilled manual occupations, and are now searching for belonging.

The quirk of the book’s timing, as the Labour leadership race reaches its final stages, will inevitably invite comment about the next shadow cabinet, and whether Lammy should be in it. His prescriptions, coupled with his own biography, ought to make him the standout candidate to be de facto leader of the party’s Blue Labour wing. But what will count against him for that faction is the book’s rousing defence of identity politics.

I partially agree with Lammy here: all politics is based on an appeal to identity, whether that be the banal – “hard-working families” – or the specific, say, a stay-at-home parent. But there is, inevitably, a trade-off between the benefits of campaigning on specific identity-based issues and the advantages of a larger coalition. There are challenges that are unique to stay-at-home parents, but they have less chance of surmounting them alone than they do when they make common cause with other “hard-working families”.

Lammy rightly recognises that racial diversity is just one part of the puzzle at our elite universities, and despairs that none of his northern colleagues used the information he acquired to campaign for better access for children in their constituencies. Children in the North (almost regardless of school type or class identity) and black children in London both face obstacles to winning a place at Oxford. Those difficulties are not identical but they are overlapping, and it’s undoubtedly easier to eradicate the common barriers than it is for either group to succeed alone.

That, to me, is the overarching message of Tribes – even though the author doesn’t wholly subscribe to it. Still, it is a vital contribution to the political debate: and I hope that it will ensure that when I next interview Lammy, he won’t be languishing on the back benches. 

Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society
David Lammy
Constable, 352pp, £20

This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor