David Lammy on youth violence: “Amber Rudd and Sadiq Khan have been absent for too long”

“They just do the same old politics around the same old issues, delivering very little,” says the Tottenham MP.

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Making his way home in the early hours of Saturday 3 February, 22-year-old Kwabena Nelson was ambushed and fatally stabbed. He was a youth worker on a north east London project tackling gang problems.

A little over a month later, on Thursday 8 March, a 19-year-old called Kelvin Odunuyi was shot dead outside Vue cinema in Wood Green, where he was hanging out with friends a little after midnight. The moped drive-by shooting was linked to Tottenham “postcode wars”, though Odunuyi at the time of his death was living – and visiting from – west London’s Harrow, and isn’t thought to have been a gang member.

A 36-year-old Haringey resident, Leyla Mtumwa, was found dead from stab wounds at her home in the same month, on Friday 30 March. The case has gone to trial.

Three days later, Tanesha Melbourne, 17, was shot dead in the evening on Chalgrove Road, Tottenham – another drive-by shooting, this time from a car. Police received screenshots suggesting a local gang had claimed responsibility for her death.

These four deaths, part of the UK’s recent spike in youth violence, took place in the constituency of David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham since 2000. By 6 April, he still hadn’t heard from the Home Secretary or London Mayor – and had become so frustrated that he questioned the lack of communication on live radio that morning.

“I want a relationship with the Home Secretary, I want a relationship with Sadiq Khan,” Lammy tells me over the phone. “I had to challenge them last week because I felt they were absent for too long. My own view is that black lives matter, and when four young people die in the London Borough of Haringey in the space of three months, that ought to command attention. So I have to challenge and push and prod.”

This morning, he dialled into a roundtable hosted at the Home Office, which included both the Home Secretary Amber Rudd and the London Mayor Sadiq Khan. But he is less than impressed with the results of politicians from all sides scrambling to find a response to the recent incidents of urban violence that have hit Tottenham and beyond.

The government is putting £40m worth of funding into a Serious Violence Strategy, to try and help with early intervention in the lives of young people who may be vulnerable to joining gangs, and crack down on the drug-dealing market.

“If you count up how much money’s been lost just in youth services, it’s a lot more than £40m,” Lammy tells me, following the roundtable.

“Is £40m enough? It sounds good, but it’s about 20 homes in Notting Hill. It’s that lack of grip that frustrates people like me.”

Indeed, Between 2010 and 2016, youth services were cut by £387m. In 2017, the chief executive of the National Youth Agency Leigh Middleton said: “Youth services have taken a real battering over the past seven years, with expenditure falling by more than 50 per cent.”

Lammy is critical of his local Labour-run Haringey Council, which decided to reduce its youth service and Connexions budget by 75 per cent in May 2011.

“Haringey Council cut youth services and that was a catastrophic mistake,” he says. “Councils like Haringey have not sufficiently been able to invest in people, particularly young people. And that is replicated across London… the inability to support young people, particularly in outer London boroughs, like Croydon, Haringey, Enfield, Waltham Forest, which have been cut more, where we’re seeing a lot more crime.”

Lammy feels this conversation about youth services and local authorities – which, in his view, have “forgotten how to engage with local communities” affected by violent crime – is being lost under a fixation with police powers.

He is “depressed” that, in today’s conversation about crime, “the questions largely revolved around police numbers and stop and search”.

Khan has urged an increase in “targeted” stop and search powers in response to recent violence in London, and Rudd has faced questions from the media and opposition parties about police cuts. Police budgets will have £700m less a year by 2020, with officer and police staff numbers falling too, according to the emergency services watchdog.

“Those are very familiar narratives,” says Lammy. “I don’t think they’re the whole story, and they don’t edify themselves to populations like mine because they just do the same old politics around the same old issues, delivering very little. Politicians need to be challenged to get into the granular detail on this stuff.”

Lammy – who grew up in Tottenham, near his cousins who lived on the Broadwater Farm estate where PC Keith Blakelock was killed during the 1985 riots – is bitterly accustomed to politicians neglecting problems in areas like his.

After the London Riots in 2011, which were sparked by the Tottenham resident Mark Duggan being shot dead by police, Lammy was disappointed with how few lessons were learned.

“My recollection is that of the 65 important recommendations that were made [by the London Riots review] around, for example, pupil referral units, the government accepted 11 and the news agenda moved on,” he tells me. “So you can understand why communities like the one I represent become increasingly cynical, and why doing my job becomes very, very frustrating because it just leads to people’s complete lack of belief in the political class.”

Lammy urges politicians to come to a cross-party consensus on tackling such crimes, and a “properly funded public health strategy” – treating knife and other violent crime as a health issue: a strategy that has successfully brought down gang crime from Glasgow to New York City.

Instead, Lammy believes law enforcement should focus on “organised crime” networks behind violence on our streets, which bring drugs into the country – condemning a culture that criminalises poor black youths selling cocaine but excuses the middle-class revellers who take it.

“Casual recreational drug use that has effectively decriminalised cocaine for middle-class 20-somethings right across the country who are not being arrested for their use, let’s face it, and for whom ordering on WhatsApp or Snapchat from a young urban kid that turns up is prolific,” he says.

He also blames such networks for the weapons used in recent attacks. “There ought to be some questions, frankly, about why Tanesha was shot by a gun at 9.35 on a Monday evening, and why a young man standing by Vue cinema in Wood Green was shot and killed by a gun from a moped?” he asks. “Where have those guns come from? Because, I can tell you now, the 18- or 19-year-old wielding that gun did not traffic that gun into the country.”

Lammy denies that the social media and music videos highlighted by some politicians, including the Home Secretary, and Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police, are driving the problem. “Shock horror, music affects the way young people behave – wow!” he says. “You could go back to that narrative with Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Yes, to some extent, but it’s not central to the issue.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.