Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The thoughts of Chairman David

David Lammy becomes Chair of Progress this month. He talks to Robert Philpot and Hannah Pawlby about Tottenham, the Thatcher years and socialism

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For most of David Lammy’s constituents, Tottenham may only be twenty minutes from Westminster by tube, but, in most other senses, it is another world away. The plush flats and smart squares which surround Britain’s seat of government have little in common with a constituency in which every ward, not just one or two, are classed as deprived.

The journey from Tottenham to Westminster is, however, one that self-described ‘working class boy’ David Lammy has made remarkably swiftly, but hardly effortlessly. His father left the family when Lammy was in his early teens and his mother brought him, his three big brothers and his younger sister up on a very low income. From a state school in Tottenham, Lammy won a choral scholarship to Kings School, Peterborough. Then law studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies helped Lammy to become the youngest qualifying barrister in 1994. When Labour came to power in 1997 he was engaged in postgraduate study at Harvard Law School. Three years later, after the briefest of stints on the new Greater London Assembly, Lammy, won the selection contest to succeed Bernie Grant, following the latter’s untimely death.

His age, 29, his background and his journey to politics have engendered in Lammy a youthful radicalism. Since his first speech to the House of Commons, Lammy has a displayed the ability to voice grassroots concerns and hold on to New Labour aspirations. In The Guardian, Julia Langdon described Lammy’s skill for talking powerfully and with passion about ‘how politics can operate in the opposite direction, about the kind of politics that comes from the people themselves, that sets about improving people’s lives and expectations’. He personifies his own pronouncement that ‘we must invest in people’s souls as well as their skills.’

Today, the House of Commons’ youngest member is sitting on one of Labour’s safest majorities in the country, following his re-election last year. In an election marked – or, maybe, marred – by low turnouts, Tottenham’s was a slightly anaemic 48 percent: ‘Let’s just be very clear about this: seats like mine have always had low turnouts,’ argues Lammy. You can’t, he believes, separate that fact from the reality of life in constituencies like Tottenham, where social exclusion is prevalent. ‘There are significant numbers of people in my constituency who are excluded from the mainstream: in their housing, in employment, in terms of accessing education, sometimes excluded by language. Faced with exclusion from those key human necessities, it’s not surprising that some constituents don’t even think about voting. I believe the Labour government’s commitment to tackle those fundamental inequalities will, incidentally but inevitably, increase their participation at the ballot box.’

Lammy is hardly complacent, though. ‘We have to make the process of democracy relevant to people’s lives,’ he says. ‘People spend longer and longer in their working environments, that’s why they say to me: “Why can’t I vote at work even though it’s not where I live?”.’ The government, he suggests, needs to make voting easier by looking at allowing people to, for instance, vote in supermarkets (which has been experimented with in local government elections) or allowing people to cast their ballots on the internet.

It is ironic that the arrival in Downing Street of the country’s youngest Prime Minister since 1801 – whose backbench army contained within its ranks several detachments of twenty- and thirtysomething MPs – seems to have coincided with a growing sense of alienation amongst the young from politics. Indeed, by voting, let alone standing, last year Lammy was in a minority amongst his own age group.

‘I don’t think you should confuse disenchantment with party politics from disenchantment with politics. We live in anti-institutional times; that doesn’t just affect party politics. It affects the monarchy, the Church of England, the BBC, any quintessential institution. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested in politics, it just means the way they approach politics at the turn of the century is manifestly different.’

At the same time, though, Lammy accepts that, particularly amongst the young, there may have been a certain complacency about politics prior to September 11: ‘Before September 11, there were a lot of people saying that politics was dead, that it was all about managerialism and that young people didn’t care. And then something happened that reminded people that politics does matter. Now, suddenly, our way of life is under attack. A plane is no longer a dull, convenient way to get to the Spanish seaside. A trip on the underground to London’s West End suddenly carries more risks than the possibility of getting one’s wallet stolen. Foreign neighbours suddenly arouse suspicion in a way that makes us feel ashamed. Clearly, we are a generation that has lived without war, or at least without a war that has hurt us directly and perhaps we had become a little complacent.’

Times were, of course, not so peaceful or prosperous when Lammy was growing up: ‘I still remember sitting in class age eleven and my primary school teacher attempting to tell us about the world and explain to us the Cold War. I remember how frightening it was, the nuclear arsenals that America, Britain and Russia had. There was a lot of fear and concern when I was a teenager’.

If the international scene when Lammy was growing up appeared more than a little frightening, events closer to home were not much more comforting.

Growing up in Tottenham in the early 1980s, Lammy believes, it would have been hard not to be very political. ‘It was a time of tremendous social change and, indeed, social decay, of divisive politics which was often about us, but didn’t seem to include us.’

The Labour Party, piling up ever-greater majorities in heartland seats like Tottenham while the country at large stuck with the Tories, was a source of ‘great suffering and great strength [for us] against a Conservative Party which, at best, ignored and, at worst, demonised constituencies like mine.’

Lammy is free of the siege mentality displayed by some members of the party whose politics today are shaped by the fight not simply against the Tories, but also the hard left, during the 1980s: ‘I subscribe to the view that the party is a broad church and its strength is in being just that. As the new Chair of Progress, I know that’s fundamental to the debate we want to see go on in the party. People come into the Labour Party from different positions. They come in from working class or street activism, from the trade union movement, as Christian Socialists, liberal lawyers, through grassroots public sector or voluntary sector activism, the think-tanks, through the student union movement and the socialist societies.

‘Our party’s strength is because of that broad cross section of society. For me, that’s not just about left and right, which I do not think is sufficient to sum up modern politics in the 21st century, but it’s a broad experience of life across Britain.’

Lammy happily admits that his top priorities for Labour’s second term are ‘the priorities of the government, which is delivery in our public services: health, education, crime and transport. In Tottenham, as elsewhere, we will judge the Labour government by its impact on poverty.’

Lammy is also adamant that things have got better since 1997. ‘We have made tremendous progress in primary school education, but we’ve still got more to do in our secondary schools.’ In health, he approves of the manner in which the government has sought to change structures ‘to bring services closer to ordinary people and to get money to frontline services like A&E departments and walk-in centres.’ But, he acknowledges, ‘it’s about investment – day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year.’

Lammy’s ease with his own identity within the party keeps breaking through. When asked if he’s happy to describe himself as a socialist, there’s no squirming at all. Instead, he interrupts: ‘That’s a bloody good question. I’m very happy to describe myself as a socialist. For me that means believing in social justice, in equality and it means believing in the fair distribution of national resources. It also means a permanent concern for the most vulnerable in our society and the poorest of the poor.’

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Interviewed by Hannah Pawlby

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