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David Lammy Says Windrush Anniversary Will Be “Bittersweet Commemoration”

Next week marks the anniversary of David Lammy becoming an MP (Alamy)

7 min read

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has said the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMP Empire Windrush to the UK will be a “bittersweet commemoration” for him and the rest of the country.

The Windrush ship brought 492 passengers from Caribbean nations to the UK, and has since become a symbol of mass migration from the region and the 'Windrush generation': Caribbean people who were invited to live in the UK to work and fill labour shortages in the post-war years between 1948 and 1971.

Many events next week will celebrate the contributions of the UK’s Caribbean communities. However, shadow cabinet minister Lammy said there would also be “politics present” throughout the week due to the continued fallout from the Windrush scandal which emerged in 2017.

At least 83 members of the 'Windrush generation' were wrongfully deported as the UK Home Office had failed to keep records of those who had been granted permission to stay. 

Lammy, whose father was part of the 'Windrush generation' having arrived in the UK from Guyana in 1956, said it will be a particularly “poignant” week for him, as 22 June also marks 23 years since he entered parliament as an MP in 2000 after winning the Tottenham by-election.

“I'm going into this week thinking about the Windrush generation, the 75th anniversary of a generation of people that are the reason I'm here, as a member of parliament,” Lammy told PoliticsHome. 

“They're a generation of people who, I always say, gave so much and took so little. That backdrop of the sacrifice of that generation will be very much a theme that will run through the week.”

David Lammy with members of the Windrush generation
David Lammy met with members of the 'Windrush generation' in parliament in 2018 (Alamy)

To mark the Windrush anniversary, the MP for Tottenham will attend multiple celebratory events, including at Southwark Cathedral, Royal Albert Hall, and local events in Tottenham and Brixton, both areas which gained large populations of Afro-Caribbean people during the Windrush era.

However, he said the anniversary will be “bittersweet" as a result of the ongoing Windrush scandal, which he described as a “low moment, not just for this generation, but I think for our country”.

In 2017, the Guardian exposed that thousands of members of the 'Windrush generation' had been wrongfully detained or threatened with deportation by the Home Office when Theresa May was home secretary between 2010 and 2016. The scandal led to Amber Rudd, May's successor as home secretary, resigning from her position.

In 2019, a compensation scheme was set up for victims, but this has since been subject to delays and controversies, and described as “hostile” by human rights groups. As of January 2023, only 12.8 per cent of the estimated 11,500 eligible claimants had been compensated.

At the start of this year, Home Secretary Suella Braverman confirmed she would not implement some reform proposals that had been previously accepted by the government, including introducing a migrants’ commissioner and running reconciliation events with Windrush families.

Lammy said he had “lamented” the rhetoric on display from the government when the Windrush scandal first came to light, but that it has since got “considerably worse” under Braverman and that he believed it was “unlikely” that any progress would be made with her as home secretary.

“It's my view that Suella Braverman would not have made it into a government led by Margaret Thatcher, or, indeed, David Cameron,” he said.

“She represents the fringes of conservative tradition, she really does, so I think it's gotten considerably worse and there is really very little for the Labour Party to learn from that framing or that narrative.

“We need to get back to what is properly in the interest of our country, we need to lower the tone of all of that rhetoric and get on with the things that people care about, which is the cost of living crisis, decent public services and opportunities for young people.”

Lammy said a Labour government would be committed to fixing the problems with the compensation scheme and delivering “justice” for the victims, and that the Windrush anniversary week will also consist of political campaigning to press the government to do more to address the ongoing dispute.

The Conservative government is currently trying to get the Illegal Migration Bill through parliament in the hope that it would help to reduce the number of small boats illegally crossing the Channel, but the Bill has been seen by critics as an example of the government's increasingly hardline stance on migration overall. 

Some on the left of Labour have criticised the opposition party for treading too closely to the government approach on the topic, with Keir Starmer accusing the government of "losing control" of immigration numbers. Labour List obtained a draft manifesto document that showed Labour is considering promising "no return to freedom of movement" in its pitch to win the next general election.

Although Lammy told PoliticsHome he did “not recognise” allegations that Labour’s position was encouraging anti-immigration rhetoric, he said there are “very real debates” to be had on immigration.

“There are very real debates about how you ensure that a country like ours does not contribute to a depletion of skills in partner countries in the Commonwealth, for example,” he said.

“And this is a time when the government has cut bursaries for local people to participate in the NHS. I think that's wrong.”

He also stressed the importance of separating the debates around asylum and immigration.

“We shouldn't distort the two," he cautioned. "The Windrush generation get very upset when people conflate immigration with asylum because they were immigrants who came here to work, not to rely on public services.” 

However, Lammy argued that questions on how to frame the conversation on migration are “overstated” when polling shows the public cares much more about issues which affect their everyday lives, including the cost of living crisis, the NHS, and crime. 

What practical reforms would Labour therefore focus on to address specific challenges facing Black communities in the UK?

“When you look at maternity outcomes for Black women in hospital there is more to do,” the Labour MP said. 

“When you look at the communities that were most affected by the pandemic and suffered the most death, there's more to do. When you look at the figures for Black youth unemployment, there's a lot more to do.”

He also highlighted that ethnic minority communities rely more heavily on public services, arguing that getting NHS waiting lists down is therefore particularly important, as well as waits for social housing which disproportionately impact Black communities. 

The shadow cabinet minister said Labour would revisit the Equality Act and the Race Relations Amendment Act, as well as looking into how to achieve “proper” pay gap reporting to address pay inequalities.

Although “bittersweet”, Lammy hopes people will also have fun celebrating the Windrush anniversary.  ”This week is a moment to pause and to celebrate. It's a hopeful week where we reflect on why we're a multicultural country today," he said. 

“I don't want to lose the celebration, partly because when I think of myself on Carnival floats at Notting Hill Carnival aged eight or nine, I think of the celebratory nature of Caribbean communities.”

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