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David Lammy: ‘Britain seems now prepared to get into a place where it wants to talk about structural racism’

| Baldo Sciacca

22 min read

David Lammy’s promotion to the shadow cabinet and the global explosion of Black Lives Matter has put him firmly in the spotlight as one of the most recognisable figures in British politics. The Tottenham MP and his friends and colleagues talk to Georgina Bailey about two decades in Parliament and how he finally feels he has found his ‘mojo’

There aren’t many politicians whose speeches have been sampled in a headline set at Glastonbury. But then there aren’t many MPs like David Lammy.

A speech of his about recidivism rates in the justice system played as the rapper Stormzy burst onto the Pyramid stage last summer in a Union Jack stab vest. Nine months prior, young black British stars like Get Out actor Daniel Kaluuya and England rugby player Maro Itoje had watched on as Lammy won GQ Politician of the Year for his work on Windrush and Grenfell. His 661,000 Twitter followers, the Londoners of all races who come up to him on the street or tube and stop him for selfies, and the bus driver who halts on Parliament Square to honk his horn and raise his fist in the Black Power symbol, all speak to his cult status.

Yet as we meet Lammy in his office in Parliament, running late from Justice Questions, you wouldn’t know it. He didn’t realise we were bringing a photographer, he says, or else he would have shaved that morning.

“He is a reluctant leader. He would never brag about being sampled by Stormzy,” explains Simon Woolley, crossbench peer, founder of Operation Black Vote and long-time friend of Lammy’s. “It is that type of leader that gets more traction with normal people, black and white. Honest, sincere.”

“He’s a delight to work with because he’s always focused on what can be done to make change, there’s not a vain or self-serving bone in his body,” adds Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham.

Although Lammy been an MP for 20 years now, it is only in the last five or six years that he has risen to national prominence. “I think it’s probably right to say I found my mojo very much in that period,” he reflects.

As well as being a vocal Remainer and early proponent of a People’s Vote, Lammy has been at the forefront of campaigns on equal access to higher education, the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, and lambasting the Government over the Windrush scandal. He was also approached by former Tory prime minister David Cameron to lead a cross-party review into disproportionality in the justice system, which he delivered 18 months later under Theresa May. “I definitely cut my teeth,” Lammy says. While he doesn’t come across as boastful, he speaks with pride of the impact he has been able to make.

Others are more effusive in their descriptions. “His speech during the Windrush Scandal in Parliament is probably one of the greatest black speeches in British politics,” says Woolley. “David has always been grounded and I think over the years he has become a role model very much in the mould of [former Tottenham MP] Bernie Grant. Completely unafraid to say what’s necessary.”

Harman agrees. “He’s extraordinarily intelligent, that’s just a fact. He is extraordinarily hard working, he’s also very charismatic and a very clear communicator. He’s completely honest and principled. And therefore the question is why, in his long years in the House of Commons, is he not more well known, better appreciated, more celebrated?”

The combined timing of Lammy’s promotion to shadow justice secretary and the global explosion of the Black Lives Matter moment has put him firmly in the spotlight as the most recognisable black man in British politics. While he says he has had some good cross-party working with his opposite number Robert Buckland on the impact of coronavirus on the justice system, his public battles with the prime minister over the implementation of his 2017 review have grabbed headlines. 

In the process of writing the 100+ page review, Lammy visited twelve cities across six countries, and worked hard to ensure that the review commanded cross-party support. Findings revealed that the majority of the UK-born BAME community didn’t trust the criminal justice system to treat them fairly, and that BAME communities were grossly over-represented, particularly in the youth justice system. They were also more likely to plead not guilty and receive custodial sentences than white people.

His 35 recommendations included sealing some aspects of criminal records, improving data collection on race and religion, and increasing the diversity of prison officers and governors.

Lammy’s frustration that less than half his recommendations have been implemented is clear. Although his tone remains measured, his fist is banging against the table as he speaks. The situation has got worse, he says.

“Very sadly when I published the review 41% of young people in our youth offenders system were from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background. Today it’s 51%. So if anything, the government should be going further than recommended by my review on youth justice, not less than.”

He believes that the influence of Munira Mirza, the No 10 director of policy, is leading the prime minister away from implementing the reforms. Mirza, he says “absolutely disagrees with thrust of the review, and disagreed at the time, [she was] the only person that disagreed with it…. And I suspect Dominic Cummings isn’t very keen either.”

Lammy believes the Government has got into a dangerous cycle of commissioning reviews into race related issues and then not implementing their recommendations – whether that be the Angiolini Review into deaths in police custody, the McGregor-Smith Review into workplace inequality and discrimination, or more recent reviews into the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities. It took over a month for the Government to release any details of its recently launched racial equality commission.

“Let’s be really, really clear: if people in communities like the one I represent lose faith in people like me, in the democratic process, then they take to the streets, they protest, things get really out of hand. That’s what we’re seeing in the United States,” he warns.

“It’s just endless, and people are becoming weary, cynical are tired really of the ossification of these very, very important issues.”

David can metaphorically punch back, but more often than not he chooses to show his abusers that they are better human beings than they’re demonstrating

Lammy was born in Tottenham in 1972 to Guyanese parents, both immigrants from the Windrush generation, and grew up with four siblings. His father was a taxidermist who drank heavily and had a tempestuous relationship with his mother; he left the family when Lammy was 12, his mother already working several jobs to keep food on the table. Lammy, a longstanding chair of the APPG on Fatherhood, recalls going to sleep worrying about money as a child. In his career, he has spoken about the challenges of single-parent families.

A gifted singer, Lammy was offered a “lifeline” in the shape of a choral scholarship to the King’s Cathedral School, a state boarding school in Peterborough, at age 11. He writes in his book Tribes about being amazed by the space of suburbia, seemingly a million miles away from his family home in North London – although in reality, it was less than an hour away on the train. It was also, he says, the first time he was aware of the colour of his skin. Initially subject to some bullying, and not regarded as being particularly academically gifted, he later secured nine GCSEs and became head boy.

“I thrived because I think had I not left [Tottenham] I would probably be in prison,” he said last year, remembering the simmering tension ahead of the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 that he absorbed growing up. Twenty-six years later, he was working as the area’s MP to repair the physical and community damage of the 2011 Tottenham Riots.

After leaving school, Lammy went to SOAS to study law, a career path he had been set on since a young age – in primary school, he used to come home at lunchtime and watch Crown Court, a show he was “obsessed with”. “Then a bit later LA Law was a huge show, and there was a young black guy there called Blair Underwood and I wanted to be him”, he says.

Lammy was called to the bar in 1994, and in 1997 he became the first black Briton to study at Harvard Law where he completed his masters. He even worked for a short time as a lawyer in California. However, he was always a “policy-focused” lawyer, he says, asking deeper questions about the cases in front of him. 

He describes his move into politics as taking a “punt” on becoming member of the new London Assembly in 2000. “After Tony Blair became leader, and we were elected, I gathered more confidence I guess in the sense that I could be a politician…. I didn’t at that time think I could be a Member of Parliament. I was still very young. There weren’t people like me in the House of Commons to be honest,” Lammy says. Only a few months later, weeks before his 28th birthday, he was elected MP for his home constituency of Tottenham.

Simon Woolley, who had met Lammy through his work in the London Assembly, remembers the “critical moment for the black community” after Bernie Grant, Lammy’s predecessor and one of the first black MPs elected in 1987, died suddenly of a heart attack. “Many in that space justifiably thought that Sharon Grant should take over from Bernie Grant… And at that juncture, myself and other black leaders said to Sharon respectfully, ‘no, we need a black MP for Tottenham’. So we got behind this young black man known as David Lammy.”

Although some were unhappy that Sharon Grant had been looked over, Lammy had built his own set of credentials: he was dubbed a “Black Blair” (a characterisation Woolley describes as unhelpful) and tipped to be the first black prime minister by some.

“From the start, he was lively and outspoken. In a sense he was a shoo-in in Tottenham, but it didn’t stop him using the by-election campaign as an effective platform for himself, his views, and the party. He’s a very effective campaigner,” remembers Peter Mandelson.

Lord Boateng, who was one of the trailblazers elected alongside Grant and Diane Abbott in 1987 and would become the first Black cabinet member in 2002, first met Lammy at Grant’s wake. Boateng’s grandparents had lived on the same road as Lammy’s parents in Tottenham, and he knew the area well. “He has always struck me as a very rooted politician, rooted in the community from which he came, and he has been true to that community. He’s been a first-rate constituency MP.”

Tony Blair describes him as an “immensely gifted and talented person”. “David’s by-election win in 2000 symbolised everything the then Labour government stood for,” Blair tells The House. “He was 28 years old, raised by a single mother, from Tottenham, the first black Brit to study a Masters at Harvard Law school. By 30 he was a minister. For the next eight years he was a key member of the Government.”

While Lammy is proud of what he describes as a “small role” in the Blair government, working across health, constitutional affairs, culture and universities, he describes a sense of “imposter syndrome” that accompanied him through his twenties and early years as an MP.

“I was very driven. But it wasn’t without the loneliness and confusion that sometimes comes from leaving your background behind and forging a different path and the various pressures that come with that,” he reflects.

Lammy continues: “I think it probably wasn’t until I got married [in 2005] and had my own kids, and subsequently both my parents died, that I really found my mojo as a person and a sense of who I am.” 

Woolley agrees with his friend. “We saw him rise very, very quickly in the Blair government. If I’m honest, maybe a little bit too quickly, and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that. He was catapulted very early on to centre stage in British politics, and some felt that he was part of the party machine.” Others remember Lammy as often the only black voice in the room. 

Lord Mandelson was the business, innovation and skills secretary for two and a half years while Lammy served as minister of state. “He was a hardworking and loyal minister, and somebody who it was easy to leave to get on with the job. He was never one of those ministers who you had to clean up after,” Mandelson recalls.

Opinions differ as to why Lammy didn’t make Cabinet under Blair or Brown, or why he then spent 10 years on the backbenches under Ed Miliband and Corbyn. Mandelson speculates that he “perhaps didn’t realise quite how competitive the ministerial ranks were and how you really had to shine and stand out in order to get to the top.” He continues: “Perhaps he was a bit complacent, but it never dimmed his enthusiasm for the job.”

Others, including Lammy at times, have said his race may be a contributing factor. “Lammy is a law graduate and a Harvard graduate – put it this way, with David Lammy’s credentials, if he was white, he’d have been a Cabinet minister by now,” Woolley says.

Lammy also is self-professedly unwilling to “lick arse” or “climb the greasy pole”. You will rarely see Lammy in the parliamentary tea rooms or having a drink with fellow MPs in Strangers, and he didn’t appear to pick a side when the party was dominated by the Brownite and Blairite factions. While he nominated Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, and has said the two are friends, he vocally differed with the Labour leadership on Brexit at times and anti-Semitism.

“I think that’s to his credit,” Harman says of Lammy’s independent nature. “But it’s a judgement on the system that because of that he’s not found his way to the top sooner.”

“David’s always had to battle against the fact that he’s in such a small minority as a black man in the House of Commons. But actually what he’s done outwith the system is he’s become a really important national voice. What all of us in Parliament should reflect on is why it was outside of Parliament that he’s been recognised and his voice has been appreciated,” Harman continues.

Although he may have seemed to be in the wilderness for at least the first few years of the 2010s, those close to him regard Lammy’s decade on the backbenches as being highly formative.

“I very much enjoyed being on the backbenches. I made an active decision to go back to the backbenches under Ed Miliband, and I think it was the right decision,” Lammy explains. In 2016, he ran to be Labour’s candidate for London mayor, finishing a disappointing fourth out of four.

“He needed time out to reconnect with grassroots issues and I think when he embarked on the mayoral leadership race, he particularly found his voice because he was not incumbered by the party machinery,” Woolley contends. “Although he didn’t win, the David Lammy that we see today, I would argue, came from that campaign that was uniquely his.”

Despite some controversy, including comparing the Brexiteer European Research Group and Boris Johnson to Nazis in 2019, Lammy likes to think of himself as a measured politician with certain areas of expertise. “Generally speaking, if it’s not poverty, race, education, inequality, law and order, home affairs or justice then I largely don’t say very much,” he explains.

His appointment as shadow justice secretary by Starmer came as little surprise to many Westminster watchers – or Lammy himself. “I had a little inkling, if I’m completely honest,” he laughs. “I was really pleased that he didn’t send me to do agriculture.” The two are close, with Starmer sitting on the Lammy review advisory panel and Lammy serving as vice-chair of Starmer’s leadership campaign earlier this year, after considering his own tilt at the top job.

As Harman points out, at only 47 Lammy is still very much “in his prime”. “We’re very lucky that he’s still doggedly stuck with his quest for progress, for the change that he’s arguing for and for us to see him in a really prominent position.”

Britain has been good on overt racism, on fighting race hate. It's been far less good at structural and institutional racism

With his name still carved into pews of Peterborough Cathedral, religion is something from Lammy’s childhood which still carries a deep importance. “I have a deep faith. It’s a faith that has been with me my whole life, and it’s never left; I’ve never doubted that faith. If anything, it’s grown stronger since both my parents have died,” he told the Church Times earlier this year. “I think his church upbringing seals him from the poison that he receives,” Woolley says.

Woolley continues: “I’ve often seen him respond to the most racist, vitriolic abuse, and his retort is often ‘well I’m glad you got that off your chest, maybe you and I can have a beer and I’m sure we’d find more that we agree on then we disagree’. In many ways, I think his church upbringing drives him to turn the other cheek time and time again. David can metaphorically punch back, but more often than not, he chooses to show his abusers that they are better human beings than they’re demonstrating.”

Like many other MPs, racist abuse towards Lammy reached a fever pitch during the Brexit debates, with some perpetrators being sent to jail, and death threats being made against his wife and three children. While there have been a few times in the past few years where Lammy and his team made the choice to publish some examples of the abuse he receives to his social media channels, he says he tries not to read it – instead, his staff forward things straight over to the police, who are “wonderful, they’re very supportive here.”

For Lammy, the important thing is balance. “I have a great family, great kids, great wife. I have a faith. And I don’t live and breathe politics. You know, I love film, I love Spurs. There’s lots more to life than just politics. So I suppose that’s how I deal with it really,” he says.

While Lammy has been careful not to be pigeonholed as a black politician who only deals with black issues, he says he has “come to understand the important business of being a role model” for the black community. 

“I think there are certain seats that sort of have a particular position within British life,” he begins, speaking slowly. “I think that in London, Tottenham clearly is a traditional home of black and minority people… I take it very seriously and what I try to do is represent the interests of my constituents recognising that in representing the interests of my constituents in Tottenham, folk in Brixton, in Moss Side, in Chapel Town in Leeds, in St Paul’s in Bristol, they also hear what I’m saying.”

We turn to the Black Lives Matter movement. As both a black man and a black politician, what has the impact on him been over the past few months?

There’s an intake of breath. “I think being positive-” he stops, pauses and starts again. “Well, no let’s start with the murder of George Floyd. The murder of George Floyd was breathtakingly horrendous. But of course, I had seen that before. It was not an unusual story. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, these names ring out and so that’s very weary making and heart-rending, and then my phone starts going and journalists want interviews, and it’s a bit of a sort of merry go round. That starts to make you a bit cynical.

“However, I then found myself in the days that followed being heartened. Heartened by Black Lives Matter, heartened by the young people that were taking to the streets, heartened that when I looked at those young people, they weren’t just black young people. There were many white young people alongside them. And when I listened to what they were saying, they were very articulate about issues of structural racism,” Lammy explains.

“I think Britain has been good on overt racism, on fighting race hate, on individual acts of racism. It’s been far less good at structural racism and institutional racism. And the reaction to the Macpherson report 20 years ago is illustrative of that. What’s been interesting about Black Lives Matter is that Britain seems now prepared to get into a place where it wants to talk about structural racism.”

Lammy says he’s been “really surprised” by the reaction from firms and companies who have reached out by the number of organisations that have contacted him to discuss changes. He’s also had white extended family members – “not necessarily progressive or Labour voters”, he says – get in touch wanting to understand better and act in a renewed way on issues of racism. “There’s a lot of hope, I think, that’s coming from what feels like a historic moment,” he concludes.

However, he also finds the British media’s coverage of race issues “very frustrating” – a few weeks prior, he had said he felt gaslit when a BBC journalist asked him if white privilege exists. “I have huge respect for very able journalists like Justin Webb who asked me the question, Nick Robinson and others. I understand of course, the balance that they have to try and strike particularly because they’re BBC journalists. But you’d understand in 2020, given that women still haven’t got equal pay, that asking a woman on primetime television whether sexism exists would be just not acceptable. And similarly, even 10 years ago it would have been okay to ask someone gay whether it’s nurture or nature has led to them being gay. It’s not acceptable today.

“So I said to him I feel like I’m being gaslit, because I’m actually being asked have you experienced racism? Does racism exist? Is there such a thing as white privilege? That ought to be something that we’ve got past,” Lammy explains.

He continues: “There are many people up and down the country who are white, and certainly don’t feel very privileged, but race is not one of the things that makes their life harder. That is very real. And that is why we do see things like disproportional treatment when it comes to who gets coronavirus fines, who gets stopped and searched. It’s why I was followed around in a store while wearing a hoodie.”

Lammy maintains that caring deeply about the white working class can go hand in hand with caring about race inequality issues. He included a focus on the treatment of white working-class boys in the criminal justice system in the Lammy review, along with finding that young Gypsy Roma travellers have the worst experience of the justice system of every minority group.

“Pitting one against the other is problematic is immature, is frustrating,” he says. “It’s ‘both and’ not ‘either/or’. That binary holds the country back.” 

On the issues of policing, Lammy thinks things have gotten better since he was a young black man in the 1980s. “I do genuinely remember fear. Fear about being stopped and searched, fear about being beaten up, fear about being stitched up. Those fears being very real. I do think there’s been progress, but not enough,” he says.

“I suppose what I’ve learned is that because we’re talking about not just individual acts of racism, while you can have lots of officers who are wonderful, unfortunately the system can keep reinventing these issues.”

The week before Lammy and I meet, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, told the Home Affairs Committee she didn’t think institutional racism was “a useful or appropriate” phrase to describe her service, “but if others judge us differently that’s obviously their right”. Dick also defended the disproportionate use of stop-and-search on black and minority groups (black people were subject to nine and a half as many stop-and-searches in 2017/18 than white people), saying that black people were eight times more likely to commit violent crime. In the coronavirus lockdown, young black men were stopped and searched by police more than 20,000 times in London – the equivalent to more than a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-olds in the capital.

“On Cressida Dick, I don’t agree with that. That’s not my experience. I think that it’s still the case in Britain. Only 1% of our police officers are black. So there’s a lot to do,” Lammy says.

However, unlike in the US, Lammy doesn’t believe language around the UK police being defunded is “particularly helpful”. “The police have been defunded for a decade by the Tories. We lost 21,000 police officers.”

Instead, Lammy would like to see a public health approach to policing – the return of neighbourhood policing, alongside proper funding for local authorities and youth services.

And if Labour won the next election, and Lammy became justice secretary, what would his priorities be?

“We’ve got to get legal aid and access to justice on the right footing. The probation service has been at a very low ebb following Chris Grayling’s botched reforms,” he begins. “It’s really important that we get back to being able to rehabilitate people.”

Unsurprisingly, implementing the reforms to youth justice begun in his Lammy Review are a high priority, but he is also concerned about the number of women in prison. “When you imprison a woman, you are often condemning her children to the care system or the criminal justice system,” he explains.

While he supports the building of new, fit-for-purpose prisons with proper rehabilitation and skill building facilities, Lammy would like these to be replacing the over-crowded existing Victorian buildings, rather than as well as.

“No doubt about it, we need new prisons. But that is separate to needing more prison places. In 1995, just before when Tony Blair came to power, we had a prison population of about 45,000. And we have doubled that over the last 20 years,” he warns. 

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