POLITICS

David Lammy Interview: Labour Should Be A Pro-Immigration Party

11/11/2014 16:11 GMT | Updated 11/11/2014 23:59 GMT

"I think that the next general election is going to be phenomenally close."

David Lammy is sitting in the corner of his parliamentary office on the ground floor of the Norman Shaw North building in Westminster. Dressed in a light blue suit, starched white shirt and a black-and-white DKNY tie, his long arms are stretched out on either side of him, as he leans back in his chair.

Lammy, who served as a health minister under Tony Blair and a higher education minister under Gordon Brown, now wants to be mayor of London. He turned down a shadow ministerial job offer from Ed Miliband to stick it out on the backbenches until 2015 and plan his assault on City Hall.

Can Labour win a Commons majority next year? "I am not moving off my assumption, when I collapsed on to my sofa after the last general election with my wife and watched Nick Clegg and David Cameron walk into number 10, and that is we are in for a decade of either minority or coalition government. That was my general view [in 2010] there’s very little that’s shifted [since then] The next election is just too close to call."

For Lammy, the mood in the country over the past four years hasn't changed sufficiently "for us to see any party get a substantial majority" - including, of course, his own.

Is Miliband to blame for Labour's failure to cut through? There has been much talk of coups and plots in recent weeks - doesn't Labour have a leadership problem? Specifically, a problem with the personality and popularity of Edward Samuel Miliband?

Lammy, who backed David, not Ed, Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership contest, looks away. "I don’t want to knock Ed personally. I actually think it's a whole team issue. I think that, in the end, all of the major players that contribute to the Labour message.. have a lot to do between now and the general election. A lot to do!"

In September, Lammy became the first big name to declare an interest in running for London mayor in 2016, announcing his candidacy in a high-profile interview with the Evening Standard.

So I begin our interview with a very simple, direct and obvious question: why does he want to be mayor, and not a minister in a future Labour government?

"As I sit here talking to you, I reflect on my life - and I’m now 42, with the grey hairs coming through to demonstrate that - and I think of the journey I've made and it’s a long, long way from the terraced house on Broadwater Farm, where I grew up, to this point."

Lammy says he owes a debt to the capital. "Most or all that I’ve been given has been given to me from London: London teachers, youth workers, what London gave my parents when they arrived here, even though their marriage spit up and my father left us when I was 12."

Lammy mentions his undergraduate degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and the capital's contribution to his own "ability to become an MP 14 years ago".

"When I look at that London," he tells me, leaning forward, "when I look at my own family, and I’m thinking here, particularly, of my extended family, cousins in different parts of London, and I think of the Londoners I come into contact with - my constituents and beyond - I don’t think that opportunity is there for all Londoners."

He speaks with passion and verve, concluding, in a much quieter voice, "So thats why I'm running."

Lammy is serious about his mayoral bid. He has ditched his glasses - thanks to laser surgery - and assembled a team of aides and donors to boost his profile within the party and the wider media. The MP for Tottenham has also pledged to stand down from parliament if he is selected as Labour's mayoral candidate next year.

But he has a mountain to climb - a recent Evening Standard poll puts him at 12% while former New Labour cabinet minister and Tony Blair ally, Tessa Jowell, is on 23%.

His critics, on left and right, meanwhile, whisper to journalists that he is gaffe-prone: in 2013, Lammy had to apologise for accusing the BBC of making a "silly innuendo about the race of the next Pontiff" after a BBC journalist asked on Twitter whether the smoke from the Vatican would be ""black or white". In 2009, he made a disastrous, error-strewn appearance on the BBC's Celebrity Mastermind, in which, among other things, he confused scientist Marie Curie with French queen Marie Antoinette.

Those critics, however, shouldn't underestimate him. Despite the gaffes, the former Labour minister is smart, well-qualified and in possession of a very impressive back story: the son of immigrants, who grew up next to the notorious Broadwater Farm housing estate in Tottenham, he studied law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he got a first, before going to on to become the first black Briton to study at Harvard. He practised as a barrister prior to entering parliament via a by-election in 2000, after the death of MP Bernie Grant, and attracted national headlines for his response to the London riots in 2011.

david lammy riots

Lammy shows Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg around Tottenham in the wake of the 2011 riots

He served in government, in a range of posts, under both Blair and Brown, but tells me how he turned down a shadow ministerial job offer from Miliband in order to have the freedom to write and speak. "I wanted to do two things. First, I was writing a book and I wanted to write that book without the excessive pressure of collective responsibility." He's referring here to his well-received book on the riots, 'Out Of The Ashes', published in December 2011. ("Have you got a copy of it?" he asks me suddenly. "We can get a copy of it. Ben," he says, pointing to his researcher nearby, "there's a copy on my desk.")

"Second, I wanted to actually represent Tottenham, particularly when we're in opposition. Tottenham generates national stories for a reason."

Nevertheless, he concedes, "I guess, also, the truth is that I find national politics less fulfilling at the moment. I think there is a blandness.. a rush to the centre.. an ossification of ideas and language at national level. So I found myself very renewed as a politician because I’ve got this relentless focus on London, on the city."

Is this how he explains the rise and rise of Russell Brand and his call for "revolution"? Is it a vacant space on the left that the comedian and actor has occupied?

"I think he’s in that space," nods Lammy, "I think that Alex Salmond has been in that space, I think that Nigel Farage is in that space, I think that any politician who is able to garner an authenticity to what they say has currency in the political moment. Now some of that I find, when you penetrate that and dig deep, is lightweight, is simplistic, is populist, of course. But it's true that there is a frustration with 'the suits'."

There are plenty of people - especially on the left - who'd argue that Ed Miliband has failed over the past four years to "garner" that seeming "authenticity", of a Farage or a Salmond. Does he agree?

The former minister dodges my question. "I’m surprised that people find it so surprising that extreme populist politics has currency in tough economic times. The 20th century demonstrates that at its most pernicious and evil."

Referring to the financial crash, he continues: "The dust flew up in the air in 2008. It's still in the air and settling. And so those [populist] forces that exist in our national life, I find sinister and deeply worrying. They can only be met with an honesty and a sincerity and a directness about the nature of the challenge. But therein lies the problem.. It's harder to make the collective case and much easier to talk about 'me, myself and I'."

The Labour Party, he says, "in policy terms, is in the terrain, but there is a hurdle to cross, still, on communication".

Lammy is the only big hitter in the party - the only other declared candidate is the little-known transport expert Christian Wolmar - to have expressed interest in the mayoral job so far, but front-runner Jowell is expected to declare soon, while the other potential runners and riders include former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis and the high-profile Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan, a close ally of Miliband, is expected to declare his own candidacy after next May's general election.

So, why should Labour supporters in London pick Lammy, over any one of them? The Tottenham MP has a pre-prepared and rather well-worded answer, which he delivers without pause or hesitation - and I don't dare interrupt him as he is in full flow.

"If you think that local authorities need to get building council houses again and you’re not satisfied with the 40 that they’re currently building, then I think you should think seriously about my candidacy. If you believe in rent stabilization, or 'rent controls', as it's been called, I called for that before the party adopted it [as a policy]. Then you might come back to my candidacy If you think it's mad that we’re selling off playing fields in central London to save car parks in outer London and that we need to revisit the Green Belt after 70 years of hegemony, then you might come back to my candidacy. If you think that my response to the riots met the country’s expectations at that time, at an acute time of pressure and difficult, you might come back to my candidacy. If you like the kind of politics that I espouse, [which] is always garnered in the experience of ordinary people, then you might come back to my candidacy."

He is, however, "not here as a sort of crass politician populist entirely in tone and or indeed beholden to an old 'New Labour' narrative that’s now actually almost 25 years old".

Wasn't he a part of New Labour? A fresh-faced and ultra-loyal health minister under Tony Blair?

"I think in 1997, or even 1994, what New Labour offered..was fresh. It felt very electable and it felt relevant. By the end of the Brown-Blair period it had run out of steam and it had lost its way."

david lammy

Lammy served under Blair as a junior health minister

With the benefit of hindsight, what was the biggest mistake of the New Labour years? The former minister says it was a period where "we found ourselves in a place that felt too often to [be] on the backs of public servants" such as teachers and local government workers. He also thinks Blair "expended tremendous amounts of political capital on the war in Iraq and you cant help but reflect: had that not been lost, where would that capital have been spent?"

Lammy, of course, like the majority of Labour MPs, supported the Iraq invasion - a decision he now regrets. "At the time it was 2003 and I had been an MP for a couple of years. I had the largest Kurdish-speaking population in the country. Many of [the Kurds] had [fled] here from Saddam Hussein. I supported it on that basis."

But he now accepts he got it wrong, right? "Yes, well, I got it wrong on the basis of the limited evidence I was given. I think we now now at a much higher level that there was evidence that the public didn’t have."

Given he thinks 'New' Labour, by 2010, has lost its way, does he think 'One Nation' Labour under Miliband has rediscovered the right "way"? Lammy pauses. "I think Ed Miliband, in focusing on the NHS, on things like a minimum wage, on adopting things like rent control is garnering a different path, for sure, in different times."

It's not quite an answer to my question. So I ask again: has Miliband adopted the correct path, in his view? A path he'd endorse?

Lammy chuckles. "Well, he’s adopted some of the things in my book so it’d be terribly ungracious if I didn’t welcome that." There's another pause. "But I sincerely say, I genuinely would say that my focus over this last period has been very much on city politics and I found that’s been a much more flexible place to be."

He doesn't hide his differences with his leader - especially over Miliband's recent proposal to slap a new tax on £2m properties in order to fund extra spending on the NHS. "I disagree publicly with the Labour Party on the 'mansion tax'," he tells me, "not because I don’t believe in a property tax, I do believe in a property tax, but.. what we see from Scotland is that we have to be serious about devolution… so if we are to raise more property tax and the rich are to make a bigger contribution, which I believe they should, then surely here in London the money should come back to local authorities and not to the national Treasury."

Lammy would rather "revisit something we haven't looked at since 1993" - namely, revaluing council tax bands. Why, he asks, "should Roman Abramovich be paying the same as a headteacher in Barnet?" he asks.

david lammy

Lammy turned down an offer to serve on Ed Miliband's frontbench

Housing will be a key issue in the battle for Labour's mayoral candidacy. But is the election process being "blatantly rigged" in advance by the party's high command, as another mayoral hopeful, MP Diane Abbott, has suggested? To keep it short and tight and thereby favour 'Establishment candidates'?

"I hope it's not. What's exciting about the internal election is that we have got a primary. We have got the potential to go beyond just the usual political tribe to anyone who feels broadly sympathetic to the Labour cause or indeed anyone in London who is sympathetic to a particular candidate. They can pay their £3 and participate."

Isn't he concerned that a shorter campaign, scheduled for right after the general election, will make it difficult for candidacies such as his own to gather momentum and gain much-needed media attention?

Lammy nods. "I think there are some challenges around the time frame, partly because after a general election, my experience is that party workers.. are knackered and want to have a break.. I think that the party may want to reflect on whether they should culminate the contest in the September [party] conference. I think that’s what most of us expected."

The former minister may want to be mayor but does 'David' have the same ring - not to mention, name recognition - as 'Ken' or 'Boris'?

"I think that cities select characters. I do think that.. Bill De Blasio in New York, [Michael] Bloomberg, Boris, Ken. They do select characters. They select people that are of the city, that you may or may not agree with, but speak passionately in defence of the city."

Does he consider himself such a character? He's only a tad defensive. "You usually cant see the alchemy before it arrives actually."

However, as if to acknowledge his underdog status, he adds: "I’ve said that Tottenham is a long way from City Hall but I’m going to have a go."

In the 2012 mayoral election, there was much speculation that Lammy would challenge Livingstone for the Labour nomination but, in the end, he didn't stand himself and decided to chair the latter's (losing) campaign against Boris Johnson.

In a recent interview on LBC, Livingstone took a dig at Labour's current crop of wannabe mayors. "They're not the sort of trouble-maker I was, and that may be a weakness," the former mayor told LBC's Iain Dale. "People just think I suspect that you are going to need someone very bolshy to stand up to the government whether it's a Labour government or a Tory government to get something out of them for London."

This particular quote seems to touch a raw nerve. "You know what? I’ve had people say I can't do something all of my life. They said I couldn’t go to university. They said I couldn’t go to Harvard. They said I couldn't be a barrister. They said I couldn’t be an MP. They said I couldn’t be a minister. And now they’ll say I can't be mayor."

For Lammy, "bolshiness is one side of the personality but, actually, to get from where I needed to get to you needed persuasion and tenacity and a little bit of charm as well. So that’s the combination that comes together with David Lammy."

What does he think went wrong in 2012, with Livingstone's campaign? "I thought about whether I should run at that time, and people were encouraging me to run, but I genuinely believed that Ken was the best candidate [after] coming out of the general election we’d just lost. He was up for the fight."

Nevertheless, he continues, "the truth was that Ken, despite his brand, and despite his contribution to London politics could not withstand a tide that had seen us lose office. It’s a simple as that."

Isn't it a scandal that none of the major offices in the land are occupied by non-white faces? Downing Street, the Treasury, the Home Office, the Bank of England, the Church of England and, yes, City Hall too? How urgently does he, the son of Guyanese immigrants, want to see this situation change?

"Well, of course, I’d like to see a second-generation, third-generation Briton, who is born in this country, but a person of colour, emerge in politics. But in the end, and I’m conscious that I am an ethnic minority.. you’re only going to do that if your policies are right, your personality is right and you transcend your ethnicity. The whole point of being an ethnic minority is that you’re a minority and you need to persuade people beyond your ethnic grouping."

On the subject of his own ethnicity, I can't help but ask: what's the worst bit of racism or discrimination he's ever had to personally endure?

"Oh my God," he exclaims. "It's very hard for me to pick out one thing. I was frequently confused as the defendant when I was a young barrister representing young people who had been arrested in London. I recall being stopped and searched by the police [while] driving with my brother during the 2005 general election, which wasn’t a very nice experience."

What about in parliament? Has he had to put up with racist behaviour or language in the hallowed corridors of the Palace of Westminster, where less than 5% of the MPs are from BME backgrounds?

"Of course there have been incidents of racism and discrimination in my period as a politician," he tells me. "I am not going to talk about those now, I am saving those for my memoir."

Lammy says racism in the UK is no longer of the "blatant" variety when his father arrived in the country from Guyana in the 1950s but warns that "with each generation you have to be vigilant. That’s why I have been tough on Ukip."

The former minister is a rare Labour politician who isn't afraid to call out Ukip for "deeply offensive" statements and challenge the anti-EU party's stance on immigration - and immigrants.

Lammy gives voice to a growing anxiety on the left that the Labour leadership has opted to appease Ukip and the anti-immigration right, rather than challenge their toxic and fact-free narrative. The MP for Tottenham doesn't pull any punches on this issue.

"I don’t think that posturing and positioning each time there's a new immigration poll is right for the Labour Party."

In fact, Lammy is admirably blunt: "We are a pro-immigration party, we are a pro-European party. What Nigel Farage and Ukip are trying to peddle is an old tune."

nigel farage

Nigel Farage and Ukip are guilty of making 'deeply offensive' statements, says Lammy

He starts to get louder and more animated. "If you’re worried about your rent, if your child can't get a job, if they’re still on your couch, if you're subject to wage inflation" - he bangs his hand on the table as he delivers each verbal flourish - "the reason for that is the immigrant and the answer to that is Europe. I wish it were so simple!"

So what's his solution? "The solution to those problems is to pick those individual problems, to go after them relentlessly, to communicate powerfully and to be on it consistently. That is the solution.

"Look at the NHS, a third of our nurses, are from overseas. Thirty-seven per cent of our doctors in London are from overseas. The NHS would collapse without immigration."

It is refreshing to hear a Labour politician speak in such terms: proudly, passionately and unequivocally in defence of migrants' contributions. No ifs, no buts, no cynical nods to 'legitimate concerns'.

Why does he think the Labour Party leadership refuse to adopt his stance? Cowardice? Misjudgement?

He looks at me intently. "Look, I'm a backbencher." Then he laughs heartily. "For a reason."

But what does he make of Labour's 'tough' rhetoric on immigration, a combination of self-flagellating apologies and pledges to crack down on non-English speakers and the rest?

"I don’t think its going to win us votes. We have’t got open borders and we should never have open borders and there must be controls."

Neverthess, he reminds me how Labour introduced bills to control immigration and asylum in each of its 13 years in office; bills, he points out, that were deemed by plenty of people at the time as too "draconian".

"We have to be clear about our record [on immigration]," explains Lammy, "but, more than that, we have to be clear about the contribution that immigrants make."

As for the Conservative Party's recent proposal to restrict free movement within the EU, and Labour talk of 'fair movement, not free movement', Lammy isn't impressed. "We have a million Brits in Spain. We have almost 350,000 in France. Free movement benefits Britain as much as it does others."

Despite having been elected in the New Labour years, Lammy doesn't seem too keen on triangulation. He wants clarity and directness. "We have to be relentless at communication, we mustn’t move around on policy areas like immigration and Europe. We have to be sincere about the devolution agenda which is why I am out of step with the party on the issue of property taxation. We need to everyday wake up and remember that the collective case in times like this will be harder, tougher on the Labour Party. It's incumbent on all of us to work harder over the coming months."

It would be difficult to describe Lammy as an optimist. He doesn't seem enthused about Miliband's leadership and isn't predicting a Labour victory come May 2015. "I said a year ago that I thought we were an effective opposition but we had not yet made the transition into being a government in waiting. I think we are making that transition but if we are to win the election outright then in the end a substantial group within this country have to be persuaded that they see as us the government, the potential government."

Is Ed Miliband the right man to do that? Would his brother David have had a greater appeal?

Lammy, once again, dodges my leadership question. "2010 is a long time ago. David’s a long way away and is not coming back. Ed Miliband is leading the party."

I try again: did Labour pick the wrong brother four years ago in Manchester? Lammy laughs out loud. There's a pause. Then he laughs again. Another long, uncomfortable pause. Finally he makes an attempt at an answer: "I don’t believe in going backwards; you’ve got to go forwards. Ed took a very, very tough job. He kept the party together. His next big task will be to keep the country together."