'It's a city that's given me all I have' - An interview with David Lammy MP


Written by Jack Blocker
10 Wednesday 10th December 2014

The other day we posted about the FOURWALLS project, a competition that could see one young filmmaker claim a £1000 prize. Entrants are being asked to submit a short clip detailing the rigmarole, red tape and restrictions they’ve experienced while renting or buying a place in the capital. A panel of film and housing experts will judge the shorts, and the lucky winner will have their entry screened at the London Short Film Festival at the ICA. Don’t forget about that grand we mentioned either - that’s 0.2% of the average house price in London. Not too shabby!

Chairing the project is David Lammy, the current MP for Tottenham. David received national attention after his constituency was devastated by the 2011 riots. He’s since written a book on the subject, and now he’s hoping to run as the Labour candidate in the next London mayoral election. Many of the policies outlined in his recent housing report aim to solve what may be the city’s most pressing issue, hence his involvement in FOURWALLS. 

Seeing as Don’t Panic’s interaction with potential mayors of London has been minimal at best, I thought I’d head up to Haringey council’s offices in North London after his people offered me the chance to speak with David. And like most folks who live within the M25, I wanted to know why he was the right man to heal the wounds inflicted by BoJo’s reign of bumbling populism and Conservative terror.

‘I sit here, age 42, having grown up in a tough part of this city in a tough time, but nevertheless, it’s a city that’s given me all I have. I had some great teachers. I went to university here at SOAS and I became a barrister - which is kind of unbelievable really.’ Lammy then went on to become an MP, a position he’s held for almost 15 years. He was born and raised in the Tottenham constituency he serves, so he’s well aware of how hard it can be to hail from N15 - especially in this current era.

‘These days I’m just not sure how you come from a neighbourhood like Tottenham and succeed. I just don’t know how that happens.’ As bleak as that sounds, he backs it up with a story familiar to anyone, anywhere in the country, who’s ever pulled pints, manned a call centre or sold shoes - despite possessing a degree. ‘I was buying a pair of Converse in an Office on Oxford St and the guy serving me said, ‘are you Mr. Lammy? You gave a speech at my university.’ Like many youngsters, the graduate had aspirations beyond Chuck Taylors, but simply didn’t have the chance to reach them. This is because London, as Lammy says, ‘is less and less a city for opportunity.’

‘I’m running because I would want to be a mayor who extended that opportunity to everybody once again.’

Of course, he’s not expecting every millennial to jump from retail to Parliament after stints at SOAS and Harvard, but he does want to make it so this generation can actually have a stake in society. ‘There’s a massive generational shift. My generation, who are currently the three party leaders, are a generation who benefitted effectively from free education, from full employment, were able to buy a home - many have bought more than one - and the millennial generation is a completely different story. There’s certainly no free education - its nine grand a year!’ But does that mean anyone under the age of 30 has given up? ‘It doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of dreams and hopes and dynamism, but it’s probably a different way of looking at the world.’

With this in mind, I asked him about the growing discontent with mainstream politics. The perspective that’s fuelled Russell Brand’s Revolution at one extreme, and maybe even invoked feelings of apathy at the other. ‘I don’t think there’s an apathy about politics, I think there’s a despondency about the political class. But I do think the folk I come across are seriously political, because there’s a lot to be political about.’ One of these issues is the disconnect with the ruling elite, and the privileged backgrounds that fast-tracked them into these positions. ‘If you graduated from a Russell group university ten or fifteen years ago, then worked as a researcher for an MP you’d probably end up leading your party. So of course your life is very far removed from a lot of folk out there.’

While Lammy took degrees and titles as prestigious as any of his peers, his route to success was certainly not as smooth. He was raised by a single mother who made just over £12,000 a year. As a teen he worked in KFC, which probably endears him to more people than he realises. So while he can empathise with Brand’s distrust of the political class, he isn’t ‘for tearing the whole system down.’ 

‘I happen to believe radical politics can exist within the Labour party. It gave us the NHS, comprehensive schooling and wonderful innovations like the Open University. I’m not saying it always gets it right, but it takes a new generation to re-birth the Labour party and hand it back to the people.’

Although they won’t sound radical to anyone who spends over half their wages on a bedroom, Lammy’s call for rent control and council tax bands (‘why should Roman Abramovich pay the same as a teacher in Barnet?’) are decidedly Left among his colleagues. As a twenty-something with some truly rubbish experiences with landlords, they seem totally reasonable to me. In fact, the term ‘rent control’ means I’ll probably tick your name in the ballot box without a second thought. But if the last four years have shown anything, it’s that people my age and people in Parliament don’t really get each other. Could the 2011 riots in Tottenham be seen as a clear indication of this? 

‘I’m always at pains to say that the vast majority of young people did not participate in the riots, they were at home terrified. The second thing to say is we need to be really careful that we don’t demonise young people. The guy that burned down that building in Croydon was almost 40.’ Have things improved since the riots? ‘No. In fact I’d say it’s got worse. It’s tough to have a stake in society if you’re on a zero hours contract. It’s tough to have a stake in society if you can’t get a council house. It’s tough to have a stake in society if you’re being turfed out of your home every six months because of short hold tenancies.’

Ultimately, that’s why Lammy’s chairing the FOURWALLS project, because social mobility depends on actual mobility. ‘I thought the project would appeal to the people who approach me and say my rent is soaring; young people who approach me and say “why am I still at my parents?” I thought it would appeal to the folk that approach me and complain about their racketeering landlord who won’t give their deposit back. Not to mention the young person on the 15th floor of a tower block whose experience doesn’t get reported in the papers.’

This may be all well and good for budding filmmakers, and I certainly believe Lammy’s ideals will be good for London were he to become mayor. But what about the rest of the country? Can Labour win next year’s general election? ‘Of course Labour can win! Labour activists, members and supporters are motivated. They’re motivated to get rid of this mob that’s running the country.’

‘The New Labour days are in the past and it’s all to play for.’

The deadline for FOURWALLS entries is Wednesday 31st December 2014. For more information, visit the website. Along with the top prize, ten runners up will receive £100 worth of vouchers for the Raindance Film Festival. Be sure to follow David on Twitter.

Don't Panic attempt to credit photographers and content owners wherever possible, however due to the sheer size and nature of the internet this is sometimes impractical or impossible. If you see any images on our site which you believe belong to yourself or another and we have incorrectly used it please let us know at panic@dontpaniconline.com and we will respond asap.