Interview: A sense of justice

Kate Murray

Labour is carving out a new place for itself, says David Lammy. He talks race and the justice system, Grenfell and Brexit with Kate Murray

There are not many Labour backbenchers who have to break off mid-interview to take a call from 10 Downing Street. But when we meet, David Lammy is just days away from the launch of a major review commissioned by the government into race and the criminal justice system, so there’s clearly plenty to discuss with Number 10.

Lammy admits he hesitated when former prime minister David Cameron asked him to lead the review back in January 2016. But, he says, it is the sort of issue where party differences ought to be put to one side given the scale of the problem. More than 40 per cent of prisoners in the youth justice system are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and a young black man is nine times more likely to be in custody than his white counterpart.

“The figures are very worrying,” Lammy says. “I am really concerned about the youth justice system. The modern youth justice system was largely set up in 1998 by us in power and designed to reduce the number of young people going to prison. We succeeded in doing that – but the number of black young people in prison has been going in the other direction.”

Lammy stops short of condemning the entire system. “I don’t think it’s fair to describe the whole system as institutionally racist but it is also the case that, let’s take our prisons for example, there are prisons where there is overt prejudice going on,” he says. “Overt discrimination is there and there are definitely perceptions of that in the community that lead to low trust levels.”

Among the recommendations from the review are a much bigger role for parents and community representatives in the system; deferred prosecutions for some first and second-time offenders and a loosening of the rules on declaring past criminal convictions. “If you shoplift at 19 and you are applying to be a football steward or a traffic warden at 29 you’ve still got a record showing up. You ought to be able to go in front of the parole board or a judge and have that record sealed, save for the most serious offences. Not sealed from criminal justice system and the police but from potential employers,” he says. “Black men have the highest reoffending rates in our prison system and a lot of it is to do with an inability to get a job.”

He would also like to see more diversity in prison senior leadership teams and in the judiciary.

“We’ve got big cities in Britain with large ethnic minority populations and there’s no-one in their crown courts reflecting the community,” he says. “Our justice system is respected across the world but to function properly it has to have legitimacy and I think when you look at the trust levels in black and minority ethnic communities born in this country they are low, much lower than in white communities.”

Lammy’s review, highlighting as it does a very real race issue in our criminal justice system, has been big news. But it’s for campaigning on another issue – housing – that the Tottenham MP has perhaps most been in the public eye this year. The fire at Grenfell tower took the life of a young artist Khadija Saye, who was mentored by Lammy’s artist wife and had become part of his ‘wider family’. So for him the tragedy has a personal dimension but it was also an event, he believes, that underlined just how serious Britain’s housing crisis has become.

“We have come so far from a period in the 1950s and 60s where we had decent housing where you could raise your family,” he says. “Now our estates are terribly run down, we’ve got families living on the 22nd floor and a lot of the public are very immune to what the reality of social housing has come to – the reality that there isn’t much of it but where there is, it’s often not of great quality. Grenfell brought that home in real time.”

“A lot of people think of public services as bin collections, providing a leisure centre or key bits of the public sector such as education and health. They forget that actually the most basic human need is a roof over your head. If you are on the 22nd floor of Grenfell, you are entirely reliant on the state not just for your housing but for your safety.”

He believes that housing is an area where the state has to intervene or more and more people will end up living in ‘slum communities’ in the private rented sector.

“The fact that we are spending £10bn a year on housing benefit to private landlords and not on social housing is a scandal,” he says. “I believe the state has got to be building again and I believe we have got to stop the right to buy.”

Lammy’s stance on housing puts him at odds with some Labour councils keen to regenerate their communities, which in practice, he fears, means “really serious gentrification schemes and Labour abandoning the poorest in its communities”.

“There are differences of opinion in the Labour family about housing,” he says. “There is little direct subsidy from government for housing and there are Labour local authorities doing deals with property developers. I don’t blame the developers – they are in it for the profit – but with the state no longer building and with no direct subsidy, it’s clear that in some of the deals local authorities are doing, the local authorities are being turned over. It’s not clear that they have officers who have the capacity to understand in detail the profit margins of companies they are going into bed with. Estate renewal often really means decanting poorer people from areas becoming gentrified into other areas.”

If that sounds radical stuff, Lammy is unapologetic. He believes housing is now an ‘animating issue’ for the left as education once was, given the dire state of housing options for the under-40s in particular. But is he now more radical than he used to be? He doesn’t see it like that. He says he was proud to have served as a minister under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair – just as he would be to serve under Jeremy Corbyn.

“I’m a Labour loyalist,” he asserts. “I tend not to get caught up in the personality politics. My constituents’ interests are served by a Labour government whatever its complexion.”

And while he says his vote in the party’s last leadership election is ‘between him and the ballot box’, he believes Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is right to prompt the public and politicians alike to confront where they stand on the big social issues.

“If you go back to 1994 or 1995, the strategy at that point after successive election defeats was to broaden the party’s appeal and seek the middle ground. Today we’ve got to ask ourselves, and what Jeremy is forcing us to do, is to ask: ‘What is the middle ground?’ My mother used to say you can’t build a bridge from the centre,” he says. “That has caught some colleagues by surprise. Yes, we are creating a broad church but you’ve got to know where you stand. Because from where I’m looking we’ve had a middle ground that seems to exclude the folk in Grenfell and if that’s the middle ground then I’m not interested.”

Corbyn, he adds, ‘called austerity right’. “He felt the British public were sick to the back teeth with it; he understood the fact that we need redistribution. That’s what the manifesto was about and that’s what chimed,” he says. “There’s more to do but nevertheless we have got to be in the business of redistribution and fighting inequality. These are the redistributive politics that make me proud to be a Labour member, a Fabian and a socialist.”

But isn’t it difficult for such an ardent remainer as Lammy to stay loyal given Labour’s tricky balancing act on Brexit? He is dismissive of talk of a new centre party – although he is amused that, in a situation he could never have imagined when he entered parliament 17 years ago, he can now sit in the tea room next to Conservative MPs Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke and find there is a great deal they all agree on. But he believes Labour is now shifting ground and that there is all still to play for. “I’m proud of being the first Labour MP to say that exiting the EU is madness and to say that I’m going to fight it all the way. I’m not budging from that position,” he says. “What is happening in the Labour party as the dust has settled is that the mood of the country is changing. Labour – and [shadow Brexit secretary] Keir Starmer to give him credit – are adjusting to that mood.”

The Conservatives, on the other hand, are likely to implode given the impossibility of landing a deal that will satisfy everyone, he says. “I think we are going to get a very bad deal. If we had the calibre of a Bill Clinton, of a Barack Obama or – and some of the shine has come off him – a Tony Blair with his sort of negotiating skills I would have faith in that. I might even go as far as saying if our leaders had the power of a Margaret Thatcher you might think they would pull it off. But this lot? No chance.”

“We are going to exit with a phenomenally bad deal or no deal, the economy will take a real hit and we are going into a deeply isolationist period at a time when we are needed on the world stage,” he adds.

“The navel-gazing going on means we have to have a second referendum on this, we will have to go back to the British people with a deal because if we don’t I suspect the current government risks oblivion.”

But, given the deep splits across the country exposed by Brexit, Lammy believes Labour has more work to do to reach out to those people who have been left behind. And here one of his other policy passions – investing in skills training both for young people and for those stuck in low-paid, low-skill jobs – could play a part. As former skills minister, he believes that a new generation of night schools, alongside a strong industrial strategy and a good offer on housing, could reconnect with ex-Labour voters.

“I can’t think of an issue that’s more ‘now’ than this in the post-Brexit economy – how we reach some parts of the country that have turned away from Labour: natural Labour heartlands that have been seduced by Ukip and extreme right-wing notions where you blame others rather than equipping yourselves,” he says. “This is fertile territory for Labour.”

For himself, Lammy is enjoying his politics more than he has ever been. Although he says he would love to sit on the frontbench in a future Labour government, he is, for the time being, relishing speaking out on the issues he cares deeply about.

“I have no doubt Britain is more fractured today than at any time in my lifetime,” he says. “That’s quite a bold statement because I lived through the riots in the early 80s but I think Britain feels more fractured than then. The next government will be one that really offers the country a powerful vision of healing some of those divides and some hope. The next election is going to be a hope election.”

And that, he believes, will usher in a Labour government which has placed itself on that new middle ground to appeal to today’s voters.

“I believe that Jeremy Corbyn will become prime minister. A lot of mud was thrown at him in the last election and it didn’t stick with the British public. He has his mojo about him and we seem to have party discipline back.

“Whilst people can have views on the 70s and socialism I think people have to come to terms with where the centre ground now is and with the fact that there are people under 40 who have not experienced socialism – so they are up for it.”

This article first appeared in the autumn 2017 issue of the Fabian Review >>

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