David Blackburn

Interview: Lammy speaks to the common people

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Tottenham is a very long way from Tuscany, in every sense. But they were briefly connected earlier this year as riots spread across London. The political class clung to their Tuscan sunbeds for a few more hours while Tottenham burned.

David Lammy, Tottenham's MP, was an exception. His immediate response to the unfolding enormity impressed observers. Now he has written a book analysing the riots' causes, although he describes much more than that. Lammy grew up in Tottenham during the troubled '70s and '80s and his book is an engaging mix of autobiography and a sharp critique of New Labour (and Britain) in decline. We met in Westminster and I asked when he began writing what has become Out of the Ashes.

'I started to write before the last election; it was a kind of therapy. I wasn't entirely happy in the last days of the Brown government. I felt we had become very detached. I felt we’d lose outright.'

In contrast to some of his more barbarous colleagues, he expresses frustration rather than enmity about that period. He writes, 'Gordon Brown understood which parents needed help — and recognised the pernicious effect that poverty can have on family life. But his answer betrayed a tendency to see the world through a spreadsheet.'

Lammy wants Labour to abandon 'technocratic' cant and reclaim 'the language that connects you with ordinary people'. His writing and conversation are bereft of numbers and jargon; Lammy communicates with emotive words. He constantly refers to 'character' and 'responsibility'. And, with the bark of a lay preacher, he 'absolutely denies that these words cannot be owned by the Labour party'.

Lammy's analysis of the riots assumes that Britain is broken. Vast swathes of society have been marooned by the social liberalisation of the 1960s and the more recent market liberalisation. Those twin revolutions have undermined traditional family structures, public morality and low skilled jobs. 50 years of headlong change has left a social class largely fatherless, workless and hopeless; they must be given a new 'stake in society'.

Lammy writes that work is the first route to salvation. It gives people a sense of moral worth and pride, and allows them to contribute to society. He goes further in person: 'When I talk about a "stake in society" I'm saying you can't have one unless you're working.' The passages on work are impassioned, but the great weakness of Lammy's book is that he does not provide a credible solution to entrenched, heritable unemployment. He readily concedes to not 'having all the answers' and counters that his intention is merely to 'start a conversation'.

Housing is, however, one area where his fluid discussion solidifies into an idea. 'Labour's biggest dereliction of duty in government was social housing,' he writes. Labour failed to appreciate fully that a house is a 'stake in society'. Lammy says Mrs Thatcher 'understood what that meant'; but he is quick to say that the Right to Buy has disrupted too many communities and led to a chronic shortage of affordable housing. 'I favour a Community Land Trust,' he says, 'because the community owns the land… you can buy the property on a long lease and invest in it, but it always reverts back to the community.' Crucially, he says, CLT would help to bridge the asset divide in Britain, and keep the 'landlord culture at bay'. 

The failure on housing affected other policy areas — particularly immigration and welfare. 'Immigration was,' he says, 'the number one issue [for voters on the doorstep] long before Gordon Brown spoke to Mrs Duffy.' Labour was not alone in disregarding this public concern, and Lammy says that the political class's sustained indifference to immigration has created 'tension in communities like mine when people can perceive that others are rewarded by the welfare system despite not having made a contribution'. Lammy's cure for that ill is that welfare resources must be governed by contribution as well as need, because that is what his constituents believe to be fair.

Tottenham emerges from Lammy's account as much less threatening place than it was 30 years ago; but it also seems less compassionate. Lammy grew up in very difficult circumstances and owes part of his success to religious people who guided him through childhood to the King's School in Peterborough.

'I'm hugely grateful, which I don't think I say enough in the book, to many of the religious characters in my life who made a contribution that were in loco parentis at a time when my father left us – and I'm talking about teachers, I'm talking about priests, I'm talking about social workers. I recognise that 25 years later, in Britain we're operating in a more secular environment and there are many people who are not motivated by faith.'

Lammy, a convinced Anglican, blames the Church's hierarchy for Britain's spiritual drift. 'I've been very, very saddened by the way in which the Church has got far too caught up in what I see as pretty tangential subjects: women priests, gay marriage, gay bishops: at a time of hugely growing inequality in our country, at a time when the social need that I lay out in my book is so important.'

The Established Church is not alone in having ignored the dispossessed in Lammy's eyes. He is scathing of commercial rap music and fast food, and says that 'big corporations should know a lot better than to pump bad food and a bad lifestyle' at impressionable people. He advocates the current vogue for big society and moral capitalism: businesses should assist schools, parents, mentors and local groups to 'interrupt the space' where troubled young people become absorbed by materialism and nihilism. He illustrates his point by challenging a central tenet of Blairism: choice.

'Choice needs to be conditioned and people need the instruments to learn the resilience to delay gratification... I could go into any home in Tottenham and this music would be playing. It doesn't mean that there aren't other channels available, it just means they aren't watched... We shouldn't ban it; we just need to create the conditions to allow other value sets to mix here, as happens in middle class homes, let's be honest.'

Lammy's big idea is 'British civic service' — the latest incarnation of a scheme he backed in government in 2009. He writes, 'Modern Britain needs more institutions on the lines of the Scouts, the Girl Guides, the Boys' Brigade to ground youngsters in the habits of citizenship... It should be compulsory and last around six months... participants should be paid the minimum wage to ensure that this amounts to more than a glorified gap year scheme for the well-off.'

Lammy's admiration for authority and discipline doesn't end there. His community 'walks in fear of crime', so criminals must be punished — 'no prisoners' TVs' is one of his catchphrases. However, Lammy is a former minister responsible for prisoners' education who insists that 'prison doesn't work' and is unlikely to do so without radical reform. His uncomfortable experience in that job casts a long shadow. 'Some of the change that I was pushing through was like wading through treacle. I found it phenomenally difficult... We made a lot of progress, but there are still no relationships between prisons and employers, or the facilities and structures in a prison to get people into work as soon as they leave.'

His book relates numerous examples where inmates completed remedial programmes, were released, found a job, lost it on account of being insufficiently prepared for work, and then reverted to crime. He fears that many incarcerated rioters will fall into the same tragic cycle. He proposes separating rehabilitation from punishment and operating it properly on the outside. This radical proposal is un-costed, and Lammy concedes that impecunious Whitehall departments would oppose spending yet more on prisoners.

Government is an opaque presence in Lammy's vision. He writes, 'New Labour appeared to become interested only in what the state could deliver on its own.' He then devotes a chapter to Labour's obsession with human rights, describing it as symptomatic of an inclination to 'reach for a legal fix to problems that are social and cultural'. He also tells me that he grew 'very concerned in my own government that we were reducing a debate about political economy to the issue of regulation'. On the other hand, he says that there is a role for legislation in regulating divisive corporate excess, especially in the food and drinks industry.

Perhaps those contradictions are the price of Lammy's discursive approach; certainly a more definitive analysis would have excised them. Nonetheless, this is an important book for both Labour and Britain. Labour's present uncertainty owes much to its technocratic, privileged leadership groping around to find today's working class. Lammy is not that type of politician. He has looked at his constituency and found the people Labour ought to represent, and suggests how to represent them. Above all, he understands that too much hot air in Westminster will reignite Tottenham's embers.

Out of the Ashes is available to buy. All author proceeds will be donated to charity.