"David Lammy: £1.2m to tackle gangs? That wouldn't buy a house in Crouch End" - an interview in the Evening Standard

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


Below is an interview with David Lammy MP by Andrew Neather for the Evening Standard. It was originally published on 22 November 2011 [link].

It covers the subject of David's book on the August 2011 riots, which is available from Amazon for £6.49 [link]. All author proceeds from the book are being donated to Tottenham charities.


*****

It wasn't the fact that Tottenham's rioters were angry that horrified David Lammy.

Watching a police video of the violence - "some of the most shocking, most depressing, most shameful behaviour that I have ever seen" - what troubled him most was "a far more sinister emotion: happiness". Youths laughed as they attacked police and methodically burned his beloved Tottenham.

Lammy, 39, Tottenham's Labour MP since 2000, was born there to Guyanese parents and grew up on these gritty streets. He spent childhood afternoons with relatives on the Broadwater Farm estate: the riot there in 1985 shattered the neighbourhood.

But this time, it's different: "1985 was a pitched battle between black youth and the police. What we saw this summer was completely different. This was an attack on community."

That was what Lammy told the TV crews as he stood in the ruins of Tottenham High Road on the morning of Sunday, August 7, catching the mood of anger, sorrow and disbelief better than any other politician. Now he has written a passionate and thoughtful book, Out of the Ashes: Britain after the Riots, in which he seeks to understand what happened - and looks for solutions.

Lammy is quick to emphasise that the riots weren't about race. The rioters were of all races. And not only has the attitude of the police changed since 1985: so has the local black community. It is now predominantly of African rather than Afro-Caribbean descent, and one in five black kids has a white parent - including Lammy's own two young children (he is married to artist Nicola Green.)

Nor does he think the riots were down to gangs, even if, as he writes, gang culture acted as an "engine of unrest". Nevertheless, he is deeply concerned about gangs.

"We're at a tipping point in London," he says. "Do we just reconcile ourselves to being a hyper-individualistic culture, like the United States, in which gangs are a permanent feature of life? Or do we say that in Britain this hyped-up parochialism - where a young person in the Northumberland Park Killers can't go to Wood Green, just two miles away - is something we're not prepared to tolerate?"

He pinpoints the individualistic culture's emergence from two liberal revolutions - the liberalism of the 1960s and the economic revolution of the 1980s, creating the free person and the free market.

Lammy is clear about the importance of the former: "I wouldn't be sitting here" - we are at the House of Commons - "as a black Briton born in the early Seventies were it not for Britain being a freer and more tolerant country."

The problem, he says, is that "if you overdo a rights culture … you tend to end up in a place where you think, 'It's my right to have those trainers'. We need to think more about our responsibility, one to another."

He is also critical of Labour's statist solutions. In the book he recounts how in 2008 he told Gordon Brown, at a meeting in No 10, "I'm really worried about knife crime." Mothers in Tottenham were telling him they felt helpless to stop their sons getting caught up in the violence. "What are we doing for these women?" he asked the Prime Minister.

"Tax credits," replied Brown, and moved on. Lammy now believes that approach is partly why Labour lost the last election. "We became far too bureaucratic and technocratic," he says. "Our last manifesto read like a telephone directory. It had no soul in it, it was just a list of policy objectives - and they weren't that brave."

His own approach is far broader. He writes at length about the crisis of fatherhood in the inner city, drawing on his troubled relationship with his own father. He rails against gangsta rap. He has solid ideas on prisons, jobs, immigration, policing, housing, banks and making work pay. But he believes the shift towards a more responsible culture has to be made by everybody, not just government - families, faith groups, business, schools.

If that sounds more like David Cameron's Big Society than Brown's Britain, Lammy accepts some parallels, although he is dismissive of the limits to Cameron's idea. "The Big Society has nothing to say about the workplace. The Big Society is a very small society, never mind that it's not funded."

He gives the example of Operation Connect in Haringey, where the authorities write to known gang members and give them a choice: either they can be moved, re-housed, mentored and taken out of the gang environment - or else face the full consequences of their behaviour.

The programme is expensive but it works. Yet earlier this month the Government announced just £1.2 million for anti-gang projects.
"You can't buy a house in Crouch End for that!" exclaims Lammy. "That's what this problem is worth?"

He rejects orthodoxies on Left and Right. "Parts of my book are a challenge to those on the Left who want to reduce this solely to an issue of cuts or poverty: they have to answer the question of why 20,000 young people in Tottenham stayed home."

"And for those who think this is solely an issue of morality, on the Right, they have to contend with the fact that these riots did not take place in Knightsbridge and Richmond."

So Lammy is a man with a vision. Despite eight years' experience as a minister, he turned down Ed Miliband's offer of a shadow ministerial job, preferring to be able to speak on many issues that touch London. As, indeed, a mayor might: he was touted as a possible Labour mayoral candidate last year.

"I thought about it," admits Lammy. "But politics is a vocation and my vocation at the moment is with Tottenham." Instead, he chaired Ken Livingstone's selection campaign last year. And of course, he roundly condemns Boris Johnson's response to the riots.

But as he writes, the challenge the riots set crosses party lines: "To replace a culture in which people simply take what they want with an ethic of give and take, reciprocity, something for something."

The stakes are high. He tells me of watching recent CCTV footage of a knife fight between youths outside Wood Green McDonald's.

"One continued to stab another with a big kitchen knife. These were teenagers. This is deeply, deeply disturbing. It doesn't feel confined to the usual places any more. We have got to make a decision about how we're going to deal with this. Representing the kind of seat I do, I see a lot of things first."

Out of the Ashes is published this week by Guardian Books

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