The Observer:The Tottenham Hotspur

Tuesday, 25 January 2005

The Hon David Lammy is one of New Labour's biggest vote pullers - a smooth-talking quick-witted party player with the common touch. But there's one thing he hates: don't call him the 'black Blair'. David Matthews charts his irresistible rise from a north London housing estate to the Palace of Westminster by David Matthews If there's anything that's guaranteed to get a rise out of David Lammy it's the suggestion, first posited by The Sun , that he could be Britain's first black Prime Minister. 'Don't even touch that,' he says, grimacing. 'Please. Try and write something different.' We are sitting in the corner of a bustling pub in Wood Green, north London, in the heart of his constituency, knocking back pints of lime cordial and soda. Dressed in a sober dark blue suit, white shirt, tie and rimless glasses, a casual observer could easily mistake the Hon David Lammy MP for just another businessman having a late lunch. But terms like 'black Blair', 'meteoric rise' and 'the great black hope' have long been bandied about in the press when his name has cropped up. He was 27 at the time of his by-election victory, becoming the youngest post-war Member of Parliament and one of only 12 from an ethnic minority. He inherited the most ethnically diverse constituency in Europe following the death of Bernie Grant - a diehard Old Labour politician. I explain we need to get the hype out the way, to tackle head on the cliches that have stalked him ever since he became MP for Tottenham in June 2000. 'Look, seriously, I am just DO-ING MY JOB,' he says staccato, emphasising how tired he is of such talk. 'A day is a long time in politics, let alone a decade or two. Why do people say things like that? Because it chimes with modern Britain, with hope and all those sorts of things. But when Colin Powell was a soldier, do you think anyone would have tapped him on the shoulder and said, "You know, one day you could be the Secretary of State or the President?"' He was just doing his job as well as he could. And that's what I'm doing.' Case closed. I just felt the mood needed lightening, hence the black Prime Minister line. It had been a tough morning. 'This is probably the saddest day I've had since becoming the MP for Tottenham,' he'd told me earlier that day. He was reflecting on the case of 30-year-old Roger Sylvester, who on 11 January 1999, after being restrained by eight police officers outside his home in Tottenham, fell into a coma. Seven days later he was dead. After a five-year struggle the Sylvester family earned an inquest. A verdict of unlawful killing was reached. Fingers were pointed at the officers and they appealed. That morning, Lammy had been at the High Court in his capacity as the Sylvesters' MP to hear a judge quash the unlawful killing verdict. 'I know the Sylvester family very well,' he says, with a mixture of sadness and frustration. 'I have been to their home, I have held their hands, I've cried with them. Roger died three roads away from where I grew up. I've been to church with them. I really feel for them because this is a typical Tottenham family, a typical Christian, black Tottenham family. I've watched them grow bitter and more cynical about the (legal) process.' As a junior minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs - the arm of government responsible for 'upholding justice, rights and democracy' - Lammy is reluctant to talk in detail about the Sylvester case. Cases like this, as much as the myth-making surrounding his career, illustrate the tightrope he walks as an MP. 'He is a politician laden with an intense and conflicting set of expectations - from his own constituents, from the black community, from the media, from his own party and from the government he serves,' says one close colleague. 'This is one of the reasons why perhaps more than any other politician of his generation, his politics are refracted through a local lens, because it is the expectations of the people of Tottenham he ultimately needs to satisfy.' Born in 1972, one of five children of Guyanese parents, David Lammy grew up in a Tottenham racked with high levels of crime and poverty. Nevertheless, he had an unremarkable working-class upbringing until 11 years old, when his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother Rose, a council worker, to raise him, his brothers and younger sister 'on never more than £12,000 a year'. According to Patrick Cozier, a friend since primary school, the absence of his father at a critical point in Lammy's upbringing helped to forge a sense of purpose and determination in the future MP. 'I think it made him grow up,' says Cozier, now deputy head at a school not far from the playground where he and Lammy would jockey each other as kids. 'He had to become one of the key players in his household much earlier than he would have otherwise expected.' The obstacles Lammy faced on the streets of Tottenham were huge. His neighbourhood was blighted by a raft of social problems, vividly illustrated by the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, which left one police officer dead, three men wrongfully convicted of his murder and a whole community defamed. Were it not for the support of his family, particularly Rose and his eldest brother Carl (a local magistrate), life could have been very different. 'If I think of some of my contemporaries that I went to primary school with in Tottenham,' he has said, 'some of them have ended up in jail, some of them have ended up mentally ill. Too many of them have ended up unemployed. I was determined, "Please God, don't let me go that way."' As a child he displayed a precocious way with words and a desire to mediate. Aged eight or nine he would sit his mother down at the kitchen table and advise her on housing matters, fill in job applications and take charge of domestic issues. 'If there was someone in the class who was having a rough time, or there were incidences of bullying and that sort of thing, David would certainly step in,' says Cozier. Lammy was naturally competitive but an average pupil in the classroom and on the playing field. He did have one raw talent: singing. He and Rose set about applying to choir schools throughout the country, courting many rejections until he won a scholarship in 1983 to King's, a state boarding school in Peterborough. The only black pupil in his year, crossing the tracks from the concrete jungle of Tottenham to the leafy suburbs of Peterborough had its pros and cons. As Lammy says, 'It was not all fond memories.' He was charismatic and popular, but experienced bullying for the first time and got into fights; he also questioned authority and argued frequently with teachers into the night about politics and philosophy. Throughout his time at King's he struggled with his studies and was expected to get just two GCSEs. 'He'd been in the lower sector and then just came up trumps in his exams and completely astounded everybody, including himself,' says an old schoolfriend. 'It was then that he became really driven and ambitious.' Armed with nine GCSEs and the epiphany that education would be his saviour, he began channelling his efforts toward becoming a barrister and started work experience at the Peterborough-based law firm of practitioner Adrian Christmas. Growing up in an era of widespread racism, police brutality and controversial trials, Lammy was acutely aware of the injustice of Thatcher's Britain. It was also a period marked by apartheid. While working for Christmas, some South African clients came calling. Lammy told them, 'Don't worry about me. Just ignore me. I'll sit in the corner and pretend to clean something.' The wisecrack impressed the clients, but it also illustrates the sardonic wit of a well-balanced young man. Studying law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, he acquired the nickname 'Mission' because of his determination to succeed. 'David was the only person I knew who was arguing cases at the Free Representation Unit while still studying law,' says his close friend and university roommate Simon Morgan. 'Aged 18 or 19, he won a landmark case for a cab driver who had witnessed his daughter's murder and was claiming nervous shock. 'We worked together for the Legal Aid Office in Kingston, Jamaica, going into local prisons and working with and for death-row inmates there,' says Morgan. 'We've been to Africa together and Guyana. . . We've been strip-searched together by border police, set upon by Jamaican locals, driven into the heart of the jungle and surrounded by miners who would cut your throat as easy as look at you. . .' Called to the Bar in 1995, Lammy went to Harvard and then into practice with a Californian law firm. But shortly after returning to the UK in 1998 he decided to stand as a candidate for the Greater London Authority in 2000 and was elected. 'Going to America wasn't just about Harvard and work; it was also about mixing with the black Diaspora and seeing a different way of life,' recalls Lammy. 'I came back feeling empowered. . . and this propelled me into politics. People were talking about 'cool Britannia' and the newly elected Labour. . . I saw people like me as being a part of this new era and thought I could genuinely contribute to Britain.' Within months the Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant, died from a heart attack aged 56. Grant was part of the old school in more ways than one: a Guyanese immigrant, shop steward, council leader, a hard-left MP for 13 years, and a pioneer of minority representation in Parliament. The decision to go for selection in Tottenham was not an easy one. Grant was a diehard Old Labour politician, markedly different to Lammy's born-again New Labour persona. The contest was marked by a row over whether Grant should be succeeded by a black candidate or his wife Sharon, who is white. Lammy won selection and the by-election. Currently with a majority of 16,916, Tottenham is one of the safest Labour seats in the country. With 193 languages spoken (as Lammy points out frequently) it is also the most ethnically diverse constituency in Europe. Known in political circles for his rhetoric, loquaciousness and confidence at the despatch box, Lammy undoubtedly has a voice, a 'persuasion', as he calls it, to communicate with people beyond Tottenham. Some commentators have hailed him as one of the most gifted orators of his generation. Indeed, his maiden speech to the House of Commons, in which he spoke passionately about the power of politics to transform people's lives, is widely recognised as one of the best ever. 'My political ideology is very much based in Labour's socialist working-class tradition; and it has a race dimension because I've transcended my background. That's why I feel passionately about improving the lives of inner-city working-class kids, regeneration, social justice and issues like the Stephen Lawrence and Roger Sylvester cases.' In 2002, Lammy had a mixed year as under-Secretary of State for Health, although while there he did score his 'greatest achievement as a politician', initiating a policy target that 90 per cent of patients attending A&E departments should be seen, and treated or discharged, within four hours. In June 2003 he moved sideways to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, where, to the anger of many, he has introduced a restrictive policy on asylum and immigration appeals and put a £2bn cap on the legal aid budget. One immigration lawyer told me she was 'shocked and outraged at how right-wing he's become'. Lammy counters that there are too many people abusing the system. 'I know the poverty of some of the countries these people are coming from. I've been to enough developing countries to know that. But at the same time I know as a minister that there have to be rules. The community doesn't gain from the asylum system falling into disrepute.' A university friend who now works as a criminal defence solicitor also gave me an insight into how Lammy can switch from local MP good cop to government minister bad cop. 'It's not beyond the realms of imagination that his department's reforms will mean the collapse of my firm and the loss of my profession for good in September, when the government plans to cut criminal legal aid suppliers by huge percentages. To have your best friend responsible for taking your livelihood away from you is hard to accept, and it means that we rarely discuss work because it can result in a fight.' Taking a break from constituency business in his mother's modest sitting room - a stone's throw from Broadwater Farm Estate - drinking tea and eating biscuits, chatting about Tottenham Hotspur (he's a season-ticket holder), how he got R&B star Alicia Keys to perform at the Commons, and cut Boris Johnson down to size on Question Time , it's hard to dismiss Lammy as simply a government hatchet man. 'You gotta hang your mouth when the soup's running,' he says, citing an old Guyanese proverb, which means you have to hang in there and take your chances when they come. At the 2001 spring Labour Party conference, where Lammy had been invited to introduce the PM to delegates, Blair took to the podium with the words, 'Look out David, you never know what might happen to you.' I can't help but admire the man - Lammy that is, not Blair - even if I don't buy most of his politics. On Iraq, for instance, he 'genuinely believed that we'd find weapons of mass destruction'. And I believe he genuinely believed the flannel he was sold. But there's a side of me, a small, knotted side that grew up in a similarly disadvantaged corner of London in the same era, on the same streets, that questions his naivety. His detractors accuse him of lacking an ideology - and opportunism. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, doesn't agree, though: 'David needs to find his defining moment. When he gets there, we'll see what he's made of.' Later that evening, as I was considering the dichotomy that is David Lammy, another Guyanese proverb sprang to mind: 'You can't suck the whistle and blow at the same time.' On alternate Friday evenings and one Saturday morning in the month, Lammy holds his surgery in two cramped offices in the bowels of Tottenham Town Hall. With the help of his brother Carl and an assistant he'll get through 50 or 60 cases in one session, negotiating screaming kids, homeless teenagers, irate neighbours and sundry people seeking asylum from life on the edge of the inner city. Men like Adam, a confused young man looking for help with a multitude of problems - poor housing, no money, drug dependency, petty criminality - and access to higher education and a way out. Cue David Lammy: social worker, probation officer, psychologist. Adam has visited the surgery six or seven times after seeing his new MP on TV. This time he broke down in tears. He believed a neighbour had burgled his flat; and being 'highly motivated' and governed by the laws of the street, revenge seemed like his only recourse to justice. Lammy did his best to reassure him, to pacify him, to warn him. 'I see you getting more worked up every time you come here. I know how hard it is and I worry that the next call I get is going to be from prison and it's going to be much more serious, not just a couple of weeks in Feltham. You need 24/7 help.' He said he felt responsible for Adam, perhaps because he knows in another lifetime he could have been him. 'He's latched on to me like a big brother. He's a wonderful kid, but it's gone wrong for him.' 'David is what Tottenham needed,' says Rev Nims Obunge, chief executive of the Peace Alliance, a national crime reduction charity. 'Bernie represented the old school, with a passion for issues that were at the heart of the black community. David represents achievement, aspiration, something that right now a young black community needs.' Sheila Peacock, Mayor of Haringey and Lammy's political agent, echoes the sentiment. 'I've got a lot of respect for Bernie Grant. I knew him well; I was his agent. But I've got to say that David has done more for the people of Tottenham in four years as an MP than Bernie ever did.' As Rose points out, looking at the flecks of grey hair around her son's brow, 'People forget the stress he has to deal with in those surgeries. It's all right for those MPs in the shires and the suburbs. They have it easy! The people David sees have serious problems.' Rose and Carl have accompanied him to the Barbican for a ceremony where he will receive an Honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of East London. 'This is a very long way from the terraced house I grew up in, in Tottenham. . . from my job in Kentucky Fried Chicken. . . from my mother raising us as a single parent. . .' Another public event, another well-delivered, unscripted speech in which Lammy pays homage to his roots and echoes the importance of education, education, education. The road show of back- slapping shindigs has become a bit too much for Rose, however. 'I'll be glad when he's married,' she jokes, 'then I won't have to follow him around to all these awards and ceremonies.' Days later, Lammy's boss, Charles Falconer, throws an engagement bash for him in the Lord Chancellor's House at the Lords - famously refurbished by Derry Irvine at a cost of £650,000 to the taxpayer. His fiancee, Nicola Green, also 32, is a portrait artist from south London who sells her paintings for up to £8,000. Her client list includes Nigella Lawson, Paul Merton and Angus Deayton. Attractive, intelligent and single-minded, she is the perfect foil for a man who harbours a creative bent. The pair met through a mutual friend at a party in March 2004; Nicola had no idea who the man in the funny glasses was. 'We started chatting and he was a bit coy about what he did at first. I thought it was amusing when he told me he was an MP.' Both have dated high-profile partners in the past. Green had a relationship with comedian Arthur Smith, while Lammy went out with Channel Four presenter June Sarpong for two years, before the couple split amicably in June 2003 due to their busy work commitments. 'I'm glad Nicola appreciates how hard I work,' Lammy comments. The couple hope to start a family soon. As the great and the good - from Sir Trevor McDonald to Oona King - drank champagne and toasted the happy couple in the impressive River Room, Falconer said a few words praising his charge and stealing a classic line from Lammy's maiden speech. 'His mother had dug out an old Year 11 school report which said: "Your son is a model pupil. Unfortunately, he is not a working model."' As 2004 came to a close, life was looking very sweet for David Lammy. As a boy he dreamed of owning 'a huge fridge filled with food'. Now he earns £84,000 a year and has a chauffeur. He could easily earn double, probably treble that figure as a barrister, but for the time being duty calls. He has friends in high places, a beautiful partner and a career on the up and up. But on 14 December he took the biggest hit of his political career. Isolated at the despatch box and unsupported by senior cabinet colleagues, he was lambasted by opposition and Labour MPs during a debate over the Mental Capacity Bill, a contentious piece of legislation designed to clarify the law on so-called 'living wills'. That afternoon he fielded questions with the usual chutzpah; the debate was going well until Kevin McNamara, a Labour backbencher, revealed that Charles Falconer had written to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, the previous evening saying the government would amend the bill in the Lords to strengthen it against complaints that had been made by backbenchers, who had been lobbied by religious groups. Their concern was that the bill would pave the way for 'euthanasia by the backdoor'. MPs were angry that such an amendment had come so late in the day without them actually seeing it. Cue mayhem in the Commons as outraged MPs turned their ire on the sacrificial Lammy. He was repeatedly shouted down by MPs and rebuked by the Deputy Speaker. Labour backbencher Frank Field described the debate as a 'farce'. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who had vigorously opposed the bill, called it a 'charade'. 'Amateur night at the Commons' reported Anne McElvoy in the London Evening Standard , who, along with several political commentators, slated Lammy's less than impres sive performance. The Commons chamber, where everything from the abolition of slavery to declarations of war has been debated, is an unforgiving place to be publicly humiliated. For a man who prides himself on his oratory, and one who likes to think on his feet, it was a massive blow. 'In order to protect the government he had to carry the can,' comments a well-placed colleague, who explains that as Lammy was not instrumental in drafting the bill it was hard for him to defend it. 'And that's a mark of his loyalty. He was put in an impossible position. No one could've got out of that without dropping the government in it. He chose to take a big hit and save the government's face.' Lammy's loyalty has never been in doubt. Out of 22 key Commons votes he has supported the status quo 19 times and abstained on three occasions. He sees being part of the cabinet as 'a privilege'. As he told a gathering of local Labour party activists in Tottenham shortly before the debate, 'I'm a member of the government, so don't think I'm going to vote against it.' The last time I see Lammy is at Portcullis House, filming a BBC interview for a forthcoming documentary on 'black icons'. Standing in shirtsleeves, no tie and partly silhouetted by a window in an oak-panelled boardroom, he is questioned repeatedly about Bernie Grant, that shadow still looming. He seems relaxed, if a little tired. He waxes lyrical about 'the traditions that are important in the black experience. . . hope, justice, sacrifice, suffering, struggle' and drops in a few telling comments about the way the tabloids 'build people up and then knock them down'. The subject soon changes to Nelson Mandela. 'In a way, Mandela was a proxy. He was the man I wanted my father to be. He was the man I wanted to be. . .' He talks at length about his icons, 'Ali, Poitier, Aretha Franklin' then returns to the day Mandela, the 'living saint', as he calls him, was released from jail. He was head boy at King's. His teachers were calling him for lunch. He ignored them. They threatened him with detention. 'I was waiting for Mandela. This was so important. . . to see my icon, my father figure walk out of jail. None of us knew what he looked like. . .' Lammy steps away from the window. He's visibly moved. 'Too emotional,' he says, wiping his eye. 'No. . . can't talk about it.' There's a pause as the film crew hang on his next move. He composes himself, and then carries on with the interview as if nothing had happened. It's business as usual.

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