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David Lammy: Don’t fall for the right’s culture wars trap

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy. Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

David Lammy talks to ALASTAIR CAMPBELL about how the Tories are exploiting the so-called ‘culture wars’, Labour’s performance under Keir Starmer, his lonely Christmas… and Jose Mourinho’s ego.

Because of the big smile, the big personality, and one of the most infectious laughs in politics, you might assume David Lammy to be on the happier end of the emotional scale.

But he has known dark times in the past, up to and including the need for medication, admits he can get to very dark places now, and the political situation and the pandemic don’t exactly help.

The last time I interviewed Labour’s shadow justice secretary was for a series on mental health in the first lockdown, when he admitted his had been “very up and down”. Talking to him again now, as he tells me about what happened over Christmas in the third lockdown, it’s a wonder he can still summon that raucous, rumbling laugh at all.

“We decided to get away for Christmas,” he explains, “the family left on the Thursday, and the plan was that good old conscientious constituency MP me would work here to the weekend, and join them on the Sunday. Then Tier 4 came down, so I spent Christmas alone, just me and the dog – not exactly the best end to last year, and not a great start to this one.”

He is laughing as he speaks – he laughs a lot – but admits he found it hard. “I’m generally OK with my own company, but I had not been alone like that for decades. Our youngest is six, which is a great age for Christmas, everything is exciting, and I’m thinking ‘she will never be six again’, and I missed it, so that was hard. Then when they got back, they’ve had a break, I haven’t, and I’m just fed up sitting at a computer all day looking at my own face in Zoom meetings.

“I love London,” says the 48-year-old Tottenham MP, “but I love the countryside and if I could have the holiday of a lifetime right now, it would not be a beach in the Caribbean, it would be walking across the Yorkshire moors having the cobwebs blown away. I just want to WALK. I want a week of the WIND. I am pining for it.” The word ‘pining’ takes an age. He likes to laugh, and he likes to elongate words to make a point. “I am piiiiii-niiiiing for it.”

He has noticed too, as have many MPs, a rise in constituents reporting difficulties in accessing mental health care. “At the moment, a lot of kids are just roaming, vanishing, I really worry about them. The vaccine is giving hope, but even when we’re all vaccinated, the repercussions of where we have been are going to be awful. Tottenham has the highest unemployment in the country, if furlough goes ….” he pauses. “I think this is worse than the 80s recession, because it’s not just the working class but the middle class who are going to be screwed…” he pauses again, sighs. “Sorry to depress you …” then laughs again. “God, when you and I get together, we are really good at depressing each other, aren’t we?” He is now shouting through the laugh, as if to an imaginary TV commissioner, “if you want a new show, commission US, me and Al, we will DEPRESS THE WORLD”.

Then he is back to serious mode, and his voice falls almost to a whisper, when I ask why Labour isn’t doing better against – my words – this “terrible, awful, venal, useless government of liars and charlatans”.

“I know, they’re terrible, shocking, shocking.” Long pause. “Listen, we were beaten to a PULP at the last general election. There are only about 200 of us in the Parliamentary Labour Party, New Labour had ten consecutive years of growth, we have had a deep recession which lends itself to populists and shysters, the Boris Johnsons. We have to win 124 seats to have a majority of one. That is massive, bigger than the swing in 1997.

“When you get hammered like we were at Christmas 2019, our worst result since 1935, worse than 1979 or 1983, the manifesto roundly rejected, votes piled up in seats like mine, but elsewhere… look at the map, swathes of blue all over the place… when that happens the electorate had stopped talking to you, stopped listening, people forget you exist. You become irrelevant and you have to fight your way back to being relevant, earn the right to be heard again. That’s a long haul.”

We are speaking amid the first rumblings about Keir Starmer’s leadership, but he refuses to add to them. “Actually we have sort of rediscovered our mojo with Keir. We all know we have a lot more to do, but relative to where we were when we lost, we are in a better position than I thought we would be.”

The pandemic, he says, has made normal politics impossible. “Keir hasn’t actually spoken to an audience of people since he became leader. I go to the Commons on a Tuesday, there are about 40 or 50 of us in there, but it is not normal. There is none of the stuff being done in the margins, it’s all like some weird parallel universe existence.

“Normally there are lots of things going on in politics simultaneously but in recent years we have had these mono threads. Right now it is all Covid. For a while the only thread was Black Lives Matter, and otherwise it was all Brexit. I care deeply about all of those things, but it has all been mono-themed and in those circumstances it is hard for an opposition to set out a broader vision.

“Keir has given proper scrutiny of the government’s handling of the pandemic, but he took the judgement that we are not undermining the national effort and his judgement is right on that. Once we are through this, the debate is going to go back to ‘it’s the economy stupid’, so let’s see where we are in a year’s time.”

As for the judgement that Labour should support the government’s Brexit deal, which they did by voting for it in the Commons, as I roll my eyes Lammy very much delivers the frontbench line – that anything else would be taken as support for no-deal – but he does so perhaps without the passion with which he speaks of youth unemployment in Tottenham, or Priti Patel’s recent attack on Black Lives Matter.

“I hate it because we know what she is doing, playing to her base, looking down the road to when Boris [he ignores my repeated strictures to call him ‘Johnson’ not B***s] is no longer leader. I hate it when issues like that are used as a political football. It’s wrong and it’s unnecessary. I think Generation X and Generation Y can see through that wherever they are in the country.

“The right keep stoking these culture rows, Churchill, statues, the Proms, free speech in colleges, it all comes out of nowhere and it is all a distraction from the real stuff that matters – can you get cancer treatment, can your kids get an education, can you get a job? And where has Rishi Sunak gone? He has disappeared since he rolled up his sleeves and served food in that fancy restaurant. Do you have any sense that he even understands what is happening in the real world right now, or how to bring the jobs and hope we are going to need? I don’t.”

As for Brexit, if you are wondering why, given my obsession, it didn’t dominate our discussion, it is because my daughter Grace is in the room, we are recording the interview for our podcast next week, and she limits me to three mentions of the B-word per episode.

But Lammy makes clear it remains very much on his radar, and for reasons that will play into that broader economic debate when it comes. “When Thatcher was in power, a decision was made to depart the European model in many ways and get much closer to the American model, and the depressing thing about Brexit is that it means going full throttle towards the American model because that is the only way those who believe in it think it can work: more power and wealth for those who have it, deregulate, libertarian, anti-welfare, there will be a massive downside, and then all the crap and the fluff that goes with it, Fox News, politics deliberately polarised, by the populists and the shysters. Thank God for Biden. Thank God for Biden and Kamala Harris.”

If there is hope amid the depression, though, he sees it not just in America’s new 78-year-old president, but in those at the other end of the age scale. He explains to Grace: “I was the Thatcher generation, which was actually quite a small generation, and because it was so miserable a lot of the time… (laughs)… there weren’t so many children. But your generation – Millennials, Generation X, Generation Z – it’s a huge generation, and you don’t have your hands on the levers of power yet, but when you do, on climate, on inequality, on Black Lives Matter, you guys are really going to change things, I am sure of that. I see a politics that is present across that younger generation that I hope lands somewhere.

“The flip side,” he adds, now directing his comments at me “is that during the Brexit debate, you and I were out doing rallies and marches for a second referendum and there was a part of me thinking ‘this is all just a bit Waitrose’, and I think that is the paradox of our age. So the question is how we harness the passion and ingenuity of that young generation to meet the political challenges we know are huge.”

As if to underline the point, and make us feel worse, Grace chips in. “It used to crack me up at those People’s Vote rallies, lots of old white people with their ham and cheese baguettes from Pret singing along to the chants. Don’t get me wrong, you did a good job guys, never gave up, fought to the end, but there is a real problem when young people do get involved and then see no change.”

Lammy and I sit in the moody silence that follows a reminder of failure and defeat. “You seem a bit more optimistic than my Dad,” she adds, trying to raise his if not my spirits. He bursts into laughter once more. “I’m the ancestor of enslaved people… of course I’m optimistic. And I’m a Spurs fan! You have to be optimistic despite the evidence sometimes.”

Always happy to be talking football, I press him on his relationship with Spurs. I don’t have to press too hard to find out it is in the doldrums. “We are playing really badly. This was OUR season! Bale – back. Kane and Son – fantastic. Lamela and Dele Alli – this is your time. Mourinho the manager. Surely? But Mourinho’s ego is too big. He is past it. He undermines players, they don’t feel confident, you can tell the dressing room is gone. Another season gone, and it’s not ours.”

“A glass fully empty,” I suggest as a title for our depress-the-world TV show.

“How shit can it all get?” he offers as an alternative. “Channel 4, Channel 5, surely! I’d watch it!” And despite it all, the laugh is rolling again.

A fuller version of the interview can be heard on Football, Feminism and Everything in Between, all usual podcast platforms

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