Few MPs have banged the drum against Brexit more consistently than David Lammy. He tells EMMA JONES why there is still so much to fight for
When I meet David Lammy in his office in Westminster he has just delivered a letter to David Davis, signed by more than 120 politicians, demanding he publish his department’s secret findings on the damaging effects of Brexit on jobs and living standards.
It is the latest salvo against the anti-EU mafia from an MP who has been an unrelenting voice for the rights of EU citizens in this country, and for transparency on the implications that any deal may have.
He has been among parliament’s most consistent voices against Brexit, unequivocal in his opposition, regardless of shifting party policies. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of last year’s referendum he was the first MP to publicly call for parliament to halt Brexit – around the time his leader was demanding that Article 50 be immediately invoked.
For Lammy, his unbending opposition to the policy is because he believes it will hit the poorest hardest. His Tottenham constituency (for which he has served since a 2000 by-election, held after the death of previous MP Bernie Grant) is, after all, home to some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain.
But, as he makes clear, there is also a deeper truth to Brexit that he needs to expose. And keep exposing. ‘What we are seeing is a power grab and a stitch-up,’ he says.
‘The power grab is the folly that by leaving Europe we would take back control. The stitch-up is that ‘taking back control’ means that an elite sat around the cabinet table, most of whom went to public schools and Oxbridge, have their hands on the levers of power. The stitch-up is also keeping the public in the dark.
‘We know that there are 50 economic impact assessments. Yet those have not been shared with the general public. This is hugely significant.’
The contents of those economic impact assessments could be dynamite to the Brexit cause. Lammy’s campaign to see them published is therefore a vital one. It comes at a time when even Brexit’s biggest backers seem to have given up on the idea of any economic upsides to leaving the EU.
Instead, ominous economic warnings about the UK’s current trajectory are giving momentum to campaigners like Lammy – and, significantly, shifting the opinion polls in their favour too.
‘I think of the complacency and hubris,’ he says. ‘We are hearing very little now about the positive benefits of leaving the EU. But we are hearing a lot of excuses that this is all going to be rather painful.
‘We are beginning to wonder why we are doing it. We are now hearing that it would be ok to crash out with ‘no deal’. We were told it would be easy, that there were people begging for Britain to do a deal.’
But then, there is much that has changed since the referendum. Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence – the teenager murdered in a racist attack in 1993 – recently said in a New European article that she felt the vote last year had given people ‘permission’ to be racist. Lammy agrees there has been a change.
‘I really thought that we had arrived at a place in the 21st century, where we were putting behind us the huge divisions of the 20th century,’ he says.
‘We ended the 20th century in a better place because of huge progressive grassroots campaigning. Think of people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Suffragettes. And I think we were complacent about that.
‘Now, I cannot believe the bile. The racism, the xenophobia that I receive on social media, whenever I talk about Brexit, or about Grenfell [Tower], or about the race disparity audit.
‘The temperature has risen, in this last year or two – part of it is to do with the mainstreaming of extremism. I always believed that UKIP was an extreme party. It is now effectively sat around the cabinet table, in the shape of our own government. It has been co-opted.
‘It’s why I’m also very clear about anti-Semitism within my own party – we cannot co-opt this stuff. It also made me re-double my efforts to face down the haters.’
Lammy’s unswerving line on racism and on Brexit comes from a personal resolve, instilled in him by his mother. ‘You can’t be swayed off your course, you have got to be fearless. And, as my mum used to say. ‘You have to live up to your ancestors’ prayers’.
‘My ancestors were slaves, who prayed that they would survive slavery and that they would have descendants who were free. I am free. And I am free to speak my mind, and say what I think, and I intend to use that. I am not going to be cowed by anybody because I have got a lot more freedom than any of my ancestors had and you have got to be in the public sphere fighting for what you believe.
‘Fighting does not always mean aggression. I try to do what I do with persuasion and tenacity. Tenacity in the sense that I don’t get blown off course, and I stick to my guns, and I’d like to think that people will say on Grenfell, on Brexit, David Lammy just sticks to his guns.’
But, he says, you have got to do so persuasively. The aim is to take people with you. Politics is the art of making your movement bigger. This is something, he says, that Theresa May has failed to do.
‘She said she wanted to ‘bring the country back together again’ when she walked into Number 10. I am shocked that she has not really attempted to live up to that,’ he adds. ‘When you create a context that is them and us, then you do get conflict, social disorder.’
That means there is no pity for May and the diminished position she has found herself in. Sympathy should lie with those her policies will harm, he says.
‘She put herself forward to the country. I’m not concerned about how tough it is for her. I am concerned about how tough it is for my constituents, and poor and working class people across the country.
‘As night follows day, as the economy takes a hit, it is not the wealthy that will suffer. Indeed, sometimes during periods of uncertainty, the wealthy are able to make money.
‘If we go back to WTO rules, and we get ‘no deal’. Then we are talking about 10% tariffs – that means a loss of jobs, it means inflation and that will really hurt ordinary people.’
He adds: ‘I think that 2019 [by which time the shape of a Brexit deal / ‘no deal’ will be clear] is going to be a very bumpy year.’ This is an ominous warning from a politician who says he predicted the 2011 riots, the conditions for which he later analysed in the book Out of the Ashes.
He is not all doom and gloom though, and there is a sense of optimism for his party when we move onto the prospects for Jeremy Corbyn. The politics of the Labour leader and Lammy do not always align, but the pair represent neighbouring constituencies and are on good terms.
‘I know Jeremy well. We work together across boundaries, we have done for the last two decades. I have to say that he is the most tenacious and committed constituency MP in the House Of Commons.
‘Most of his texts to me are about constituency issues… ‘David do you want to come to the mosque?’… ‘David, this is going down in this local school, are you going to come?’ I think that his stature has risen, his shoulders have risen, his command has risen.’
His other source of optimism is the positive impact and consensus that is forming around the anti-Brexit cause – in contrast to the divisive approach pursued by the Prime Minister.
‘What’s fantastic is bringing together people from so many different parts of the country – business, young people, ethnic minorities, men and women, Europeans. Nationally, it’s a coalition. Who have at their heart, the guts to stand-up to Thatcherist presumptions.’
I catch up with Lammy again, a few days after our interview. Now, his letter about the impact assessments has prompted legal action threatening Davis if he doesn’t reveal the findings. Lammy’s astonishment remains.
‘It is a Government acting like it has something to hide. And I think it’s unbelievable, that we now have to drag the government back to court to get this information, but we will do it if necessary.’
The fight is far from over. The anti-Brexit campaign needs such tenacity.