26 March, 2012Issue 18.6InterviewsPolitics & SocietySocial Policy

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Interview with David Lammy MP

BritishDavid Lammy
Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots
Guardian Books, 2011
266 pages
ISBN 978-0852652671


In the wake of the riots in the United Kingdom in August 2011, David Lammy, the member of parliament for Tottenham, one of the areas that was most affected, shot to prominence. With a media hungry not only for answers, but also scapegoats, he wanted, in his own words, “to communicate one thing: this was not the true face of our area.” In the weeks and months that followed, having had time for reflection, not only on the riots, but the legacies of New Labour, he wrote a book about his experiences, last year’s Out of the Ashes. In this work, he attempts “to offer an explanation for the riots” and analyses what “they tell us about Britain and where we should go from here.” In this extensive interview with the Oxonian Review, we discussed not only the riots but also the future of the Labour Party, the historical legacies of economic liberalism, prison reform, football, and much else besides.

In your book you talk about some of the contexts that you think led to the riots. To start, could you talk more generally about the social and historical trends that led to them. Do they represent a one-off occurrence, which have caused a paradigm shift in the British political landscape, or are they the result of a more continuous historical arc?

In my book I argue that there were two revolutions in the 20th century: first, the social-liberal revolution of the 1960s and, secondly, the economic-liberal revolution of the 1980s that made our country fairer, more tolerant, wealthier. I think we can see, in 2011, that these revolutions come with some drawbacks, and in a sense the riots illustrate those downsides. The downsides of a culture in which everyone is aware of their rights, and their right to something, and also, in an economic sense, a materialism, a consumerism, a freedom to make money in any way possible, yet with lots of people left out. This has an impact on the welfare system and is linked to housing crisis in our society, but also has led to people valuing material goods above everything else. The riots are illustrative of some real underlying problems that until we start to address those underlying problems we will see more social unrest, more social decay.

Your book opens with an account of the riots that took place in the 1980s and, although you make clear that there are several key differences between then and now, do you see parallels between the two eras in terms of underlying economic and political conditions?

The book is certainly not one that could have been written in the 1980s. I don’t see them as the “same old riots”; they are not race riots, for instance. They involve many different people, many different races, and took place across the whole of the country. So whilst I think people want to write up the riots as being the same as the last time, I want to argue that there are clearly different things going on.

One striking thing about the book is how autobiographical it feels—your own experiences of growing up in Tottenham in the 1980s permeate the book, and your shocked and visceral reaction to the riots as they happened play an important role in the narrative. Could you discuss this autobiographical aspect of the 1980s and how it shaped your sense of an adequate response to the events of last August?

It certainly heightened the sense of loss. I had given some thought to what I wanted to say over the course of a sleepless night, but the minute I walked behind the police cord and saw the area I had grown up effectively have its heart ripped out, the overwhelming emotion was anger. Seeing cameras pointed at Tottenham and remembering the damage done after Broadwater Farm and going through job interviews where people raise an eyebrow at the N17 postcode, it was impossible not to feel angry.

Your first answer suggests that the riots were a result of materialism and individualism—were they merely indicative of this culture of selfishness, or do you think there was more of an underlying political activism?

The question implies a binary polarity between the two things, which boxes me in slightly. What I outline in my book is that all of these things are happening, the riots are indicative of all of these social trends. You can’t reduce the riots to being just about the cuts. In the same way, you can’t reduce the riots to being just about selfishness and greed.

This would seem to feed into the discussion that you have in the book surrounding the creation of what was termed a “feral underclass” in the wake of the riots, both in terms of media coverage and the response of Conservative politicians. What did you make of the media coverage of the riots?

The coverage of the riots represents a low point for our media. It seemed that most good journalists were off in August on holiday, and the ones who were left were woeful. They were insistent on writing up the riots as though this was the 1980s, turning up in areas that were not fully understood or fully analysed, sticking up the microphone in front of anyone and presenting them as community leaders. This is not the way forward. There was an awful lot of caricature, and insufficient challenge of the system and why we are here. It’s too easy to reduce everyone to criminals and actions to criminality. Of course, what took place was criminal—it was certainly criminal if you had your house or business burnt down. But I do think it is important to examine why and how this was happening.

This idea of criminality clearly concerns you in Out of the Ashes. You talk of your experiences of visiting Nordic countries and the prison systems that you encountered there. You suggest that these systems more adequately foster a sense of society along with punishment. Is the prison the key battleground for social reform for you?

One of the grounds, I wouldn’t go far as saying it is the key ground. We should really be continuing to focus on why people find themselves prison in the first place—that is the goal of social reform in many ways. But inevitably, we’ve come off the back of social unrest where a large majority of the participants had been to prison already. That fact alone has thrust penal reform into the public forum.

The flipside of the media’s actions was the coverage of the clean-up and the “broom army”. Is this the sort of bottom-up community activism that you would advocate, moving away from a valorisation of the individual?

That was great but we should not overdo it because the riots still happened, and sometimes we saw different members of the community coming out to do the clean-up. I took a lot of heart from the fact that many of my young constituents stayed at home. There is the risk that a focus on these efforts obscure the fact of the riots themselves.

And the concept of the “home” occurs throughout the book and the importance of familial structures; similarly, you emphasise the importance of hard work, discipline, and graft. Work, home, family, discipline—historically these have been Conservative touchstones. How would you answer someone who challenged you to differentiate your ideas from historical Conservatism?

The Labour Party was built by working people who understood its importance beyond simply being something to fill hours. Well paid work alleviates poverty and the ills that derive from it. Good and fulfilling work builds character and identity. It defines your future, gives you purpose, direction, and ambition. Work is very much a Labour concept. But if we truly want people to have access to good work then we have to honest about how we get people there. Some of that comes from very Labour principles about how the state stimulates and regulates a labour market where those roles are prevalent. But some of that comes from the Conservative “touchstones” that you describe. If it is serious about good life and good work, how can Labour and the left not talk about the family or the home?

What do you see as being the way forward in a general ideological sense and in terms of more concrete policies? After all, the book can be read as a reflection on what we can do better as a society.

I outline 20 policies that I think would start to address the problems the riots raised, so it is difficult to reduce it to a single sentence. I have chapters on work, as I’m really concerned about work and I think the direction of government policy in that direction is disastrous. There are serious problems with housing, and selling off housing to the private sector is not going to help that situation. I talk about punishment and prisons, and separating punishment from rehabilitation. More generally, the purpose of the book is a challenge to the left as it is to the right. The challenge to the left is that we can’t deploy statist solutions, and we need to be careful about becoming a solely liberal party. The challenge for the right is that Thatcherite economics will not provide the solutions—there is nothing fresh there—and sometimes these solutions mitigate against the Big Society, which is, in some senses, the good part of David Cameron’s policy portfolio. What we have to do is give people a stake in society. What these riots were about was people not having a stake. In some cases, these were not even the poorest, they were people with jobs, who still chose to break the law as they did not have a sufficient stake. So, how can we give people a stake? Why is work so important and how can we foster it? Why when the economy is experiencing what it is experiencing is it so important to have people in work? Why does the prison system mitigate and make the system worse? Those are the sort of questions I’m asking. I’m concerned about advertising to young people in this technological age of Twitter, BBM, and Facebook—how does that undercut feeling part of a greater whole?

Can we dwell on social media for a minute? You talk about the rioter’s use of BBM and how that facilitated the organisation of the violence. Do you think that these online communities only contribute to a feeling of atomism, or is there potential for more positive avenues, the development of community?

Again, this is not a binary that I would buy into. The problem that I discuss in the book is that BBM was a closed network that led to a subculture in which people intent on causing harm and damage were able to do that and outfox the police. This was dangerous and worrying. Now, that is not to say that everyone on BBM is a criminal, but that we are experiencing a period when technology is moving quite fast and that this is challenging a collective whole in some respects. One sees parents really struggling with their children’s use of different mediums. You see instances of Facebook bullying, challenging young people and communities. One sees young people struggling permanently living in the public sphere, without having any private space. These are very new developments which have altered how it is to feel and be human that politicians and legislators need to keep up with. So I suppose I raise questions in my book as solutions to them can only ever be collective solutions, and it’s certainly not to suggest that technology is a harmful thing—it’s not. But usually society needs to reach a balance as to how it is best regulated for the common good, and I’m not sure that balance has been reached.

This seems a particularly important question in relation to the Occupy movement, which used Twitter, Facebook, memes etc. to develop a coherent and positive force of community and political activism.

Certainly. I’m very positive about the work of UK Uncut and Occupy. I say in the book that the baby-boomers had it good: they heated up the world, they bankrupted the world, they’ve got good pensions, they can buy their own house, and they got free education. I think the settlement for Generation Y is very different from that generation. That people come together, organise, to challenge the status quo is desirable and is absolutely needed in a world of such gross inequality.

Sport is another alternate avenue of modern community coherence that you explore. You outline the positive effects that schemes like the London Boxing Academy (LBA) can have; similarly Tottenham Hotspur is a constant presence in your book. Ken Loach, the film director, said football trusts and Supporter’s Direct was the only achievement of New Labour. This seems like an issue that is close to your heart. Can you talk about the role that sport might play, and, even, your own experience of it?

Sport—and football in particular—is completely undervalued as a tool for social good. People immediately think of racist chanting, hooligans tearing around railway stations and misbehaving players. Too readily we forget how unifying an experience sport can be. When I get to White Hart Lane I sit alongside black faces, white faces, Asians, Chinese, men, women, boys and girls, anyone. In this atomised country, isn’t it great that something like football can give you an identity that is open to anyone? So when Spurs were close to moving to the Olympic Stadium, it wasn’t just about the economic value of a massive employer, it was a connection with an identity that would forever change.

To conclude, you talked about the book being a challenge to the left. Do you think the policies of New Labour had a role creating the conditions for the riots, with business deregulation, making the city the centre for wealth production, and abandoning old forms of socialism?

Isn’t that all a bit clichéd? The solutions for our future are not going to be the solutions circa 1920 Labour Party, or indeed 1948. But equally they’re unlikely to be the Blairite formula of 1994. My book tries to look afresh at these issues. The Labour Party is called the Labour Party for a reason, and that is that it believes in the value of work, and we need to rediscover what that means. Actually there are small-c conservative elements of Labour, and I know that some who have pushed Blue Labour are part of that. My book suggests that it is not about re-inventing the past, whether it’s the modern past under Tony Blair or an older past. Labour is built on a progressive sense of values, and it is the best vehicle for collective change in this country, but every now and then it needs to re-invent what that means for the 21st century. I’ve got no doubt that a new generation of people who are experiencing the real harshness of our country at this time, who can’t get jobs, who have to pay a fortune for education, will be part of forging what that progressive sense of values looks at and looks like. My book is a contribution to that debate.

David Lammy is the member of parliament for Tottenham.