The man who would be mayor: An interview with David Lammy

David Lammy: A new look for London
David Lammy: A new look for London
Adam Bienkov By

"At every single stage of my life I have been told no you can't go to university, no you can't go to a good school, no you can't become a barrister, no you can't become an MP and now they're saying no you can't become mayor."

I'm speaking to Labour's David Lammy, one of the favourites to succeed Boris Johnson as mayor of London.

If successful, Lammy would become one of the most powerful politicians in the country, with a £17 billion budget and a huge international platform.

For a working class black kid from Tottenham, it would be an incredible rise to power.


It would also be something he's spent a long time working on.

At the last mayoral election, Lammy was widely tipped to take on Ken Livingstone for the Labour nomination.

In the end he decided against it, becoming chairman of Ken's campaign instead.

Ken went on to lose that election. Some in Labour believe Lammy could have pulled it off. Why didn't he go for it?

"I just felt on a personal level that I wasn't ready to take on that task," he admits.

"At that stage I was the father of babies and we had only just come out of a general election and also when you get caught up in national politics as part of a team it does take some time to distinguish yourself from that team."

He remains loyal to Livingstone, describing him as having "a style and ability with people on the stump second to none".

However, he suggests that in hindsight Ken's time had gone.

"Every generation has to produce new and fresh candidates that can speak about new concerns and the future of the city and perhaps Ken wasn't quite able to do that the last time around."

Lammy says he was offered a job in Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet but turned it down. Like Boris and Ken before him, Lammy believes the next mayor shouldn't be tied to the party machine.

"I'll continue to say what is right for Londoners. I'm not here to peddle a position. I am here to say what I think is right and I will continue to do that."

One of the issues where he has already broken from the party line is Ed Miliband's plans for a mansion tax. He believes the policy is a mistake and would effectively become a "tax on London".

Instead he backs a revaluation of council tax bands across the whole country.

"What I'm passionate about is devolution, that's the big message we got from the Scottish referendum and so the concern about the mansion tax in the end is that all the money from it goes to the Treasury.

"If you are in the business of devolution, if you understand that is the political message of the time then it does seem to me that London has to retain funds to do things like build council houses.

"If we're going to have a tax on Londoners then let's spend the money on Londoners."

It's because of comments like these that the Labour leadership had hoped to leave the race to become London mayor until after the general election.

This view, closely reflected in a recent piece by Labour List editor Mark Ferguson, is that potential candidates should "work for a Labour victory before working for their own." The leadership, like Ferguson, believe that "Labour members won't forgive mayoral candidates who put their ambition before the party".

Lammy was not convinced by this argument.

"My view is that it is important to have the debate now. You yourself Adam have said in the past and I agree with you that this is not a race that Labour should take for granted or be complacent about."

"The issues facing London are immense at this point. I'm the kind of MP that gets about in a general election anyway. I shall be all over London and a bit beyond as I have been in every election. So I just wanted to be open and honest with my own constituents and the wider electorate.

His next comments feels rather pointed.

"And also to be clear, as was indicated when I decided not to join the shadow ministerial team, this is not for me a plan B or somehow an afterthought. It is my central preoccupation."

This feels like a swipe at his rival candidates, in particular Labour's shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

Khan, who as shadow minister for London, will have a role in setting the process to select the next mayor, has refused to announce his own intentions until after the general election.

Khan's critics have suggested that he has had a hand in deliberately delaying the selection until after next May, by which time he will know whether he has a job in a potential Miliband government.

By contrast Lammy insists that becoming Mayor is all he's ever been interested in. That dream still remains a long way off.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Lammy is name recognition. Both Boris and Ken before him were big household names long before they ran for mayor. In a system where the mayor has to win more than 50% of combined first and second preferences, this recognition was a major factor in their victories.

Recent polls commissioned by the Evening Standard have suggested that Labour's next batch of candidates are nowhere near as well known.

Asked to pick between them, around 60% of Londoners picked "none of them" or "don't know". The leading candidate Tessa Jowell, was picked by just 12% of Londoners.

It's partly for this reason that Lammy has come out early in an attempt to build up his name.

It's also why he strongly supports proposals for Labour to hold a primary to select their mayoral candidate.

When first raised, Labour's mayoral primary was intended to be open to all London voters. However, that has since changed to it being a primary of "registered supporters." Last week that was changed again, with plans to charge up to £10 to supporters for the right to vote.

Lammy's supporters are worried that the process is being gradually shut down.

"The primary is really important," Lammy insists.

"The Labour party has an opportunity for the first time in the process of selecting its candidate to go beyond just those who are signed up members to those who want to make a small contribution.

"In France we saw a charge of one euro and suddenly the election there was wide open to a whole new group of people. That's a real opportunity in London."

So does he think that will happen here?

"What I think is important is that the bar is low so that lots of people can really get involved and that we understand that process as soon as possible and that it runs for long enough to see people participate.

Friends of Lammy suggest that he would benefit from a primary. Unlike some of the other mooted candidates, he doesn't have a strong block of party support. An open primary could just push him over the line. Is that why he's backing it?

"I think it would benefit everyone actually given what we've seen in Scotland. Let's keep it open. let's keep it transparent. Maximum engagement. That is the lesson. That is in a sense what Ed Miliband tried to capture in his conference speech. Let's live up to that."

Lammy is perhaps best known for his response to the London riots and his subsequent widely-praised book on the subject.

Unlike Livingstone, who got in trouble at the time for attempting to blame the riots on government cuts, Lammy took a much more nuanced position.

"That wasn't my argument at the time, partly because the cuts hadn't cut into a sufficient level," he tells me.

However, it is Johnson's initial refusal to return for the riots that Lammy is scathing about. For him, it was the moment that revealed the mayor's true character.

"The story I always think of with Boris is the story that my father used to read to me which is the emperor has no clothes. That fable unravels in this place where you have got the emperor standing there naked and it takes a young child to point out that he's naked and everyone else has gone along with the party and pretending that he has clothes.

"And it's important to emphasise that the worst reaction to Boris when he came back for the riots was not the reaction in Tottenham but the reaction in Clapham.

"It was a very fierce reaction. There was a sense in which, this guy is naked. Our shops have just been burnt to the ground, our homes are being burnt to the ground, people are losing their lives and the leadership is not there.

"On the most serious issues Boris is not the bristling shiny politician that he is on the less serious issues."

Johnson's other response has been to purchase three second hand water cannon to deal with future troubles in the capital. Lammy thinks this is a mistake.

"I think it is a worrying development when we say that London in 2014 is somehow akin to Northern Ireland in the 1980's and 90's. That's not the London I recognise when we actually have crime going in the opposite direction," he tells me.

He also doubts the water cannon could ever be deployed.

"I think there are real issues as to whether they will ever be used. I actually can't see a scenario in which those emerging hours in which we lost control of the streets in Tottenham and that that they would have been deployed because I can't see how it could have fitted and actually worked.

"So I don't think it is the right response to the riots.

"The right response is surely the right and appropriate policing and it is also ensuring that people have sufficient stake in the capital city. People with a job and a mortgage and a stake in the city do not riot."

In order to let people have that stake in the city, Lammy has said that his main priority as mayor would be to tackle London's housing crisis. Last month he released a document outlining plans to cap rents, build social housing and tackle the spread of high rise flats across London.

It's a serious and thoughtful document, but it also feels incredibly ambitious.

Last year just 16,000 houses were built across London. Lammy wants to raise that figure to over 60,000.

In order to achieve that, Lammy backs building on London's green belt. This would be hugely controversial. However, Lammy thinks the argument can be won.

"It seems to me to be paradoxical that we're selling playgrounds in central London in order to save car parks by the M25, or quarries or wasteland or indeed some golf courses," he says.

"Now there's loads of the greenbelt that you absolutely want to preserve and that might be through a system of swaps, so you swap back in, but the point is in principle is a system that was established 70 years ago, should it have no review at all? My opinion is not."

"You have to be honest about it."

Some of the other plans in the document seem to contradict this however. While backing a huge rise in housebuilding, he opposes the spread of high rise flats. Surely stopping one will prevent the other?

"No that's not true. If you actually look at the densest area of London, it's Pimlico where it's all terraced housing."

"My view is not to say one is fundamentally against high rise but in an age when we do need to buy housing can we please not make the mistakes of the past.

"And I say that hand on heart. Because I meet a lot of planners, I meet a lot of architects, I meet a lot of politicians. None of them grew up on a housing estate. Many of them don't even go into housing estates."

This is one of many references in our conversation to Lammy's upbringing in a poor working class area of London.

He insists his upbringing has made him want to "spread opportunity" across London. However, it is also clearly part of his political brand.

When leading UK politicians are currently under fire for being out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people, Lammy hopes to stand out as an ordinary Londoner, with ordinary concerns.

But before he can do that Lammy needs to get himself selected as Labour's candidate. He's hired a small team of spinners and campaign workers and already has the backing of at least one Labour donor Trevor Chinn.

Chinn is a prominent figure in the capital and has also worked with the current mayor Bois Johnson on his charitable board the Mayor's Fund for London. Other senior figures in the capital are thought to be backing his campaign.

Unlike his Labour predecessor, Lammy also has a good relationship with London's only city-wide newspaper the Evening Standard.

He praises the paper's recent campaigns on homelessness and sport. And when he announced his campaign for mayor, he did it in the Evening Standard and on its sister TV channel London Live.

"I like the editor (Sarah Sands) I get on with the editor, so I think the Evening Standard is obviously an important paper," he adds.

Another step on his mission to become mayor has been a mini makeover.

First to go were his trademark glasses. So why get rid of them now I ask? Was it merely a coincidence? He laughs.

"I've worn glasses since I was seven or eight. I used to have those sort of national health specs. But it was my wife's 40th birthday present to lose them because I just wanted the burden of them gone so I actually had them lasered."

But was the timing deliberate? He smiles.

"I like to give speeches without notes and there is something about having a barrier with the electorate so it's certainly coincided very well."

Without the glasses, Lammy looks very different. In fact so different that when I first saw him on television without them it took me a few seconds to recognise him.

"Yes, as a political ploy it may have been completely the wrong one as people won't know who the hell I am," he laughs again.

Lammy is not the current favourite to become Labour's candidate for mayor according to the bookies.

His plans are also at a very early stage, with almost no sign yet of what his views are on transport, which is the mayor's single biggest responsibility.

However, after speaking to him for an hour I come away with the impression that he would be a formidable candidate.

After eight years of Johnson, it's easy to imagine that Londoners could be persuaded to choose a mayor more closely connected with the concerns of London.

And if Lammy is determined enough, then there's no reason why that person could not be him.

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