There was perhaps no greater contrast to Boris Johnson’s (highly successful) form of raffish celeb-charm politics than Labour MP David Lammy’s appearance at the Hay Festival almost immediately after the London mayor. In a somewhat smaller venue he discussed with Sky journalist Adam Boulton the deep causes of the riots of August 2011 and, crucially, suggested concrete policy changes to help tackle the problem in the future.
Alongside Chavs author Owen Jones, Lammy has been portrayed as the man who prophesied the riots – and was largely ignored by those he tried to warn, from Gordon Brown to the current government, that trouble was brewing. He saw a “hyper-individualistic” culture of free-market and socio-cultural liberalism that coupled with New Labour’s target-driven, criminalising culture that was “nationalising society”.
As evidence of how his warning’s were ignored, Lammy told of the publisher response to his work: “I wrote the book and took it to publishers and they were like, ‘Christ, this is all a bit gloomy… Then you get the riots, and the publisher says, ‘Wow, you have a book to go.’”
Lammy’s background and his sense of social justice made him peculiarly suited to understanding the roots of the riots. His aunt lived on the Broadwater Farm estate itself, epicenter of the recent riots; his father was a drinker and a gambler who left the family when Lammy was 12 – he found him, years later buried in a pauper’s grave in America. This is no privileged politician declaiming from the pulpit. “We have 12 million people in Britain living on housing estates”, working-class people, said Lammy, who were now a workless class. “You tend not to riot if you have a job and a mortgage,” said the MP.
Like the vast majority of the public, Lammy identified a unique aspect to the riots in the looting. “The faces… the joy. People seemed to feel they were playing Grand Theft Auto… that was chilling.” He also added that many of the rioters were not young, and that “it cut across race”.
So how, asked Boulton, should these terrible events be stopped from recurring? Lammy laid out several programmes: work for young people, a more representative Met police, better housing, maintaining council housing, and rent control were his solid policy suggestions to tackle deprivation, but there were also the social and cultural factors, such as a lack of male role models, a greater degree over a “Wild West” social media and the encouragement of US-style social groupings with a moral core present in his thinking. He even made, again, his controversial argument in favour of smacking and criticised the liberal middle-class elite from looking down on those who lived in higher-stakes settings.
Over the course of the hour, it was clear that the audience responded to Lammy’s serious, intelligent arguments. Lawyers, teachers and social workers got up to speak in support of his common-sense criticism of the “My Right entitlement culture”. Asked whether he might aim for front-bench politics – or Labour leader – he coyly replied, “I am mid-career, so let’s see what the future holds.”
Out of the Ashes by David Lammy is out now, published by Guardian Books