I’m not Blair, I’m not Brown, I'm just Black

13 November 2008

It’s easy to be cynical about politics. Even after Barack Obama’s sensational victory, it’ll be easy for us to fall back into thinking that politicians live in the “Westminster bubble”, have no connection to ordinary people and are only interested in holding onto power, rather than wanting to achieve something positive. It’s easy to do that because that’s the vision of politics in the public eye, seen through the jaundiced eyes of journalists who’ve seen it all before.

This limited view is quickly dispelled when you actually meet people who get involved in politics at the level where it matters, the local level.

Once in a while, you meet a politician who can raise your hopes about politics and about what it can achieve. They help you to realise that they’re not all bastards.

David Lammy, the Universities Minister, came to speak to the Eastern region Fabian Society meeting, in the small building that the Cambridge Labour Party uses as its base. The meeting is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Newsnight, as Lammy faces a small audience of around thirty people, only two of whom are under the age of thirty. It’s a meeting that appears to provide very little tangible benefit for Lammy, but he throws himself into the discussion with gusto.

Lammy, as a black man who was able to attend Harvard University only after he had receieved a scholarship to attend Peterborough Cathedral school, is desperate to talk about equality and what we should do to achieve it. He lamented that the Labour Party “hasn’t talked to Middle England about equality since Attlee” and that, although he believes that Labour made Britain a much more tolerant place, equality had not been spoken about up-front in 1997.

Lammy is an unashamedly ideological politician in the best sense, as he said Labour politicians “have to talk about the values”. Lammy grew gradually more agitated as he made his case for the Labour Party being a self-labelled and proudly progressive party, rather than hiding behind the language of “Middle England”.

Although he talked extensively about the need for women’s equality and the need to “stand up to Enoch Powell”, he said that when we talk about equality, we are really talking about poverty. It was at this stage that he became more nakedly partisan, saying that “When you see these poor young people picking up knives that is the direct result of their parents suffering under the Conservatives.”

He claimed that Labour had been succeeding in fighting inequality, but had not articulated their success. Furthermore, he stated that the future lay with the left, saying “right-wing parties have to be in the place of George W. Bush, they have to use the politics of fear, to tell people that society is broken”.

Nonetheless, he recognised that even if the true believers who had come to see him speak were convinced by this, much of the rest of the country has its doubts about New Labour. He quickly cast aside the distraction of internal party squabbles by declaring, “I’m not Blair, I’m not Brown, I’m just black.”

He then returned to the main theme of his speech during a question and answer session with the audience, demanding that Labour be bolder in saying what they believe to be right. He scotched the idea that what Labour needs is compromise with the opposition and instead insisted that Labour should hammer home what it believed in. “I don’t want a progressive consensus, I want a progressive movement”.

Lammy gave the consistent impression who was absolutely assured that he was right and the opposition was wrong. Normally, this kind of inflexibility is not particularly attractive in a politician, not least as Lammy seemed to be barely containing anger when talking about the Conservatives, but in Lammy’s case it came across as genuine conviction that politics can achieve something and can help people achieve their potential.

After he had finished his talk, I spoke to him about his role as the Minister for Universities. Of course, the most controversial action of his department recently has been the public spat between his boss, John Denham, and Alison Richard, Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor, as to whether universities should be “engines for promoting social justice.”

Lammy made the government’s case simply and clearly, suggesting that it was in the best interests of universities to follow the advice of the government. “Surely the purpose of a quality liberal arts education is to extend it to as many people as you can, those who merit it and that has to be a partnership between universities, parents and schools. It’s got to come from all directions.” He moved on to praise what the government had already achieved in getting people into university and how that had helped the country.

“Without the 50% target, there would still be young people in this country not being able to go to our most selective universities. That’s not good for Britain plc, actually. So I think John Denham’s absolutely right. This isn’t about fixing it so that young people who are not of the appropriate standard are selected for universities. It is about recognising that we have to extend the net, we have to be honest about our history, a history that has obviously been riddled with class and a degree of elitism, but it’s about recognising excellence and quality, and extending that to everyone we can.

“It was a great privilege for me to have spent time at Harvard University. I can’t tell you how empowering that was for me personally, coming from my kind of background. I want that opportunity for any young people who merit it. That’s what the government is committed to.”

On the question of where the fault for low state school attendance at Oxbridge lies, Lammy was similarly moderate in his answer, doing his best to balance both sides of the argument, deftly suggesting “I never believed that this is a simplistic either/or. This is a discussion we must all share, both those selective universities and some of the perceptions that surround them, which are historical; both the outreach and open mind that is necessary to reach beyond one’s present condition.

“It is absolutely central that schools are open, that teachers seize opportunity for their pupils, wherever those schools are, that schools forge partnerships, and reach out beyond their neighbourhoods into our most selective universities. It’s something that parents have to be engaged in as well, so this isn’t an either/or. I think that’s simplistic intellectually and the debate becomes polarised and silly. It’s about all of us: universities, parents, young people and schools.”

In connection with this, I asked whether the government had been too narrow in its focus by attempting to push evermore young people into universities rather than into vocational courses. Lammy, who had previously been Minister for Skills, took this as an opportunity to highlight what he saw as an unrecognised success of the government and to criticise the Tories.

“We had 75,000 apprentices in 1997, because the programme had been so run down by the previous government. We’ve now got 250,000 and we’ve got an ambition to get one in five young people into apprenticeships. So that’s not something you can describe in any way as not doing enough.

“However, it is true to say that many of our colleagues in the media have never done an apprenticeship, their kids don’t do apprenticeships, they tend to be more focused on higher education. Both of these things have widened participation, giving people increasing opportunity to go to university and to do apprenticeships, which can be and should be, a route into higher skills and university as well. All of that must happen at the same time in a modern economy.”

I then moved onto the questions that had written next to them on my notes “try not to sound racist”. I asked him, in connection with his constituency and background growing up in a deprived area of London, why he thought that young black men statistically tend to underperform in British schools.

“Well, I think that’s for a whole host of reasons. I think that we have to defy low expectations, we have to ensure that there are the right role models within communities that people can recognise success beyond the odd hip-hop artist. We need to be in loco parentis, beyond school, with quality youth workers.

“I had this wonderful experience to experience life beyond Tottenham. I hadn’t been much beyond Tottenham before the age of 11; when I went to Peterborough it was the first time I’d been on a train. We have to open up opportunities beyond those that people see in front of them. There are issues of parenting and fatherhood that do need to be challenged as well.”

However, he also emphasised that we shouldn’t think about this in racial terms, but in terms of inequality and as a socio-economic problem.

“There are white working class – or not so working – estates in cities along the south coast, as well as whole tracts of the past industrial north, where these are as bad. You go to Salford, you go to Middlesborough, you go to towns like Scunthorpe, these are issues also for those sorts of communities.”

Following this, with a horrendous lack of self-awareness, asked if he found it patronising to be treated as a spokesman for the black community and as a black role model. Luckily for me, he doesn’t seem to mind being asked cockamamie questions like this, while expressing a clear wish not to be pigeonholed: “No, I think I accept it. Look, I have sought to talk about a wide range of issues. I have to accept that as the only elected black man in the government at this time that obviously there’s a responsibility that comes with that, but I’m not allowing that to limit me in the things I care about.”

Finally, I asked the life-long Tottenham fan whether Gordon Brown or Spurs would last longer in the Premiership (this was before ‘Arry ‘Oudini had taken over). He laughed this off and showed considerable optimism: “Look, Gordon Brown has got a lot of fight left in him; we’ve seen that over the last few weeks. The problems that we’ve had over the last year are deep enough not to confine them to the leadership of our party: we’re all in this together.

“The problems for Tottenham are deep and concerning. It’s a great club with a great history and I’ve been a supporter all my life. I can’t believe the season that we’ve had, but we will prevail, we are not going down.”

Lammy gave the impression of being that rare thing, a genuine politician, someone who believes what he says and is in politics for a reason other than personal gain and ambition. Even more surprisingly, he manages to combine a fiercely held set of beliefs and principles with a clear-headed, moderate temperament that shows a propensity for rational, sensible government. Granted, he seems unwilling to countenance much criticism of Labour or praise of the Tories, but he is a politician after all.

Above all else, he comes across as an incredibly and clear-sighted realistic politician. Well, apart from about Tottenham.