In some ways, London Mayor Boris Johnson looks like the quintessential Londoner. Fair skinned, white haired, and toothy—even if not all the teeth are in the right place. Or maybe he looks like the quintessential Londoner at one point in the city’s history, when London was white and fair-skinned, before the immigrants that now comprise more than a third of Londoners—from the Middle East, from North Africa, from Russia—arrived. Since 2001, the population of every demographic increased in London, except for British-born Caucasians, whose numbers decreased. Instead, London is now home to, for example, more than 200,000 Bangladeshis—the second largest concentration of Bangladeshis outside of Bangladesh. When forty percent of London is now non-white, Johnson seems something of a paradox: educated at Eton and Oxford, and with a penchant for messy hair and Latin quotations, he smacks of old London. He has decided to plunge into parliamentary politics next May, and will likely not stand for re-election to the mayoralty in 2016.
David Lammy, a member of Parliament for the low-income, high-crime neighborhood of Tottenham in North London, has been one of the first to throw his hat into the ring for mayor. In many ways he is Johnson’s antithesis: Johnson is in the Conservative Party, Lammy the Labour Party; Johnson was educated at Oxford, Lammy at Harvard Law School (HLS). Perhaps most importantly, if in a superficial sense, Johnson is white (descended from George II) and Lammy is black.
The election is still eighteen months away, and Lammy will surely face opposition for the Labour nomination, but his early entrance into the race has given him something of an advantage. Born in Tottenham in 1972 to Guyanese parents, Lammy won a scholarship to the selective King’s School. To support his family financially, he worked a number of jobs: at KFC and as a security guard, among others. He attended the School of Oriental and African Studies, then became the first black Briton ever educated at HLS. To many, he seems emblematic of the new London: “Lammy’s life signifies the struggle that so many immigrant and first-generation Londoners face, but also the opportunity that the city holds for them,” said Carlene Miller ’13, one of Lammy’s former summer interns.
Tottenham has not proved an easy constituency to represent. Nevertheless, Lammy seems to have “passed with flying colors,” as Miller put it. The London riots in the summer of 2011 were a notable and testing event in Lammy’s career. In 2011, in the span of 24 hours, his constituency was transformed from a vibrant urban center into a nexus of violent, with destructive riots that lasted three days and spread throughout England. Lammy was among the first political figures to react to the riots and quickly released a statement calling for peace. His 2011 book Out of the Ashes provides a nuanced analysis of the motivations for the riots. Breaking with United Kindgdom (UK) Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim that the riots were criminal, pure and simple, Lammy asserted that their origins could be traced to the poverty, poor living conditions, and socioeconomic strife in Tottenham. He criticized Margaret Thatcher, former UK prime minister, and her four successors for creating a consumerist, greed-obsessed British culture, and in the process won much praise from liberals. “His response to the riots really distinguishes him from other London politicians,” said Harry Peto, a student of politics at Clare College, Cambridge, member of the Labour Party, and London resident.
Lammy’s place in the current Labour Party is unclear. “He tends to be opportunistic in his voting patterns,” said Peto, citing Lammy’s votes for the Iraq War in 2003 and airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) recently as examples of Lammy’s opportunism. “Lammy is a break with the Blairite ideology [an attempt to reconcile socialism and neoliberalism], even if he’s not that radical,” Peto continued. “He’s certainly not someone who will reinstitute Clause Four, but he might support the renationalization of the railroads,” Peto said, alluding to a section of the Labour manifesto, expunged by Tony Blair, which vowed to nationalize key industries. Partly, this possible support for rail re-nationalization derives from the high cost of transport in the London area, a point Lammy has driven hard. Lammy will face opposition from fellow Labour candidates, particularly Sadiq Khan, a current South London MP and the son of Pakistani immigrants. Lammy’s effective and hands-on response to the riots of August 2011, though, might garner him favor among voters. A primary between Khan and Lammy would be a tight affair.
Nevertheless, is Lammy truly ready to take on the larger role of governing a city of eight million people? Certainly, he has proved an enthusiastic and able MP. Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, another former Lammy summer intern and now a graduate student in history at Clare College, Cambridge, notes, “Lammy has a very secure Labour seat, but he spends a lot of time on the ground in Tottenham. He does constituent work incredibly well. He knows his constituents, and they know him.” This may be, in part, because his district contains only 80,000 people in a dense area. Becoming mayor of London would make Lammy the representative for a city that lies at the center of world structures.
Lammy seems to be up to the task. The nature of the new London, with its finance-based economy, has proved divisive. As bankers move in, lifelong residents are priced out. The London housing crisis has prompted many an op-ed and much consternation among politicians, and Lammy has so far staked much of his mayoral bid on the subject. “One of the areas where he strikes a chord in the U.K. is the question of housing,” said Zelinsky. “It’s readily apparent that housing prices are skyrocketing, especially in London.” In a piece published in the New Statesman in February, Lammy proposed a flexible system of rent controls for London, in which rents would be required to be similar to other properties in the area and would only be permitted to rise by a certain percentage each year. Londoners simply cannot afford to live in their city any more, he said, and the government must do something about it. Lammy has also declared his support for a program of increased housing construction in London, and has set as a target 63,000 new homes per year. True to Zelinsky’s word, this rhetoric did indeed strike a chord—in May 2014, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, suggested that a system of rent controls should be implemented nationwide.
Under the Blair government, Lammy served for three years as the Minister for Innovations, Universities, and Skills, but his most significant university-related action took place after the Conservatives won power. In December 2010, he published an op-ed in The Guardian decrying the state of diversity at Britain’s two top universities—Oxford and Cambridge. Data obtained by his Freedom of Information request revealed stunning truths about the Oxbridge system: black students were dramatically underrepresented, with 21 Oxbridge colleges accepting no black students in 2009. This disparity was not only racial but also economic and geographic, since the universities tended to accept far more students from the prosperous South than from the economically depressed North. Lammy’s criticism of this situation at two of Britain’s most prestigious universities suggests that his political thinking focuses on full equality of opportunity for all Britons.
Lammy is also a strong advocate of gay rights. In a speech in the House of Commons, he advocated the legalization of same-sex marriage and argued that the restriction of this right is another representation of the “separate but equal” fallacy. His critics argued that this so-called “playing the race card” was not only unfair but also offensive. Lammy’s cause won the day, though, and the bill passed despite the votes against it. His position on gay rights is indicative of his willingness to address broader societal challenges in the United Kingdom. Lammy might be able to show the same activist zeal on issues such as housing and transport as he has on gay rights and diversity at Oxbridge.
While it would not signal a great change for London, electing Lammy in 2016 would acknowledge that change—racial, economic, and social—has already occurred. As mayor, Lammy would stand at the forefront of the new London, much as he already does, and serve as its global ambassador. Better him than Johnson, because Lammy properly represents what London has now become. Moreover, he might take London in a more leftist direction. “Anyone who wants to see a London that is more inclusive and open to opportunities for all, regardless of race, socioeconomics, religion, gender, or sexual orientation should vote for Lammy,” said Miller.
Should the Conservatives form a government after the general election in May 2015, as seems increasingly possible, Lammy as mayor would provide an interesting counterpoint, with a Labour politician running the U.K.’s economic core. While a Lammy administration might not prove a roadblock for the financial industries of the city, it could further open London to immigrants from the world over, and make London into an even more international metropolis than it is today. Such a shift would surely benefit the city. England may try to hang onto the historical, homogenous notion of Englishness, but in London, that was lost long ago to successive waves of immigrants. Along with New York and Hong Kong, London is among the three leading international cities. Now it has the opportunity to take its place at the pinnacle of the international order while ensuring that its people can still afford to live in their city and receive the services they need. Lammy has the background and skills to make him the candidate best able to accomplish these goals. It would do London good to choose him in 2016.