Current Affairs

David Lammy on racism, Putin’s chess playing and why socialism’s here to stay

Simon Usborne sat down with the Labour MP for Tottenham, who’s earning a reputation as one of Westminster’s most forthright and eloquent voices

Singing gave me my Billy Elliot moment. My biggest challenge growing up was being raised by a single parent from a poor background. I knew that I wanted a bigger life but didn’t have the networks to achieve it. Singing in the church choir and getting into Peterborough Cathedral choir got me into a very good state school. It opened up things that had felt so remote in Tottenham, like going to university.

I was quite a gauche, sensitive child. I was bullied, sometimes relentlessly. And there was quite a lot of racism in Peterborough. I remember kids would scratch out the golliwog on the Robinson’s jam jar and put ‘David’ by it. But I had the gift of the gab and could kind of hold my own in a scrape.

To relax, I go and watch Spurs [he laughs]. No, I’m passionate about film, and sometimes when my staff can’t find me I’m at the Curzon in Victoria. I also cook and do a really good jerk chicken. I couldn’t share my secret spice mix with you but I can tell you the ginger’s quite important.

I loved being a lawyer but I found that, during those early days going into court and into prison cells, defending people, I kept coming back to ‘why?’. Why is this young person in prison? Why is this business about to go bust? That took me to policy. I find being a politician – a representative of people who haven’t got a voice – the most rewarding thing I could possibly imagine and I feel blessed every day.

I have a big phobia of birds. It probably began when I was about four and went back to Guyana in South America, where my parents were from. We were in the countryside and chickens would be flapping up beneath me and mud and feathers would be going everywhere. It was a horrific feeling. I go nowhere near pigeons; walking across Trafalgar Square is terrifying for me.

The worst thing about my job is that I think we’ve got to a place in society where a lot of the motivations of politicians are questioned. People assume you’re a venal bastard out for yourself. That can be dispiriting.

My only real extravagance is travel. I love travelling and tend to go abroad with my family. We can usually all be found somewhere on a beach.

The world is divided because, since the 2008 crash, hardship and austerity is real for people across the developed world. At the same time, a technological revolution means we have fewer semi-skilled jobs. Politicians at both extremes of left and right are exploiting that – and blaming immigrants – and so are foreign powers. I think Putin is one of the best chess players globally at the moment.

Do I see Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister? Well, I do think that socialism is back to stay. I think there’s a public mood that means we have to address these profound issues of inequality, and that’s now an instinctive temperament for a whole generation. It’s a tide that can only continue.