David Lammy is a lighthouse in British politics: he seeks out rocky outcrops of injustice, where he sees the elite failing the people, and brings them into the light of public scrutiny. He labelled the Grenfell fire a “monstrous crime” and “corporate manslaughter” in the days after the tragedy. The most recent injustice at which he has directed his fire is the “systemic institutional issues” at the heart of our own university’s admissions policy.
“You cannot describe Oxford in any sense as an inclusive environment that reflects our country,” he tells me. “It’s more exclusive than the House of Commons in terms of social background and diversity, or the room for criminal barristers at the Old Bailey.”
He is speaking to Cherwell shortly after a series of freedom of information requests he submitted revealed the extent of elitism in Oxford’s application process. Namely: that in the years 2010-15, 82% of Oxford’s students came from the top two social classes, that Oxford makes more offers to five of the home counties than it does to the entirety of the North of England, and that 13 Oxford colleges did not make a single offer to a black A-level applicant.
Many of those defending the university in the media since these revelations surfaced have argued that diversity would come at the cost of lower standards.
But Lammy is not entertaining this possibility. “Let’s not even have a debate about lowering standards. There are young people who are able to go to Oxford on the grades that they have.”
For now, he believes the debate should centre on how Oxford is reaching those young people. He believes Oxford should be “actively writing to the students who are getting outstanding A*s in GCSEs: ‘Please come to us, please apply, you can come for free.’”
Lammy, who attended Harvard, highlights how the majority of this year’s intake at the prestigious American institution will be non-white. This makes him “conscious of what is possible… the truth is in America the schools are considerably worse than they are in the UK. And yet, Harvard and Yale reflect America to a much greater extent than Oxford and Cambridge.”
To drive the point home, he brings up the issue that one suspects will remain closest to his heart for the rest of his life. “A child who is on the twenty-second floor of Grenfell Tower, who is, despite all the disadvantages of school, the disadvantages of parenthood, the disadvantages of space to revise, who gets one A* and two As, is probably brighter than the child who gets three A*s at Eton.”
His simple message – that children who have the talent should be given the opportunity – has resonated across the political spectrum. Even Michael Gove tweeted that he “<3 David Lammy”, and agreed that blame shifting should be sidelined to end this inequality.
In some of Lammy’s fiercest remarks, he told me that Oxford “should be leading the debate about access and social mobility, not hiding under the bushes, reluctant to hand out data, reluctant to be transparent and instinctively blaming schools and educational inequality for the problem that they have.”
Regardless of your interpretation of the facts, it is indisputable that Oxford should regularly publish their data. Behind the worrying figures is the less headline-grabbing but equally sinister story of Oxford administrators attempting to block Lammy’s investigation at every opportunity.
Lammy described the university as “aggressively resistant” to giving him the data, and when it finally did agree to, after being informed that The Guardian was planning on publishing a story on it, they presented it in such an unintelligible fashion it took plenty of hard work to interpret the results.
Students, he believes, can “play a really, really important role” in fixing the issue. The exceptional colleges that buck the trend – Mansfield and Somerville, among a few others – do so because they have “student officers really obsessed with the issue of getting access to these young people.”
One could infer that Lammy believes students at Oriel and Teddy Hall – where just one and two black British A-level students respectively have been admitted in the last six years – could become a little more “obsessed.”
But in the grand scheme of things, these social justice warriors face insurmountable barriers. Lammy believes the basic problem lies within the college system. “A college-based admission system will always mitigate against progress in this area. Centralised faculties have to recruit so that you do not get the disparity across colleges.”
Within the Oxford bubble, transferring the responsibility of recruitment from colleges to faculty is an almost unthinkable revolution.
Just last week, Louise Richardson was hounded by various college academics for suggesting that the processing of taxi receipts, among other back office functions, could be centralised to save money.
To erode what many believe to be the lifeblood of a college’s autonomy, its ability to recruit who it wants, is bound to create a fierce backlash from some of Oxford’s more trenchant dons.
On Brexit, Lammy is similarly scathing of the Tory government which he believes is attempting to “hijack our democracy.”
“The people were sold Brexit on the basis that we would be taking back control. We are now seeing an attempt to hide the impact assessments that the government has done and not reveal them to the general public, and to thwart the democratic sovereignty of our parliament by not giving parliament a proper meaningful vote before the deal.”
This, and the government’s refusal to publish its Brexit impact assessments, amounts to what Lammy believes are “dictatorial attempts to thwart democracy, which will only split this country apart even further”.
“It’s clear that nothing that is now coming out of the government suggests that this is in the national interest of our country. We’ve moved a long way from the sunlit uplands of this is going to be easy, the EU is going to be begging us for a trade deal, the world is going to be begging us for a trade deal.”
Lammy believes that students can play a pivotal role in resist such ‘dictatorial’ attempts. They must “resist, resist resist. Protest, campaign, write – make it clear that you will not vote for parties that are intent on Brexit.”
Two days after the referendum, Lammy did his own resisting on Twitter, stating that parliament should ignore the referendum result – out of step with the front bench of his party.
He does, however, optimistically note that “the Labour Party is travelling on the issue of Brexit… Labour is an internationalist party, and it’s working people who will suffer as a consequence of leaving the European Union. I would hope that our front bench position continues to evolve.”
The bulk of backbenchers, on both sides of the aisle, who believe in their heart of hearts that this policy goes against the country’s national interest, are very slowly creeping towards the position Lammy reached just two days after the referendum.
His message to those MPs is: “Put our country first. Put our country first. Be brave and courageous about what is in the national interest of our country.
For a man who has pitted himself against those responsible for the Grenfell tragedy, against what he sees as outdated admissions practices at the country’s finest university, and against a government – and potentially even electorate – insistent upon us leaving the EU whatever the cost, Lammy clearly does not check the odds before picking his battles.
His source of inspiration and hope in these fights is the millennials – “a fantastic generation”. He is less affectionate towards baby boomers “who basically heated up the world and gave us climate change, spent too much money and gave us the 2008 crash, and now seem to be giving us a populism.”
It remains to be seen whether our generation will resist the “bumpy decade” of “reactionism” and “xenophobia” that Lammy believes the UK is in for.
Lammy’s optimism for the UK, and his own career, is grounded in the gamble that us millennials will give him a helping hand in the fights ahead. A proactive group of Oxford students might not be a bad bunch to start with.