Labour MP David Lammy speaks during a rally in Parliament Square as hundreds of thousands of people take part in the anti-Brexit 'Together for the Final Say' march through central London to demand a public vote on the outcome of Brexit on 19 October, 2019

David Lammy's plan to fight political polarisation

In his new book Tribes, the Labour MP says we must cooperate, communicate and compromise
March 2, 2020

In his fine, ambitious new book, Labour MP David Lammy unpacks one of the key struggles of our age: how we can fight the emotional and political polarisation of our modern tribes while satisfying the powerful need to belong.

Lammy begins by exploring his own complex identity. He takes us through his parents’ immigration from Guyana, his upbringing in Tottenham, and transformative experience as a choral scholar at Peterborough’s cathedral school. In one fascinating section, he visits Niger on the back of a DNA test and feels a sense of homecoming. Group identity can liberate the individual and make life meaningful.

He shows, though, how a hyper-connected world is making us lonelier than ever. It is not just the internet or social media, but austerity, the collapse of old industries and the proliferation of TV channels. We no longer experience the reassurance of traditional communities. This fragmentation breeds the dangerous tribalism of political extremism and online radicalisation. Lammy concludes that tribalism is destructive, but groups are not. In particular, he mounts a robust (and much needed) defence of identity politics as a means of guaranteeing equality for all.

Lammy is not short of ideas. He advocates the reorganisation of local government, subsidies for mass localism, a codified UK constitution, a citizens’ assembly to establish English values, and a global wealth tax. We must, he says, decentralise politically and share more space personally. He perhaps is on shakiest ground in his enthusiasm for civic nationalism and “creating national identity,” but acknowledges the implicit contradictions and risks.

Lammy writes with nuance and sensitivity and accepts the lack of easy answers. But his core message is simple. We must cooperate more, compromise more, communicate more. Only connect, but offline.

Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break the Good Society by David Lammy (Constable, £20)