Mike Phipps reviews Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography, by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton, published by Biteback
Diane Abbott was the first person to do a great many things. As Jeremy Corbyn told the authors, “The first black woman councillor, the first black woman MP, the first black shadow Home Secretary” – to which can be added the first black person to represent their party at Prime Minister’s Questions.
From early on, Abbott felt like an outsider. One of only three black pupils in a suburban primary school, and academically outstanding, still she was never invited to her best friend’s house, not even for a birthday party, despite their being inseparable at school. At grammar school, one teacher refused to mark her work, on the grounds that her essay was so good it must have been copied from elsewhere.
At Cambridge University, despite radical causes playing an influential role in the early 1970s, Abbott played little part in student politics, but she was elected the first student member to the history faculty board.
After university, she got a job in the civil service, working in the Home Office’s prisons department, at a time when it did not release information on the numbers of black people incarcerated. She moved on to the National Council for Civil Liberties, but found it an unsatisfyingly “white world”, then did a stint in TV news, founding the Black Media Workers’ Association. She began writing for The Leveller and London Labour Briefing, but became disillusioned with collectives where “the people with the most social capital and the most confidence dominate.”
The early part of the book is as much an account of the exciting political times that Diane Abbott lived through as a personal biography, particularly insofar as events of the day affected black people – the New Cross Fire, the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone, the fight for Labour Party black sections, the rise of Thatcher. Of the Brixton Riots of 1981, Abbott said: “For people of my generation, the Brixton Riots were totemic… the riots were the dividing line between post-colonial politics and a very new politics….based on the reality that young people faced on the streets.”
Although she had been a member for some years, local Labour Party branch officers were unwilling to let Abbott attend a branch meeting. To younger readers, that may come as a shock, but in the 1970s, it was not unheard of for new members unofficially to be told, “Sorry, we’re full.” Nonetheless, she was elected the first black member of Westminster Council in 1982, battling regularly with Council Leader Shirley Porter, London’s leading Thatcherite.
In 1985, Diane Abbott went up against Ken Livingstone for the safe Labour seat of Brent East and learned that politics could be equally rough within the left. Livingstone allegedly leaked a discussion paper authored by Abbott, which his supporters had substantially rewritten to call for the abolition of the monarchy, disbanding of the police and the “elimination” of the Labour leadership – as a way of trying to discredit her. This ‘fake news’ allegation of extremism would follow Abbott around for years.
When Abbott finally won the Hackney North and Stoke Newington parliamentary selection contest against sitting left wing MP Ernie Roberts, Party officers “looked like their dog had died”. Roberts alleged foul play and complained to national newspapers that he was considering a legal challenge, disappointing for one of the more socialist MPs at the time and another sign of a lack of comradeship within the left.
The attitude of the Labour leadership was equally hostile. In June 1986, Abbott was invited to appear on the BBC’s current affairs show Question Time. Repeated attempts to get a briefing by Party officials, as is the norm for Labour figures appearing on the show, were stonewalled. Abbott concluded: “They would rather I fucked up than have any credibility at all.” Some things change little, as Labour’s leaked governance and legal unit report underlined this year.
A similar attitude prevailed following her election in 1987: it took the whips eight months to allocate her a parliamentary office, shared with three other MPs, with neither typewriter or word processor. She served on the Treasury Select Committee until 1997, but was moved by the whips to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 1997, so they could minimise criticism from the left of New Labour economic policy. Labour whips even followed Abbott around in the tea room to ensure she wasn’t wreaking her “toxic influence on innocent new MPs.”
There’s a real sense of Diane Abbott’s career progression grinding to halt in these years. New Labour never bothered to put her abilities to good use, so like the other left MPs in the Campaign Group, she could at most use Parliament as a platform to raise issues and her status as an MP to advance causes, such as the issue of educational underachievement among black children. Alongside a minority of socialist Labour MPs, she rebelled frequently against the Labour whip, rather than pursue office, and like them, history shows she was usually right, especially on the Iraq war and the erosion of civil liberties. Her 2008 speech against the Brown government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill and its proposal to extend the length of time a suspect could be held before being charged with terrorist offences to 42 days, won her the Spectator Parliamentarian Speech of the Year Award and a Liberty Human Rights Award.
When Labour lost office in 2010 and Ed Miliband became leader, Abbott was made shadow Minister for Public Health. Her ground-breaking leadership bid in 2010, encouraged, astonishingly, by Harriet Harman, had increased her authority in the parliamentary party. Although she came last, in the hustings she set the agenda that others had to respond to, just as Jeremy Corbyn did, to much greater effect, five years later.
In 2013, Abbott played a pivotal role in getting the Labour front bench to oppose the Coalition’s proposed air strikes against Syria. As a result, the House of Commons defeated the government’s plan to bomb, which compelled the US President Obama, now internationally isolated, to drop the idea. The book doesn’t emphasise this, but in my view it was probably one of the most important things Abbott ever did. Six weeks later, however, she was booted off the front bench.
After Labour’s defeat in 2015, the Campaign Group met to consider a candidate. Jeremy Corbyn agreed it was probably his turn to stand. Before the meeting was over, Diane Abbott had tweeted out the news, making it a fait accompli. In London, where she was running to be Labour’ mayoral candidate, they teamed up for joint events.
Corbyn’s victory of course did not mean total control of the Party and the Shadow Cabinet was still dominated by the right. Abbott got International Development, speaking out against an extension of British military action in Syria, to the fury of the Party bureaucracy. Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn led the call for air strikes and took half the Shadow Cabinet with him, ensuring a Tory government victory. Abbott was unimpressed, commenting: “The thing about Hilary Benn is he sounds like an effective speaker because he sounds like his father.”
It was Benn who began coordinating the ‘chicken coup’ against Corbyn following the Brexit referendum. The Labour right had planned in advance to heap the blame for the result on Corbyn, despite the fact that he had spoken at rallies across the country, launched Labour’s ad campaign, written two op-eds for national newspapers and made more than 120 media appearances during the campaign. Maximum pressure was applied to Corbyn to resign, but Abbott, according to John McDonnell, was “steady as a rock”, and critical to the survival of the Project, denouncing the plotters against Corbyn as people without a mandate and accusing them of trying to “destroy him as a person”.
Following the mass resignations by right wingers from the Shadow Cabinet, Abbott became Shadow Health, and early in 2017, Shadow Home Secretary. She was encouraged to push for it, perhaps surprisingly, by Keith Vaz, who was not a natural left winger, but attracted by the symbolism of a black Shadow Home Secretary. But her rising profile attracted growing hostile media coverage, some based on anonymous briefings by embittered PLP members.
In spring 2017, Prime Minister May called a snap election, and Labour began its campaign over 20 points behind in the opinion polls. A low point for Abbott was a garbled answer she gave in an LBC interview – the only glitch in several media appearances that day – but the response on social media was a torrent of sexist and racist abuse. Amnesty International reckoned that, of all the abusive tweets received by MPs in the 2017 campaign, 45% were sent to Diane Abbott.
The Tories pounced on the LBC incident to build a broader narrative that Abbott was a threat to national security. In fact, Abbott’s temporary loss of focus was probably caused by physical exhaustion, linked to the diabetes she was later diagnosed with. So concerned was Keith Vaz, himself a diabetic, that, to the horror of his campaign team, he left his constituency in Leicester on election day to rush to London to try to persuade Abbott to see a doctor.
Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in 2017 was also reflected in Abbott’s own constituency result. In 1987, she had won her first election with a majority of 7,500. In 2017 it rose to 35,139.
As Shadow Home Secretary, she had plenty of issues on which to challenge the government from Grenfell Tower to the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. On the Windrush scandal, recognising how Home Office deportation targets, whose existence Home Secretary Amber Rudd denied, had contributed to the mistreatment of those involved, Abbott was one of the first to call for the Home Secretary’s resignation.
This is a political biography, so there’s little about Diane Abbott’s personal life. That’s understandable, but it makes for a rather dry read. After nearly 500 pages, she comes across as a talented, high-achieving, assertive trailblazer, rooted in her community, but there’s not much sense of Abbott as a family person, a holidaymaker, her hobbies, tastes in music, what makes her happy, sad or angry – despite an entire chapter devoted to her TV appearances.
On one level, Diane Abbott’s political career could be seen as a failure. She never achieved high office, or any office, even when Labour was in power for thirteen years. But this reading would be mistaken. She is an important figure, not only because she forged a path for other black women to follow, but also because she recognised throughout her career something fundamental. Pushing for what’s right, equality, justice and democracy is not something you do only from the standpoint of government, but wherever you find yourself in politics with any kind of platform. It’s on this basis that her political achievement should be measured.