Diane Abbott was elected MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987. We are sitting outside a cafe in her constituency, reminiscing about her fondest memory in politics, which arrived 10 years later: the 1997 general election and the sheer exhilaration of getting the tube, victorious, to Labour’s landslide celebration party in the Royal Festival Hall, strangers shouting congratulations.
“What happened afterwards was another story,” she notes with comic grimness. She never even tried to be New Labour and disagreed with Tony Blair on basically every tenet, from privatisation through civil liberties to foreign policy.
You would not have called the 66-year-old a radical pinko growing up, though. Her new authorised biography, by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton, tells how she was raised in Harrow in the 50s and 60s, her mother a nurse, her father a sheet-metal worker. They had emigrated in their teens from the same town in Jamaica. She was engaged and analytical, but not a firebrand; certainly, when she was at Cambridge in the early 70s, the vibe overall was anarchic, but she was much more interested in mending the system than smashing it, as her first career move – going to work for the Home Office – attested.
But while she did not join the Labour party to be a thorn in its side, she did not find it especially welcoming. She recalls how, when she won her seat in 1987, after displacing the sitting Labour MP, Ernie Roberts, a party officer “turned and looked at me in a very unhappy way and said: ‘Poor old Ernie.’” A few weeks later, a regional officer said, “not in a completely unpleasant way: ‘We had no idea you would win. If we’d known, we would have done something.’”
So began her journey in Labour, with broad support in her community and among members of her constituency party, but a lot of hostility from key members outside it. At the start, she notes: “The national party didn’t think it was anything to be proud of, to have elected a black woman.” It was, however, the first time any British party had; she is now the longest-serving black MP in parliament.
As Blair’s euphoric victory unfurled, it was into a programme she rarely agreed with. Her rebellion hit its apex when she voted against the war in Iraq, which almost everyone now thinks was a bad idea. At the time, though, it was career death to say so. She could see that she was never going to be in the inner circle, let alone in cabinet. So, in 2003, she started sharing a sofa with the former Tory defence secretary Michael Portillo on BBC One’s current affairs show This Week. It became essential viewing, with the two politicians talking about their parties, and politics generally, with disarming frankness. There was a lot of familiarity and affection between them; they had known each other as teenagers, when they were part of the same am-dram group in Harrow.
Had Abbott been of a more centrist, it would have had that nauseating green-room chumminess – Westminster politicians more interested in each other than any cause. Because she was so solidly on the left of the party and she and Portillo were irreverent and maverick in their own ways, it had quite a different vibe, a kind of political Beavis and Butt-Head.
Anyway, this was quite a long time ago, but it contains clues to the way Labour – and Abbott – operated in those days. It was always put about that, with this gig, she threw away her political career in favour of a media one. She scoffs at this idea: “The leadership tried to cover itself by saying: ‘Oh, she gave up on the idea of going on the frontbench.’ No. There was never any possibility of me going on the frontbench.”
Years later, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she was not just frontbench material, but the shadow home secretary. Elements of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP), unhappy with the party’s change of direction, were particularly hostile to Abbott. Her biography reports: “If the leaked report on antisemitism in the Labour party is to be believed, this faction-fighting targeted Abbott.” Certainly, that is how it came across to the bystander – whenever anyone described a fiery PLP meeting, Abbott was always involved. (In 2015, for example, the MP Jess Phillips claimed to have told Abbott to “fuck off” during a row about women in the shadow cabinet, although Abbott later denied that they had clashed.) Given that almost half of all abusive tweets sent to British politicians in the run-up to the 2017 election were directed at Abbott, the question has to be asked: did the racism and misogyny that motivate the trolls permeate even her own party at various times over the past three decades? She says airily: “It was certainly motivated by prejudice.” Then, laughing, she adds: “In the old days, a lot of members of the PLP were quite outraged that I was on television once a week and they weren’t. It caused a certain amount of bitterness.”
Abbott has a pattern, particularly noticeable when you read the biography, of fighting racism as a cause, but either laughing it off when it relates to her personally, or only recognising it much later. That was her reaction to the teacher at Harrow county school for girls who could not believe she had not plagiarised her work; the faceless, endemic prejudice at Cambridge; the completely monocultural Home Office she joined in 1976; the senior Labour MP who, when Abbott became an MP and was making small talk about Christmas, asked if they “practised Christianity” in Jamaica. Prejudice is deadly serious when it relates to others, but, speaking for herself, she would cross the street before she would describe it with anything other than an amused resignation. “I refuse to make white people’s racism my problem. Because you can’t. Because it would destroy you, as a person.”
That is quite a highwire act, given that her life before, within and extramural to parliament has been built around fighting racism: professionally, as a race relations officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties; and as an activist, joining the Scrap Sus (a forerunner to stop and search) campaign and establishing the Black Sections group, “which was the Black Lives Matter of its day. It focused on constitutional issues, having more black MPs and so on. But that’s because, in the 80s, the left tended to fight its battles on constitutional issues.”
So you have to defer to her sheer length of experience when she says she does not think racism in public life has surged lately. “There’s a greater volume of racist comment now, but, when I was a brand new MP, if you wanted to send me racist abuse, you had to write it down, probably in green ink, and put it in the letterbox,” she says. “Now you can press a button, anonymously. That’s created a bulk of racist commentary, but racism has always been an issue.” She thinks Black Lives Matter is an inflection point, that people are talking about race in all kinds of quarters – publishing, journalism, business – where they were not before. But she also says, simply: “I think Brexit has poisoned the well.”
Ah, Brexit; perhaps more than any other frontbench figure, Abbott epitomised the party’s conundrum. Originally, she was a Bennite – opposed to the EU on grounds of a deficit of democracy and an ascendant corporatism. “We voted against Maastricht [the 1992 treaty that strengthened EU institutions and seeded the establishment of the euro]; we voted against everything that furthered EU integration.” Nevertheless, she recognised the leave project as a rightwing, xenophobic pitch – or, as she put it: “I started to be concerned about the little Englander aspect of the anti-EU campaigning. To be fair to Tony Benn, he was never a little Englander.” Plus, she listened to her constituents – they leaned strongly remain – and campaigned for Labour In during the referendum.
I suppose what I am looking for – now that all is lost, we are out of the EU, the Corbyn project is over and the Conservatives have emerged with the spoils – is frankness. What has she got to lose? Did she try to push Corbyn to take a remain position, given that it was her position? Does she think the party could have succeeded in winning the 2019 election, had it done that? To what does she attribute the deflation of faith in and enthusiasm for Labour between 2017 and 2019? She will give away a bit, but not much: “I said, in meetings of the shadow cabinet on this, you people cannot divide Jeremy from his base and his base is pro-remain.” So, perhaps in a roundabout way, she was arguing privately for Labour to take an explicitly remain position, given that was where its members were. But she emphatically will not chalk up the 2019 election result to the position – “strategic ambiguity” is the kindest term for it – it took instead. Rather, she blames a media that she says constantly pilloried Corbyn: “It was just relentless. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She then adds, in a sideswipe at Change UK: “Then they did this SDP thing – and just like the SDP they were never going to be an alternative party of government; they just helped the Tories to win.” (For the younger reader, in 1981, some big beasts of Labour split to form the Social Democratic party, in protest at Labour’s leftwards direction.)
Even before the last election, these arguments were in play – had Corbyn erred, or just been victimised into oblivion? – but so much has happened since then, and I am not even talking about the global pandemic. Two books have been released this month telling the “inside story” – Left Out, by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, and Owen Jones’s This Land – which paint a picture of an ever-decreasing circle around the leader, an atmosphere so bunkered that even a soldier as loyal as Abbott could not get on with the inner team and she and Corbyn’s head henchperson, Karie Murphy, were vowing revenge upon one another.
Abbott has no wish to set this record straight, saying only: “There are some accounts of events which are clearly refracted through people’s wish to go down well in history.” I can see the merit of that point, but I think, too, that she would go down better in history if she would reveal even a fraction of her inside story, a glimpse of her reflections. Instead, she draws a straight line between the so-called “chicken coup” in 2016, when Owen Smith challenged for the leadership, and any problem the project may have had subsequently; brooks no real difference between 2017 and 2019; and acknowledges no flaw beyond the fact that the leader was a “fundamentally nice person”. “He did his best to be nice to people, to put his arms around them, and they weren’t nice back. And poor Jeremy was really shocked. Because he had never had power before, so there was never any reason for people not to be nice to him. Dismissive, maybe, but not not nice.”
At this point, we are both sort of laughing, because the language is so … well, playground. She makes another run at the point: “People can criticise Jeremy now, but he held together a coalition – Bennites, people who were greens, people who were trades unionists, all those new people that came in under his leadership – he held it all together.”
Oh come on, I say: what Momentum member was not also green? What Bennite was not pro-trade unions? He held together a coalition of people who agreed with him – and he only held that together until the referendum.
“It’s very easy to look at it from a purely Westminster bubble,” she says.
God, but she is loyal. Even of Keir Starmer, whom she is pretty salty about (“He had this great video at the beginning of the campaign which, if you didn’t know anything about him, would make you think he was at the heart of every left movement since the miners’ strike”), she settles on the line: “He won the leadership fair and square and you’ve got to respect the mandate.”
The biography goes into some incredible detail (her sixth-form essays get quite a close reading) and yet huge things happen in her personal life – her parents divorcing, her own divorce and all the scrutiny there was over the decisions she made as a single mother, such as sending her son to a fee-paying school – that are skated over in a couple of lines. “It’s a political biography,” she says, brusquely. “It wasn’t that kind of book.”
Which is fair enough, but, when it comes to carving your image in the cliff face of your party, it is convention to give some part of yourself away, some politically irrelevant but personally meaningful detail. The pessimist’s reading is that, having had such a rough ride – never mind the abuse on social media; I think the regular media was far more unfair to Abbott than it ever was to Corbyn – she has taken a decision not to disclose anything. The optimist’s reading is that she does not want to be an éminence grise, sacrificing her attitude for the sake of nostalgic affection. She won’t go softly into that good night. She is going to carry on raging like the pain-in-the-arse backbencher she never left behind.
Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton is available now, published by Biteback. To buy a copy for £16 (RRP £20), go to bookshop.theguardian.com. P&P charges may apply.