Interview: Diane Abbott on racism, the future for Labour and the personal toll that social media abuse takes
Racism and misogyny have almost always been part of the backdrop to Diane Abbott’s life, but they reached a fever pitch when she was shadow home secretary and a high profile ally of Jeremy Corbyn.
During the general election campaign in May 2017, Abbott did an interview with LBC radio in which she could not say how much it would cost to employ 10,000 police officers.
She had done six other interviews that morning without mishap, but the fluffed one went viral quickly and viciously, unleashing a torrent of abuse of the most serious kind.
After the campaign, Abbott described to a shocked group of fellow MPs the nature of the death threats and rape threats against her, and how her staff had to read the n-word again and again, on Twitter, email and on Facebook.
This was by no means the first time Abbott had suffered attacks, but the volume and nature of it was ghastly. Amnesty International studied Twitter mentions of 177 women MPs in the six weeks leading up to that election.
Nearly half of all abusive tweets – 45 per cent – were aimed at Abbott and were typically racial and gendered in nature.
How does that sort of abuse change you as a person and a politician? Speaking to Holyrood, Abbott gives her frank response.
“It has not changed me as a politician, it’s not changed what I believe in, it’s not changed the issues that I work on, but it is painful and it’s meant to be painful and it’s corrosive and it’s meant to do that as well,” she says.
“It’s really meant to drive you out of public life and I think I can say it’s not been successful in doing that.
“But sometimes people say ‘you must have a very thick skin’. I don’t have a thick skin. I find it very painful, but I’m committed to doing my job so I keep on keeping on.”
The attacks prompted a wave of impassioned support for Abbott, and her capacity to “keep on” in spite of it has won her much admiration.
But ask her where that resilience comes from, and her answer is perhaps surprising. “Well, I wouldn’t say I was much more resilient than other people,” she declares.
“I’ve had really great support from my friends, mostly women friends, not necessarily in politics at all, because there have been times when I’ve thought of giving up, that I couldn’t take all the abuse anymore, and it was my friends that said to me, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
She cites the trigger for considering ending her parliamentary career as being “a series of really ridiculous newspaper stories which were all kind of more or less invented”.
“I thought, I really can’t take this any more. And I spoke actually to Keith Vaz.” Vaz, who stood down from parliament last year, was one of four black Labour MPs to enter the Commons in 1987. “I rang him and said, I’m going to stand down. I’ve had enough.
“And he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘No, you can’t stand down, Diane, you have forgotten what it took for us to get here’.
“It’s the sense that you carry, in a general sense, people’s hopes with you, that helps to keep you moving forward.
“But I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying I have a particularly thick skin.”
What you need to get through it, she adds, are “strong beliefs and strong values and a commitment to making the world a better place”.
Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is one of Britain’s best-known politicians, but the woman behind the public façade is not public property.
The book is a political story with no detail about some of the big personal events in her life, such as her parents’ divorce when she was in sixth form (her mother, a nurse, moved to Huddersfield for work and Abbott stayed in London with her father and brother) or her own short-lived marriage to an architect, David Thompson, which produced a son, James, now 29 (there was no maternity leave and she returned to the Commons eight days after giving birth).
What the book does detail is a life of relentless campaigning, particularly for the rights of ethnic minorities and immigrants.
Abbott was born in 1953 to Julia and Reginald Abbott, who were from rural Jamaica, but had come to Britain independently of one another.
She describes them as economic migrants. “They were really the Windrush generation,” she says, “and to leave your home and your country and travel thousands of miles to make a better life in Britain does take courage, and so I suppose I inherited my courage from my parents.”
They lived initially in Paddington, which had a thriving Caribbean immigrant community, but they moved in the late 1950s when Reginald, a sheet metal worker described by Abbott as “very intrepid”, decided he wanted them to live in Harrow. In their part of Harrow, they were the only black family.
The young Diane went to the local primary school. She excelled academically and made friends, including a best friend with whom she spent every breaktime.
But she was never invited to her best friend’s house – not even for her birthday party. “I didn’t understand at the time,” she reflects in the book, “although in retrospect you see what’s going on.”
She passed the 11-plus, became the only black pupil at Harrow County School for Girls, the local selective school, applied for Cambridge (her head of year initially told her, “I don’t think you’re up to it,” to which she replied, “But I do, and that’s what matters, isn’t it?”), won a place at Newnham College (she only met one other black student in three years at the university), became a socialist (which she attributes to spending time surrounded by so many entitled people) and then started work as a civil servant in the Home Office.
In 1978 she joined the Labour Party while moving through jobs at the National Council for Civil Liberties, as a TV journalist with Thames Television and TV-AM, and as a press officer for the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. She was elected to Westminster City Council in 1982 and to parliament in 1987, becoming Britain’s first black female MP.
That’s the CV, but Abbott has “always kept one foot in the organised Labour movement and one foot in black politics”. In the 1970s, she made links with black women activists, lobbying hard to repeal stop and search laws being used to target black men, and working with the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD).
She was involved in black activism against a backdrop of the New Cross Fire, in which 13 young black people died, the Black People’s Day of Action, which followed in protest at state indifference to the deaths, and the Brixton riots.
In the late 1970s, Abbott had a relationship with Corbyn, then a left wing Haringey councillor, lasting less than a year, though they lived together briefly and famously went on a motorcycle holiday to France (not to Eastern Europe, as was later rumoured).
Due to her association with Livingstone and Corbyn, her involvement in radical black activism and her writings in various left-wing publications, she was pigeonholed ever after in hostile sections of the media as part of the “loony left”.
But the truth is much more complex. A committed leftist, she has friends across politics (the former Tory minister-turned-priest Jonathan Aitken, who served time for perjury, is her son’s godfather). Her most consistent causes have been related to civil liberties, equality and human rights.
And her media style is not dogmatic but typically measured and considered, as witnessed during seven years on the BBC This Week sofa alongside Michael Portillo. (She knew Portillo a little at school – he was at Harrow Boys – and enjoyed working with him but makes clear they “certainly don’t socialise outside of the programme”.
Of the presenter, she states: “I don’t particularly like Andrew Neil.”)
What is beyond dispute is her long experience at the heart of British politics and as an agent for social change.
On racial discrimination, she offers a comparatively positive assessment of how much things have improved in her political lifetime, pointing to the greater visibility of black people in business, the professions and on television in the last decade, compared to the 1970s and 80s: “I think white people are a little bit more aware of racial micro-aggression than they were, but there’s still a great deal more to do: that’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is about.”
She sees the younger generation in particular as the changemakers: “I think it’s very interesting, the polling shows that Black Lives Matter had a lot of support from white people, particularly younger people. They do understand the issues.
“I think particularly younger people who may have gone to school, university alongside people of colour, they’re a lot more open about race than people were 30 years ago, so I think things are moving forwards.”
In the shadow cabinet, Abbott was frequently deployed to put across the leadership’s point of view and consequently was not popular with all her parliamentary colleagues.
Due to illness, she did not vote for Theresa May’s bill allowing the government to trigger Article 50 (a whipped vote for Labour MPs), but there was much scepticism among colleagues about how ill she was.
A sarcastic campaign was started on Twitter, #PrayForDiane, which was promoted by an anonymous Labour MP by email.
Her biographers hint that the hostility from some colleagues may have been motivated in part by racism.
Does Abbott agree? “Well,” she answers, “it’s not for me to say. It’s like all of this, people must look at what was said, what happened, and make up their minds what motivated it.”
She is now on the backbenches again and the Corbyn era is over – or is it? Sir Keir Starmer was a Corbyn cabinet fixture, after all.
She stresses the need for a Labour government. Would Starmer have her blessing if he shifted to the centre in order to win a majority?
Her blessing is not forthcoming. “He said he wasn’t proposing to abandon Labour values and he wasn’t proposing to abandon the progressive politics that we’ve seen the last five years. S
“o that commitment to Labour values and progressive politics, that’s what he committed himself to and you have to assume he meant it.”
She puts Labour’s 2019 election failure down to years of taking the vote in post-industrial areas for granted and to Brexit.
Corbyn’s unpopularity by the time of the election was “unsurprising” in her view, given the hostility of much media coverage. And she reserves disdain for another target.
“You had the new party – I forget because they kept calling it different names, Change UK or whatever it was. But you see we had that before, with the Social Democratic Party, which split off from the Labour Party claiming it was going to be a substitute for the Labour Party and it did nothing of the kind, just like Change UK were going to be a national party.
“What it did do, what it did with the SDP and what it did with Change UK this time around, was it helped secure a Tory victory.”
Still, she sees sustained achievements from Corbyn’s time, one above all: “I think Jeremy’s lasting legacy is the parliamentary Labour Party, which is definitely more left wing than any parliamentary Labour Party I’ve ever been a member of and definitely has more women and people of colour.
“And that’s a good thing. I think it’s important that parliament looks like Britain.”