Interview: Diane Abbott, Candidate for British Labour Party Leader
Back in June, we reported on the effort of Diane Abbott, Britain's first black female member of Parliament, to get on the ballot for leadership of the Labour Pary. While some observers scoffed at the prospect that the veteran back-bencher could beat out better financed candidates who had served in previous Labour governments, Abbott did succeed in becoming the only female candidate for Party leader on the ballot. Voting began September 1st and will continue through most of the month under a scheme that accords weight to individual party members, organizations, and MPs. The winner will be announced at the Party's national conference September 26-30.
Under Britain's parliamentary system, the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons becomes the prime minister, so this election is not only a search for someone who can help Labour win back the parliamentary majority -- it's a search for a potential national leader.
It also could be seen as a referendum on the centrist politics that has dominated the Party since the election of former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997. Once seen as a popular counterpart to former US president Bill Clinton, Blair's support for the US-led invasion of Iraq sharply divided his party and forced him out of his leadership post. Blair's successor, one-time ally Gordon Brown, started with promise but fell into disarray as a result of the global financial crisis, national security threats, and his own gaffes and political mis-steps. Brown stepped down as Labour party leader when none of the major parties won a sufficient majority in the House of Commons to form a government. Despite his hope that his resignation would clear the way for a coalition government between Labour and the Liberal Democratic party, the "Lib Dems" struck a deal with the Conservative party, clearing the way for Tory MP David Cameron to become the new Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, MP Abbott has responded by e-mail to a list of questions about her candidacy, her vision for the Labour Party, and how she would lead Britain were she ever to become Prime Minister. In between the time that these questions were sent to her and our receipt of their response, Blair released a memoir that has renewed the controversy over his leadership. (See the first two links below for more on that.)
Blogher. What's your assessment of how the campaign is going so far? How are you being received? Are you able to bring attention to the issues that you feel are most important?
Abbott: So far the campaign is going better than planned! The support from the public is overwhelming and I cannot be grateful enough. Considering that I do not have nearly as much money to run this campaign compared to other candidates, the support from volunteers has been invaluable.
Blogher: News coverage in the Telegraph and elsewhere has focused on reported infighting among Labour Party leaders. Are you concerned that this fractionalization might make it difficult to unite the Party under one banner once the leadership election is finished?
Abbott: I wouldn’t believe what you read. It’s been an extremely comradely contest and the five of us are getting on well.
Blogher: Is there a unifying big idea that crystallizes your vision for the Labour Party?
Abbott: I want a Labour Party that is more democratic, more open and listens to its members. New Labour was a top-down elite which increasingly grew cut off, both from its members, and the general public.
This created disillusion and disaffection amongst our supporters. During the Blair years we lost over 5 million voters. 1 million went to other parties. But 5 million former Labour voters do not vote at all. This is the New Labour effect.
Furthermore not listening to its own members and supporters led New Labour into some of its biggest mistakes like dropping the 10p tax rate.
Blogher: You have advocated a package of tax increases as an alternative to deeper public sector budget cuts. What do you say to those who say that such an approach stifles investment needed to create jobs?
Abbott: The Conservative led coalition government is proposing to address the deficit with 80% public sector cuts and only 20% tax rises.
I think that is an intrinsically unfair ratio, because public sector cuts hit ordinary people twice; they lose their services and they lose their jobs. And in communities like Hackney there are not private sector jobs waiting for them to step into.
I would make some cuts. I would scrap the Trident nuclear weapons system, bring our troops home from Afghanistan and cut waste defense spending.
The tax increases that I am proposing are: doubling the bank levy, a financial transaction tax and bring down the 50p tax rate to persons earning £100,000. There is no reason why any of these specific tax rises should affect investment. Furthermore I believe that the public thinks that it is right that the bankers, who got us into this mess, should contribute to paying down the deficit with taxes like these.
Also the size of public sector cuts that the coalition is proposing will hinder growth, because so many jobs in the private sector are dependent on government contracts and the general populations spending power.
Blogher: How do you rate the Conservative-Liberal democratic coalition so far? Has the Labour Party functioned effectively in its opposition role?
Abbott: I think Labour has performed effectively in its opposition role. But things will come together properly when we have a new leader and a new front bench team.
I support some of the things that the coalition says it is going to do on civil liberties, for instance the review of anti-terrorism legislation. But its cuts to the public sector and to the welfare state are potentially devastating,
Blogher: You are the only candidate for leader who has not served in the previous Labour governments. Does this put you at a disadvantage as a potential Prime Minister?
Abbott: I think it puts me at an advantage. I have been in Parliament for over 20 years and have seen Prime Ministers come and go. I have learnt of the areas which previous Prime Ministers had failed the public and these are areas I wish to address head-on, if elected as leader. It is time Britain put its trust back into the Labour Party. I believe I am the candidate that can make this happen precisely because I am not associated with the past.
Blogher: What do you see as the appropriate working relationship between the Prime Minister of England and the President of the United States, particularly as it pertains to the coordination of military and economic policy? Has the close relationship between some past prime ministers and US Presidents been a benefit or disadvantage from your point of view?
Abbott: With the recent change in administration in the White House, and a change which is much overdue here in the UK, there is no reason why the US and the UK cannot have close relations. Myself and President Obama hold similar aims; one of which Obama has already carried out, bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. So long as the UK continues to maintain its own identity, it is my belief that the US and the UK should maintain close relations.
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