(VIDEO) First Black Female MP Diane Abbott Bids for Britain's Labour Party Leadership -- Why She's One to Watch
UPDATE June 9: After the withdrawal of John Mc Donnell, Diane Abbott secured the 33 nominations needed to secure a spot on the ballot in the leadership elections this fall. News reports and blog reactions here:
- BBC News profile of Diane Abbott
- BBC: Labor's relief as Diane Abbott joins leadership ballot
- Paul Richards, The Guardian: The real danger is Diane Abbott might actually win
- Mary Riddell, Telegraph: Diane Abbott will be an antidote to dog-whistle politics
In the wake of their defeat in Parliamentary elections a few weeks ago, Britain's Labour Party is in the position of having to choose a new leader. The field of candidates includes five male MPs who played prominent roles in the leadership of the Party and the giovernment under outgoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and one woman -- Diane Abbott of the Hackney North - Stoke Newington section of London.
Each candidate has to get the nominations of 33 fellow MPs by June 9 to be formally put on the leadership ballot. Under Britain's parliamentary system, should Labour win the next round of parliamentary elections in 2015, the party leader could become the new prime minister. As of this writing, that's a very unlikely prospect: She has only seven nominations, including herself. Three of her opponents: brothers David and Ed Milliband, and Ed Balls are already on the ballot with more than the required nominations. Despite that, Abbott's candidacy raises questions that Labour will have to address as it seeks to redefine itself under the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.
An outspoken left-wing back-bencher who made history in 1987 as the first black female MP, Abbott argues that she would bring needed attention to issues that affect working class Britons, ethnic minorities and women that aren't currently being highlighted. In a statement on her website, Abbott contended:
I am not just another man in a suit. There’s not a lot of difference between the candidates so far. I am standing because I represent "real choice," not a return to the Blair/Brown politics of the past 13 years. I voted against the Iraq war which is the single biggest source of disillusionment with Labour. And I do not believe that we lost the election because of immigration, as some of my rivals seem to be suggesting. I am a truly independent candidate who will create real change out of the ashes of New Labour, and reclaim the true identity of the Labour Party.
I first met Diane Abbott in 1990, when I interviewed her for the now-defunct Emerge magazine. (The interview is not online.) I saw then many of the traits that British voters know well. As conservative MP Daniel Hannan put it in a June 6 column in the UK Telegraph:
Diane is everything that an MP ought to be: independent, straight-talking, a Whips’ nightmare, a lioness in defence of her constituents’ interests. [Unfortunately, Hannan felt compelled to add the sexist observation that she is also "delightfully coquettish," whatever that means.]
At the time of our conversation 20 years ago, Abbott had recently been in meetings about the need for debt relief Poland and other former Soviet states. She said she'd asked why Poland should get preferential treatment and said she was told, "because the Poles are very, very poor." Her tart reply was that people were "very, very poor in the Sudan as well."
Abbott is the British-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and as I sat with her 20 years ago, I was reminded of a news report I'd seen back in 1965, when I was just eight years old. The grainy black and white video showed a rally of British working men protesting the influx of immigrants from Britain's African and Caribbean former colonies. The men were singing, "Bye, Bye Blackman" to the tune of "Bye Bye Blackbird," and blaming immigrants for "stealing" their jobs. Today, the district she represents is largely composed of immigrants and their descendants. It is also plagued with many of the ills that are all too common in impoverished urban areas.
Abbott grew up in London, attended state-funded schools, and then graduated from Cambridge University. Her first career was in broadcasting at Thames TV. She entered politics by way of community activism, focusing especially on such issues as police - community relations.
During her career as an MP, Abbott has become well-known for her civil liberties, equal rights and education advocacy. She initiated an annual conference with the mayor of London, London Schools and the Black Child, to tackle the achievement gap among black British students. Last year, she made a much-admired speech criticizing a proposal supported by government that would have made it legal to detain suspects without charges for up to 42 days:
And here she is about a month ago being interviewed outside her campaign headquarters, explaining what she does for her constituents:
In a May 21 column, Vicki Woods expressed admiration for Abbott but observed that she'd been marginalized by the Labour Party leadership despite her long years of experience. Woods also chided the other female MPs for their failure to join the battle. (Actually, you should follow the link the read her acid-etched descriptions of some of the senior women in Labour -- I won't spoil it for you.) As for Abbott, Woods says,
Can't think of any others who would do, if not Abbott ... Diane Abbott predated all the annoying Blair Babes of 1997 –- she was elected (first black woman MP) a decade earlier in 1987. Which ought to make her a pretty senior person in the Labour Party, and it’s not altogether easy to work out why she isn’t counted as serious.
One reason could be that Abbott's not shy about criticizing fellow party members and her party's leadership, sometimes to her own political detriment. Perhaps her biggest political misstep was when she chided Tony Blair and others for sending their children to tuition-funded schools (called public schools in Britain) then ended up doing the very same thing with her own son. That's something she's had to consistently answer for, as in this interview with Andrew Neil. Until her leadership bid, Abbott had been a regular with Neil on the popular television show, This Week:
Abbott has called her decision to send her only child, James Thompson, 18, to a private school "indefensible" politically, but added that she had to choose what was best for him at the time. However, she says the schools in her district have improved considerably since then, and she'd happily send her child to a state-funded school if the choice were put before her today.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't post the video of one of Abbott's most surprising -- and impoltic -- moments: the day she had a rather rude reaction to another MP's speech. Here is the clip, as well as her effort to explain herself on This Week.
Whatever her political future holds, Diane Abbott has made an indelible mark on British history.
I've sent a message to MP Abbott requesting an interview on behalf of BlogHer but have not yet received a response. Given the same opportunity, what would you ask?