Labour’s Radical Conscience?

For most of the past 13 years, Diane Abbott has been – to use a phrase applied to another left leaning female Labour politician – a political bag lady to the New Labour hierarchy. A figure alien to the polished metropolitan Labour elite, popping up very now and again in the House of Commons or on late night TV to lob some left-of-centre grenades at the leadership. Sixteenth century European kings had a ‘fool’ who would entertain the court by making fun of the king and his subjects; one of the only people who could openly criticise the monarch and get away with it because he was known to be a figure of fun and essentially harmless. Abbott has played a similar role these past 13 years; a sort of jester to the court of King Tony and Queen Mandy.

Her critiques of the New Labour project – well constructed though they were – never had much impact given her isolation within the party and the hegemony of ‘third way’ thinking. She seemed destined to join the ranks of Dennis Skinner and Clare Short; Old Labour lefties wailing in the wind as the centrist consensus slowly rumbles by, leaving them behind. In light of the financial collapse and the defeat of the New Labour project at the polls, however, Abbott has emerged as a popular and significant (if not entirely conventional) contender in the race for the Labour leadership. It came as a surprise to many – to herself even- that she announced her candidacy on Radio 4’s Today programme back in May. It was on one of her trips to visit Scottish party members that I met up with the MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington.

That Abbott is not your average Labour leadership candidate is clear as soon as she enters the slightly shabby and sparsely populated meeting room in the St George’s West Church. No cameras, no entourage and with no fanfare at all, Abbott walks in inconspicuously through a side door and sits quietly in the front row, waiting for the meeting to start. In the spare few minutes before she made her speech to local party members, she talked to me about her vision for Labour’s future, her plans to revive Britain’s economy, and the struggle to balance a political career with a ‘real life’ as a mother.

Frustration at the lack of variety in the other declared candidates and the unwillingness of others to make a challenge irritated Abbott into standing for leadership: “The other candidates are all nice and would make good leaders of the Labour Party but they all look the same. The Labour party’s much more diverse than that. I looked at the field and said ‘If not now, when?’ And ‘If not me, who?’”. Commenting on the somewhat contrived way she got onto the ballot – David Milliband ‘lent’ her some of his nominating MPs, resulting her in getting the required 33 just one minute before the 12.30pm deadline, Abbott criticises the way the system seems to be stacked against there being candidates from all wings of the party standing for the leadership: “I think it’s an artificially high barrier, and in an election like this, we need to be able to choose from the widest set of candidates.

Abbott’s main pitch is as the candidate closest to the Labour party’s grassroots: “I don’t have a lot of money or as many staff as the other candidates, but what I do have is a set of political beliefs which fits more closely with mainstream Labour party opinion than any other candidates. The other candidates are all wringing their hands and regretting what the party did in the past and come out with a left wing narrative, but if you press them on their policies, they haven’t changed all that much”. She is worried that the party will face a prolonged spell of opposition unless it shows it is willing to change. She warns repeatedly that the party will suffer the same fate as the Tories after 1997 if it chooses ‘the anointed heir’ instead of electing someone willing to bring new thinking. It will show, she says, “that we have learnt nothing. The country is looking to see if we are going to leave those [New Labour] days behind, and I am the candidate best placed to do that.”

Travelling around the country canvassing for votes has opened the London MP’s eyes to the need for a region-by-region approach for both rebuilding the economy and running a political party: “When you get outside the M25, you really see that the British economy is different from place to place, you see how much of the country was left behind by the stress the New Labour government placed on the city and financial services. From my constituency in East London, you can see the towers of the city of London, but my constituents, my people, haven’t shared that prosperity.”

Abbott is less quick to jump to a criticism of the New Labour project than one would expect, and is supportive of the policies she stood for election on. “I am very proud to be a Labour MP and I supported what was in the manifesto.” Where Labour went wrong, she argues, was when it strayed beyond what it promised in its party platforms: “Tuition fees were not in the manifesto, nor was sending troops into Iraq or dropping the 10p tax.”

What seems to provoke Abbott’s ire even more than the substance of New Labour is the way the party was run, with the whips cracking down on MPs deviating from the party line, allowing policies not in the manifesto to be implemented despite significant public protest: “The problem with New Labour these past 13 years was that it became a top-down organisation, so MPs became New Labour’s representatives in the constituencies rather than the other way round. We need to get back to a grass-roots form of politics, where individual MPs are seen as representatives of their communities, not an advocate of their party in their community. The leaderships of both parties need to be more prepared to value independent-minded MPs.” More freedom for local constituencies to choose their own candidates must be, Abbott argues, at the core of rebuilding Labour as genuinely grassroots party: “Nearly all four of my rivals were parachuted into their seats, they didn’t really have a local connection there. Parachuting in has really undermined democracy and undermined local parties.”

It is on the subject of civil liberties, however, that Abbott really comes into her own. Getting up from her seat and striding into the crowd, she declares that it was ‘shameful, absolutely shameful’ that Labour introduced compulsory ID cards and authorised the imprisonment of the children of asylum seekers in detention centres. “We abandoned the civil liberties issue, and let it go to the Lib Dems. If I were leader, I would take the issue of human rights back, and put it at the heart of the Labour platform.” She is at her most convincing when arguing that it is a mistake to label some policies as inherently left wing and thus automatically abhorrent to the middle classes that New Labour has courted so assiduously. “Wherever I go, whoever I talk to – about re-nationalisation of the railways, for example – young, old, left wing, right wing, I get a great reaction. If you are willing to be clear and willing to be radical, you will be surprised about who will decide to support you.”

What is clear about Abbott compared to other left-wingers is she has thought through her socialism in a much more electoral-strategic way and has clear vision of how Labour can go about winning new supporters without compromising on its core beliefs. Abbott is sceptical about the need to cut the deficit quickly, and singles out defence to bear the brunt of what should be cut: “There’s a huge propaganda push that says that we need to make these cuts in the public sector but that’s based on the idea that a national budget is like a personal budget; if you owe money, you can’t spend it. But it doesn’t work that way in a national budget. In order to get out of the deficit, we’re going to have to have more jobs, more growth, more production, and all that takes investment. It is interesting that politicians abroad, like Obama, are warning that the cuts the government are making will take us back into recession. I would make some cuts, but mainly with defence-Trident [Britain’s nuclear weapons system], and I would bring our troops home from Afghanistan.”

The formula for cutting the deficit suggested by the Coalition government – 80 per cent spending cuts to 20 per cent tax increases is “completely wrong, completely unsuited to recovery”, she argues, “because, one man’s public sector cuts are another man’s job losses. It is no way to get out of recession.”

Her old Labour credentials shine through when she outlines tax increases on the banking sector as one of her key policies aimed at rebalancing the economy: “I would raise a lot more money from taxation, I would double the bank levy, bring in a financial transactions tax, and keep the 50 per cent top rate of income tax”, all of which would be used to invest in future growth. “Investment in housing and transport infrastructure, in particular, is key to growing our way out of the recession.”

Abbott is indignant on the question of the media furore around her decision to send her son to private school. “At the time I gave a clear answer and continue to do so. It shows what’s wrong with the media, they don’t talk about issues, they don’t talk about what my programme is, they just want to talk about something that happened ten years ago.” Sitting with her in a nearby bar with party members after her speech, it is hard to imagine any of her rivals – “the geeks in suits” as she calls them – in the same position. She kicks off her shoes, leans back in her seat and knocks back a few glasses of wine while she reminisces about past battles with some old friends who have come to see her.

There is a naturalness about Diane Abbott that puts you at ease as soon as you start talking to her; you very quickly get a sense that this is someone who has considerable experience outside politics and is as much a ‘real person’ as a politician. Perhaps, though, that is her problem: the reason why Abbott is unlikely to win is a lack of imagination. Conditioned by decades of white men in suits running our political parties, it is difficult to imagine a middle aged black single mother as Leader of the Opposition and a potential Prime Minister. But as Abbott herself said in the last debate of the contest, “People say I don’t look like a Labour leader – no shirt, no tie – but in the 21st century, in a multicultural country that is part of an increasingly globalised world, perhaps this is what a Labour leader should look like.”

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