Black History Month

Diane Abbott: a monumental political figure

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This article is a response to our ‘Making History’ campaign for Black History Month. If you would also like to submit a piece for this, please get in touch at editor@bbench.co.uk.

Former Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott is someone who has divided opinion throughout her time in UK parliament.

A key figure of the Labour left, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has served her constituents for over three decades, dedicating her life to politics and is still going strong at the age of 67, by which point many people would choose to retire.

Throughout the last three decades, she has achieved so much as a Black, working-class woman and to be elected at a time in 1987 when inequality was still rife in the United Kingdom, she has been an inspiration to others who have fought, and are still fighting against adversity.

One of her proudest achievements must be setting up The London Schools and Black Child initiative, aimed at addressing the specific issues black children face and also holds an annual awards ceremony for the highest achievers.

In this day and age where Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the inequalities that still exist in our society, Abbott was already ahead of the game and has no doubt witnessed how hard it is to be a high-achieving Black woman, especially on social media which can be a cesspit for peoples’ mental health.

Although I may personally disagree with Abbott on many things, especially on socialism and economics, I can’t help but admire her liberal social values – which is something I share in common with her. She has consistently voted for gay rights, spoken out for women’s rights including abortion, voted to promote human rights, supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and has always done her very best as a socialist to protect the most vulnerable in society.

It’s also worth noting that Abbott voted against the Iraq War, something Tony Blair has been heavily criticised for after the 2003 invasion with then-US president George Bush.

As a student, I’m also grateful she voted against raising tuition fees multiple times, although I understand why David Cameron and Nick Clegg had to take action in 2010 as we tried to recover from a near-financial disaster.

Abbott has also been very pro-environment – and served in two very senior positions in the Shadow Cabinet under Jeremy Corbyn between 2015 and 2020, the first being briefly appointed Shadow Health Secretary, before moving to Shadow Home Secretary in October 2016. Before this, she was the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

The year 2017 was a very mixed year for the then Shadow Home Secretary. In the lead up to Theresa May’s snap election, she appeared on radio and television multiple times, trying to spread the Labour message and say what her cabinet would do if Labour managed to get into government.

However, the LBC interview with Nick Ferrari proved to be disastrous, where she said employing 10,000 extra police officers over four years would cost £300,000. In a way, I thought it showed the level of confusion/nervousness Abbott was experiencing as opposed to her not knowing the numbers.

Two further interviews on ITV and Sky News followed, which also proved to be a source of humiliation – and I had major sympathy for her because I would probably have been in the same situation in terms of remembering facts and figures during live broadcasts to millions of people. For me, these incidents were no reflection on her competency and she eventually took a break from campaigning due to ill health – with this probably affecting her performance majorly. Criticisms of her for these interviews were completely justified – but I have a more sympathetic view of the situation.

One thing she did very well in during the 2017 election campaign was to retract her statements on the IRA. Her hairstyle analogy struck the right tone for me: “It was 34 years ago. I had a rather splendid afro at the time. I don’t have the same hairstyle and I don’t have the same views.”

Whilst I disagreed with her previous point about voting against prescribing a list of dangerous groups around the world, I feel she redeemed herself for her previous IRA comments in 1984 – and was part of a Shadow Cabinet that gained 30 seats in the 2017 election. 

Although I never felt socialism would attract enough people to get the Labour Party into government (as we found out in 2019), their campaign did galvanise and inspire many – and I have to give Abbott credit for giving a lot of people around this country hope.

However, there have been other controversies which Diane Abbott has been involved in. Her comments on Mao Zedong and charging £1,750 to speak at a university were rightly criticised – but there have been times where I felt she has been wrongly condemned.

I didn’t feel that her remark on West Indian mums going to the wall for their children was offensive, and her decision to send her son to a private school is not for anyone to judge in my opinion. Neither is she responsible for the offences committed by her adult son.

Regardless of previous errors made, there is no justification whatsoever for the horrific abuse she has received over the years. Not only did she carry on in the Shadow Cabinet after the 2017 election, but she has also continued to work as a constituency MP even after the disastrous result in December. Unfortunately, I have seen some of the horrible racist and sexist comments she has received on Twitter – and she has shown amazing strength to carry on despite this.

Abbott spoke out about the abuse she has received in September – and it’s upsetting to see what she has had to put up with. Why should she have to put up with this? Social media platforms need to do more and we need to continue to change attitudes in the UK. Even though I believe we are a slightly more tolerant country now than we were in the 20th century, there’s still so much more work to do.

What I hope Diane Abbott’s political career will do is inspire people of colour, women and girls to go on and achieve great things. At the risk of sounding patronising, becoming the first Black woman to become a Member of Parliament and to then take to the despatch box at PMQs is an amazing achievement and one that she will probably always cherish.

At times, she has been unfairly ridiculed and criticised and I hope that she inspires not only people of colour and women – but also everyone in general with all of the ups and downs of her political career. Despite these ups and downs, she is still in the House of Commons and I wish her all the very best in the future.

Whether you’re on the left, right or centre, I think we should all commend Abbott’s contributions to British politics and one day when she decides to finish her time in politics, she should receive the warmest tributes and the highest recognition for her long service.

Image: PaulNUK via Flickr. Licence here.

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