The Shadow Home Secretary on last year's shock general election result, Labour's Brexit stance, and the abuse she's faced during her 30 years as an MPby Alex Dean / January 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
When Diane Abbott went on the Andrew Marr Show on 17th December 2016, she was expecting a rough time. Her party was languishing ten points behind in the polls. Recent by-election results had been disastrous. 172 Labour MPs had denounced Jeremy Corbyn over the summer in a letter of no confidence. A bitter leadership contest had then exposed the party’s ideological divisions in the most public way imaginable.
But Abbott—long one of Corbyn’s closest allies—was defiant. Labour would, she told a sceptical Marr, close the polling gap within a year. The party would make a full recovery. She was laughed at. Newspapers mocked her. It was impossible. Labour had lurched too far to the left, meaning it was unelectable and even at risk of total collapse. Close the gap? The party would be lucky to survive the next year.
Thirteen months on, Abbott has been proven right. Labour outperformed all expectations in last year’s general election, and now has the Tory Party running scared on issues such as tuition fees, while the government falls over itself as it attempts to navigate Brexit. The latest polls have the Tories and Labour neck and neck.
When I sit down for a glass of wine with Abbott, who serves as Shadow Home Secretary, in a crowded Commons bar, she talks enthusiastically about last year’s election.
“On the one hand, we were absolutely on the cutting edge of digital new media and things like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram,” Abbott says, referring to the party’s digital campaigning infrastructure. “It had a huge impact and it got us round the attitudes of the mainstream media like yourselves at Prospect.” I feel a touch on my shoulder—Abbott is patting me, smiling.
“The other thing we did was really quite old school. Jeremy had these rallies—and they really worked.” In the end, Labour ran the Tories close—there was a hung parliament, with Corbyn and his gang finishing up with 30 more seats than the party had managed in 2015. They hadn’t won the election. But even the most embittered Blairite had to grudgingly concede they had won the right to lead the party.
It was a moment Abbott had been waiting for her whole career. First elected as MP for Hackney in 1987, she has long been a champion of the left, no matter how unpopular that has made her. During the Blair years, she says, “you couldn’t talk about inequality in official Labour Party documents because the feeling was that veered towards a dangerous taint with socialism.”
Now, Blair’s legacy has been banished. “Even Blairites don’t call themselves Blairites. It’s one of those things—no one can now remember that they supported Tony Blair.”
“During the leadership election, every time he went on television slagging off Jeremy we were all going ‘yes please, do it some more!’ There was a spike in our support when Blair said, ‘on no account can you vote for this man.’”
Michael Foot “made all sorts of accommodations with the right of the party”
Now, with Blair’s help, a new dawn has broken. “The last time the party was really led by the left you’re talking about Clement Attlee,” Abbott says. This surprises me. Michael Foot, who led Labour in the early 1980s, is usually considered a “comrade.”
But Abbott claims that Foot, by the time he became leader, had “made all sorts of accommodations with the right of the party—whereas Jeremy’s been able to become leader and stay leader without making those kinds of accommodations.”
Whether compromised or not, Foot never won an election. But according to Abbott, Labour could have won the last general election had the right of the party been more supportive. Corbyn “spent 18 months with most of his PLP abusing him virtually every day. Now we made up the ground over the course of the general election, but if the PLP had not been so hostile, who’s to say whether we might not have won that election?”
What would Abbott and her colleagues do with power? “We will be on a trajectory to counter austerity, because austerity has hit the most vulnerable. It’s undermined our services.”
But a Labour government would have one big issue to contend with first. While the Tories are in disarray over Brexit, Labour’s stance on this issue is seen by many as equally unclear, with journalists inside the Westminster bubble no more certain than the general public as to what Labour’s policy is.
I ask Abbott for clarity—but it is not forthcoming. “We’re certainly going to stay in the single market and customs union during the transition, and I believe what we’re saying is that we’re going to be staying in the customs union after that,” Abbott says, before turning to her adviser to ask for help.
“I think that’s what they’re saying, isn’t it?” The reply comes back: “Nothing’s off the table.” Abbott turns back to me. “Nothing’s off the table,” she repeats.
On other matters things were clearer. I ask Abbott how she would vote in a second EU referendum. “I’d vote Remain,” comes the immediate response. I ask twice whether she is in favour of another vote. “It’s not currently Labour policy to have a second referendum,” is her reply.
One of the accusations levelled against Corbyn is that his support for Remain was lukewarm because he wants to protect British workers from cheap EU labour. Does Abbott think immigration should fall post-Brexit? “I think talking about numbers before Brexit and after Brexit… is wrong, and doesn’t lead to the good formation of policy.”
“I’d vote Remain”
“What Labour has to do is balance the fact that on the one hand we represent some of the most pro-Remain constituencies, bear in mind 75 per cent of my constituents voted Remain—and also the most pro-Leave constituencies—Yorkshire, the Midlands and so on.” The party will continue to fudge the issue for the time being, then.
There was something altogether different I wanted to speak to Abbott about: abuse in politics, and in particular abuse of women and ethnic minority MPs. Falling into both categories, Abbott has in the past faced awful harassment from online trolls. Indeed, a study last year found that one third of all abuse directed at British politicians on Twitter was directed at her.
For Abbott, the shift towards abuse online is particularly troubling.
“I remember someone putting a brick through my window in my first campaign in ‘87, so we’ve always had racist views. But when I first became an MP in order to send abuse you had to write an actual letter, put a stamp on it and walk to the letter box. Now you just stroke a key and it will send hundreds of abusive things to people.”
Abbott has long been a victim of harassment, but it’s not herself she worries for. “My staff are at the front line when it comes to abuse. They get up and come in in the morning, they log in on their computer, they look at the email, they open the letters, they monitor Twitter in a way that I don’t anymore.”
On one point Abbott is adamant: abuse does not predominantly come from the left, despite accusations made by some conservative commentators. “It’s not [only] coming from the left—it’s not the left calling me a n*gger bitch. It’s not the left sending me pictures of apes in the post, it’s not the left sending me letters covered in swastikas.”
Nevertheless, only recently has she decided to speak out about it. “I had never complained about abuse, never. A friend of mine always said ‘you’re working class, you’re an MP, it’s a job your parents always wanted for you, clean, indoor work, no heavy lifting.’ It’s a privilege to be an MP so I don’t think you should complain.”
Unsurprisingly, Abbott requests that we return to politics. We discuss cross-party working: is Abbott friends with anyone across the aisle? “Well, I know some Tories. You can’t be here for 30 years and not know any Tories.” I ask what she makes of recent comments by new Labour MP Laura Pidcock that she would never be friends with a Conservative, Abbott responds: “I understand where Laura’s coming from… she’s entitled to feel that she wouldn’t be able to go socialising with Tories. I respect her for that.”
The result of the next election, whenever it comes, is anyone’s guess. Will the leadership be able to make further inroads when it comes to younger voters? Will the Tories tear themselves apart over the course of the campaign?
One thing seems likely: next time around, Abbott, Corbyn and co will be given a fair shot at the goal. The right of the party has largely fallen into line. Any result will be on the left’s terms. If they win, it will serve as vindication. If they lose, the currently-quiet “Blairites” will be the first to pounce. Abbott’s internal opponents “are not dead, but merely sleeping,” she tells me, smiling.