Diane Abbott: “Jamaicans have a lot of self-belief, you know”
From grammar school to the green benches, Diane Abbott has made a habit of proving people wrong. Along the way, she has encountered prejudice, resistance and received her fair share of criticism. But her political journey is not over yet. The Shadow Home Secretary sits down with Sebastian Whale
Diane Abbott approached her history teacher after class at Harrow County Grammar School for Girls. She told her she wanted to do the entrance exam for Oxford and Cambridge. “I don’t think you’re up to it,” her teacher replied. Abbott smiled. “But I do, and that’s what matters.”
Her teachers remained sceptical about her chances throughout the application process. Their pessimism was misplaced, however. Abbott passed the exam, and was granted a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, to study history.
This was not the first time – nor would it be the last – that Diane Julie Abbott, the first black woman MP, proved people wrong. “Jamaicans have a lot of self-belief, you know,” she tells me with a smile.
But Abbott’s is a divisive legacy. To some, she is a trailblazer whose political record is overlooked, whose capabilities are deeply underestimated, and whose treatment is reprehensible. To others, she is a gaffe-prone politician out of her depth on the major stage.
One thing is undeniable – Abbott is potentially an election away from being given the keys to the Home Office; a building she first entered 43 years ago as a graduate. But what helped form one of the best-known figures in British politics? And what does she have planned for the department so often described as not fit for purpose?
It is Friday morning, and I find myself in a bookshop on the Kingsland Road in Hackney, east London. Abbott, dressed in double denim, has chosen Burley Fisher Books – a charming independent store with a café at the back – as our meeting place.
“I just love it here,” she explains. Her passion for reading and writing first developed as a child. “I used to like creative writing. I don’t do so much now, unless you call political speeches creative writing.”
Her mother, who was a nurse (her father was a welder), would take Abbott to the library at weekends. At her peak, she would get through a book a day. “I was a bit of an omnivorous reader as a young child.”
Abbott’s parents, who both left school at 14, moved from Jamaica to Paddington, London in 1953. She was born the same year. Her mother and father were Labour supporters but were not politically active.
“This was the Windrush generation and they thought that England was the mother country. They were very patriotic; pictures of the Queen on the wall in the sitting room, all that sort of stuff.”
How did Abbott respond to that patriotism? “To a degree, I took it on board… I had to leave home, go to university to really start to think about what the colonial experience really was. But as a child, I accepted my parents’ world view.”
At school, Abbott performed in a joint school production of Romeo and Juliet with Michael Portillo, who attended the Harrow County School for Boys. She would later reunite with the former Conservative minister on the sofa of BBC One’s This Week.
The women’s and civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s shaped Abbott’s politics. A stand out moment came at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where African-American teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos did a black power salute while on the rostrum for the US national anthem. The deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King also had a significant impact.
Literature naturally also played its part. Abbott would read Race Today, a monthly political magazine launched by the Institute of Race Relations, and Spare Rib, a feminist publication. “Then I got to learn about black bookshops, which were a big thing in the late 70s and early 80s. I used to visit them as well.”
Abbott fell in love with Cambridge during a school trip. She walked past King’s College and through The Backs, a stretch of land where several colleges back on to the river Cam. She was overwhelmed by the romanticism of the city; its architecture and its people. “To me, they looked like gods and goddesses in stripy scarves. This was something to aspire to,” she says. Many of the protagonists in the books she would devour also went to Oxford or Cambridge.
Before heading to university, Abbott’s loved ones decided she needed new clothes. Her then boyfriend’s mum – a dab hand at sowing – bought yards of brown and green crimplene (a polyester-like material), out of which she fashioned various garments.
Dressed head to toe in garish green, Abbott caught the attention of a fellow student. The man, who had attended private school and whose father was an academic, took her “under his wing”, she says. “I’d go to dinner and there would always be something brand new there like artichoke and asparagus. He was very, very casual; what he was doing was showing me how to eat these foods. He didn’t do it in an overt way... he was trying to help me.”
Bright clothing aside, there were other moments early on where Abbott felt out of place. During one of her first tutorials, she realised the three girls also in attendance were “all really posh”. “I thought, ‘what the f*** have you done now?’” she laughs.
Abbott’s early academic achievement would prove crucial to shaping her ambitions. “Because you’ve had that very early success, you go through life thinking, yes, this may be a barrier, but I can overcome it.” She approached her hall tutor about life after university and said she would “like to do good”. She was encouraged to become a civil servant.
After graduating with a 2:2 in 1976, Abbott joined the Home Office as a graduate on the civil service fast stream. “What was my impression? It was quite formal, and it was quite bureaucratic and there was an emphasis on process. Those aren’t terrible things to learn about for someone who will go on to become a Member of Parliament. It did, however, give me a lasting impression in home affairs issues.”
After two years in Whitehall, Abbott worked as a race relations officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties. In 1980, she joined Thames Television, where she worked mostly behind the camera but also did some on-screen reporting. After being elected to the Westminster City Council in 1982, her fellow councillors took issue with her working on the news and current affairs beat. In 1983 she moved to TV-am, a national station.
“There was a time when TV-am was going through a lot of turmoil… it was like a medieval city-state, there was always somebody being assassinated or overthrown.”
There she met Jonathan Aitken, the former Conservative minister who worked at the station while serving as an MP. He collared Abbott when she entered parliament to become his voting pair. He would go on to become godfather to her son.
Abbott turned up to Hackney town hall on Thursday 11 June 1987 expecting the worst. There had been controversy about her candidacy and some Labour people had said they would not vote for her.
On the night, her nerves began to settle when she saw a pile of ballot papers by her name, which stood far higher than her closest rival, Tory candidate Oliver Letwin (the former minister and now MP for West Dorset). She was elected with 18,912 votes to become the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
In the crowd was her mother and a familiar face from Cambridge. “The one who taught me how to eat artichokes, he had just blagged his way in. This is why he taught me to eat artichokes, so I could be moving among the great and the good.”
Did Abbott appreciate the magnitude of her election? “Not really. People talked about it, but I have to look back to realise the magnitude of it,” she replies. “Look, this is someone that went from being a child of people who left school at 14, to grammar school, which was a big deal, to Oxbridge, which was a big deal, to the civil service, to television. And so, this was just another step.”
The 1987 campaign saw the election to the Commons of three black members of parliament: Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Asian MP Keith Vaz. “The institution was very frightened of us. They thought we were going to wreck the place,” Abbott recalls.
Speaker Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill would invite Grant – the eldest of the four – to have port in his office. Abbott believes this was a ploy to “manage us better as a group”. “They thought it would be like the Fenians,” she says in reference to the group of Irish Republicans elected to parliament in the 19th century.
Fellow MPs were also nervous of their new colleagues due to their association with the left-wing London Labour party (Abbott served on Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council from 1985 to 1986). They also had trouble telling each MP apart. People often referred to Abbott as “Sharon”, in reference to Labour parliamentary candidate Sharon Atkin. “They kept calling Bernie, Paul and Paul, Bernie.”
While queuing up for tea in the Commons ahead of the winter break, a colleague asked Abbott mid-conversation: “Do they celebrate Christmas in Jamaica?”
“You weren’t really dealing with a very sophisticated understanding of the ethnic minority community,” Abbott continues. Not that this level of discourse was unfamiliar. “If you’ve been to Cambridge, if you’ve been to the Home Office and you’ve worked in television… those were not necessarily what you would call now ‘woke’ institutions,” she quips.
Abbott married David Ayensu-Thompson, a Ghanaian architect, in 1991. Their son, James, was born in 1992. They divorced in 1993. “That was quite extraordinary, looking back at it, how I managed,” Abbott says of being a mother and an MP. “It was just me, I was a single mother. You didn’t get maternity leave in those days. You worked much longer hours. You would routinely be there till 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; when we debated the Maastricht Treaty we went through the night.”
Holding James in the members’ lobby one afternoon, a “very grand” Tory MP approached Abbott and asked, “Haven’t you got a nanny?”
“It is better now,” Abbott reflects. “There are more women with young babies, and also male MPs now playing more of a role in childcare. There have been a lot of children and babies here recently due to half term and you see male MPs with their children, which you never saw when my son was young.”
A committed left-winger, Abbott joined the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, whose founding members included Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner. The group often found itself at odds with the Labour government, including on the Iraq war, civil liberties and the introduction of tuition fees. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were also members.
Abbott says she was never offered a ministerial position during Labour’s 13 years in power. But would she have taken one? “Um, I don’t know. It would have depended on what it was. But I don’t regret spending a lot of time on the backbenches. It taught me my trade, it taught me about parliament, it taught me to understand what I actually believe in,” she replies.
Abbott stood for the Labour leadership in the contest that followed the 2010 election, finishing fifth. Her first frontbench role came as shadow minister for public health under Ed Miliband that same year, before being sacked in 2013.
“I really liked doing health. My mum was a nurse, I always felt Mummy would have been so proud.”
A period in the relative political wilderness followed until the 2015 leadership contest. A long-time ally of Jeremy Corbyn, she joined the shadow cabinet in charge of the international development brief, before moving to cover health in June 2016 and home affairs in October 2016. She also stood to be Labour candidate for the London mayoralty that same year.
Abbott says the election of Corbyn and her subsequent rise in prominence corresponded with the increase in abuse she began to receive online. With social media providing new avenues to access MPs, and a cloak of anonymity to hide behind, politicians were firmly in the firing line.
“People see somebody else sending ridiculous abuse – ‘you ugly n***** bitch’, ‘you should hang’ – they think they can do it,” Abbott says.
Abbott, who receives the most amount of abuse of any British politician, first spoke up about her experiences in an article for The Guardian, after being persuaded by her staff. She would like to see anonymity online removed. “You could do it under a pseudonym,” she says. “But the outlet, be it Twitter, be it Facebook… they should have your real name and address.”
If she was watching on and it was another black woman receiving the abuse, would Abbott want to be an MP?
“It’s very off-putting for young women,” she answers. “I might not have spoken out at all. My staff just insisted. Part of the issue for them was how could younger women come forward if they see you’ve received this level of abuse.”
She adds: “I don’t think people are more racist. I think that online in particular has given people more outlets.”
Abbott has also received her fair share of flak in the media, particularly after repeated gaffes during the 2017 general election campaign, including an excruciating interview on LBC over Labour’s pledge on police numbers. She was briefly relieved of her work as shadow home secretary following the deluge of criticism. Abbott said her performance was due to not being on top of her type 2 diabetes.
The Conservatives sought to capitalise on the blunders during the campaign, but Theresa May and Sajid Javid defended Abbott at Tory party conference. “I think there is a sense in which Westminster has started to hold up a mirror to itself. But also, [there is] a little bit of a public pushback against this,” she explains.
She points to her recent experience on BBC’s Question Time. “A lot of people felt that Fiona Bruce didn’t treat me fairly and then stories came out about what she said before the programme went on air,” she continues, referring to claims that before the show the presenter made a joke about her previous relationship with Jeremy Corbyn.
“The British people left to themselves have a very powerful sense of fairness. Partly why the Tories have walked back a little bit with their messaging about me is there was a certain amount of public pushback.”
Would she appear on Question Time again? “Yes, if the party wanted me to,” she replies.
In 2006, Labour’s John Reid said the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”. With the Windrush scandal cutting so close to the bone, and myriad stories emerging from the department, does Abbott agree with the former home secretary? “I wouldn’t want to criticise individual Home Office people, but the Home Office is a very big unwieldy department,” she replies. “It tends to think that it knows best. It has a kind of groupthink. It tends to think that it can see off ministers.”
Abbott points to the experience of a Conservative minister who, as she discovered from files during her time as a civil servant, wanted to abolish censorship in prisons. The Home Office she says “avoided” and “dodged” the request. “That is how the Home Office would thwart ministers who had the faintest notion of reform,” she continues.
She contends that the reason for the UK’s immigration system being “the way it is”, is because the policy is based out of a building in Croydon. “So, it just became a world on its own and ambitious young high flyers didn’t go there. And so, you almost have to intellectually take the Home Office apart and put it back together again. It just has huge resistance to doing things differently,” she replies.
Is it in need of a rebrand? “I’m a historian, I wouldn’t change the name Home Office. But some of its activities need a rebrand,” she replies, citing the Prevent programme.
She turns to Javid’s decision to strip Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, which she argues is a breach of international law. Begum, 19, was one of three so-called Isis brides from east London who left for Syria in 2015.
“This is all about Sajid trying to project this image of being tough to the Conservative party base,” Abbott claims. “The polling says that the decision was popular. But if you’re the Home Secretary, you have to take decisions because they’re right, not because they’re popular. People should be more worried than they are. You cannot have politicians stripping people of their citizenship without due process. That’s what it is… it’s a really dangerous precedent.
“We actually have Jihadi warriors that have come home. Why is a 19-year-old girl with a week-old baby more dangerous than any of those guys? It’s fine; bring her home, question her, interrogate her, put her on trial. But don’t leave her in a field in Syria.”
She continues: “The fact that she was 15 when she went away and therefore was a child and had clearly been groomed, that does play a part. I thought with the child sex abuse scandal in Rotherham and so on that, we’ve got passed thinking that groomed young teenagers were responsible for their own fate – maybe partly but not wholly. But in this young woman’s case, everyone’s saying, ‘it’s all her own fault’… the whole issue of terrorism and how we treat terrorists is complicated by issues around race and identity, I have to say that.”
There is no shortage of issues for Abbott to contend with should she become Home Secretary, particularly on the sharp rise in violent crime. What is behind this increase? Abbott points to a combination of reasons, such as economic hardship, cuts to youth services and rising exclusions at schools.
“I’m not one for blaming the media or blaming music and drill videos and whatever, but culturally, there is a sense in which sometimes we are desensitised to violence,” she continues. What does she mean?
“I just think some young people, the video games they play, the stuff they see online, it may desensitise them to violence,” she argues. While she notes that it is not the main contributor to violent crime, her time covering public health has shown Abbott that the “sexualisation of society” has also caused complications.
“There is also an issue that boys as young as eight are viewing hardcore pornography online. You’ve got your smartphone, you can see stuff you could have never have seen at that age... There is an argument that exposure to hardcore pornography is connected with violence.”
But what would a Labour government do about it? Abbott points to pledges on increasing police numbers and investing more in education and local government. She also says Labour would “want to use the law” to encourage companies such as Google and Twitter “to take stuff down much more quickly”. A Labour government, she continues, would also play a role in improving sex education to include more teachings around the notion of consent.
As talk turns to matters unrelated to her brief, the dynamic of the conversation changes. We start with the formation of The Independent Group in parliament. On the eight Labour MPs who left the party, Abbott says “we’re all really sad they’ve left”.
“The one I do feel sorry for is Luciana [Berger]. I feel sorry for her because this thing about being eight months pregnant, and you’ve got all this stress and strain, extraordinary general meetings, votes of no-confidence, it’s the kind of stress no one should endure when they’re eight months pregnant,” she says.
With Chris Williamson suspended pending an investigation days before we meet, and the party still marred by claims of anti-Semitism, how has Abbott viewed the whole debacle? She pauses. “It’s very distressing. I’ve spent a career fighting racism and anti-Semitism,” she replies.
Has the party handed it well, I ask. Abbott, who has been lucid and engaged throughout our time together, pauses once more. “I think the party has tried to do its best.”
Another contentious topic is that of Brexit, with Labour having recently pledged to push for a second referendum at the forthcoming meaningful vote. I ask what Abbott thinks about another plebiscite.
“The Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is a member-led party, and the majority of members support a second referendum. So, I think that’s why we’ve moved towards supporting one,” she says after some reflection.
But what does she personally think? “Well, it forms part of our policy that a second referendum is something that we are prepared to consider. I would say, and I have said that with a second referendum, people need to be careful what they wish for. The danger is that Remain wouldn’t necessarily win, that Leave would win again. But the majority of party members support it and so I think it’s the right move for the leadership of the Labour party to respect that,” she replies.
Buoyed by early success, Abbott has pursued her ambitions without being held back by naysayers who doubt her potential. With that in mind, would she run for the Labour leadership again?
“No,” she replies definitively. “Once is enough when it comes to running for the leadership.”
Though her aspirations for the top job have faded, it seems there is still more to be written about the Labour frontbencher. While she doesn’t write as much as she used to, she still hopes to one day jot down her memoirs. “But not quite yet,” she concludes. “The story is not yet over.”