Diane Abbott, The Authorised Biography: the journey of a Black woman who defied the odds and made history
Diane Abbott speaks in a fringe event, Labour party Conference 2019 | PA Images
Robin Bunce and Samara Linton have produced an enormously detailed and important political biography of Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black woman MP. Just don’t expect to read much about her personal life…
Diane Abbott made history in June 1987 – on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s third consecutive election victory – by becoming the first Black woman elected to Parliament. This very detailed authorised biography, by Robin Bruce and Samara Linton, tells of the unlikely journey of how the daughter of Jamaican immigrant parents, raised in Tory Harrow, excelled at her ‘posh’ grammar school as the only Black student and became an MP. It describes the journey, people and events along the way that established her firmly on the left of British politics. The phrases, ‘outspoken’ and ‘speaks her mind’ come up frequently.
This is an unequivocally a political biography, an important read for students of modern Black politics, and those in the Labour movement.
There’s enormous detail about her school life, and subsequently at Cambridge, again as the only Black woman there at the time. It struck me that had she gone to school in Hackney where she became an MP she would almost certainly never have got to Cambridge. According to Abbott’s headteacher “only 5% of working class young people went to university in 1973, and even smaller numbers got into Cambridge”.
There’s no doubt she was driven from an early age to succeed despite the number of times she was told she ‘wasn’t up to it’ and faced prejudices. Cambridge gave her the confidence and would hold her in good stead to go for a Parliamentary seat. It was also where she became a socialist.
In a first career move she had an interview with the prominent philosopher, Mary Warnock, who asked her why she wanted to work in the Home Office as a civil servant, to which Abbott replied, “Because I want power.” She got the job as a trainee.
Abbott working as the equality officer for film technicians’ union ACTT, 1986
There followed the journey within Labour – meeting Corbyn who would be a life-long friend and supporter – and emerging race relations politics, engagement with feminists, Black organisations and civil liberties groups. Her early attempts at selection to a number of Parliamentary seats, taught her that “there are no friends” in politics.
As a then resident in Hackney, I remember the night Abbott was elected as earth-shattering and controversial in equal measure. And there was no question that it was significant to the large BAME community living in Hackney. She was labelled an ‘extremist’ by some in the party, which was picked up by the media. Many in the Hackney Labour party wanted to have a Black MP to replace the long sitting and popular MP Ernie Roberts. Many didn’t.
Abbott always seemed to be an outsider on the backbenches of the PLP during the Blair and Brown years – and frequently rebelled against their policies.
Ever a tribal politician, there’s a significant section devoted to her opposition to the Coalition government – and equally her appearance’s on reality TV shows like Celebrity Come Dine with Me and Through the Keyhole.
Her decision to stand for the Labour leadership in 2010 changed all that. Not a frontrunner she wanted to challenge the all-white line up, and in doing so many think she changed the course of the contest. She was rewarded by Ed Miliband with a front bench role.
Her enduring friendship and loyalty to Corbyn comes under scrutiny, especially as their positions on Brexit appeared to diverge, with Corbyn considered a closet Brexiteer. Conscious that she represented an overwhelmingly Remain constituency, we’re left wondering if Abbott tried to persuade Corbyn to take a clearer Remain position, especially given how the Leave camp became associated with a right wing xenophobic campaign. It’s not clear.
Don’t expect to read anything about her personal life. What’s left out says as much as what’s left in. The controversial decision to send her son to a fee paying school is there – and gives us a rare glimpse of Abbott as a mother.
It’s revealed that Abbott receives 45% of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs. The racism and misogyny directed at her are eye-wateringly relentless.
Did Abbott achieve the ‘power’ she clearly craved? Reflecting on her 33 years as an MP she says, “I tried, I did my best.”
I see her as someone who somehow, despite the odds, slipped through the net. And she’s still standing.
Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography is by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton and published by Biteback
Baroness Hussein-Ece is a Lib Dem peer