Being elected to parliament has been by far the greatest achievement — indeed the only notable achievement — of Diane Abbott’s political career. When she first entered the Commons, aged 33, at the 1987 General Election she was the first black woman ever to have become an MP. She was chosen as candidate for the safe London Labour seat of Hackney North and Stoke Newington when the sitting MP was deselected. Her Tory opponent in that first election was future Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin. The Conservatives’ constituency campaign offices were burnt down in that campaign by persons unknown. Abbott won with a majority of more than 7,000 — by 2010 it had doubled to more than 14,000. She was one of four ethnic minority MPs, all Labour, to enter parliament at the 1987 election — the first to identify as such since the 1920s.
Abbott remained the sole female ethnic minority MP for ten years; indeed until 2010 there were only ever two others. This fact — later combined with her sharing a sofa with her school contemporary Michael Portillo (Abbott attended Harrow County Grammar School for Girls, Portillo the boys’ school) every Thursday on Andrew Neil’s late-night politics show This Week — has raised Abbott’s profile way above what would be expected of a backbench MP who has never held office. It is fair to say that she is one of the best-known Labour MPs among the public outside the top few party figures.
Abbott now hopes to better these achievements by seeking to become the next Mayor of London. It is early days and polling is volatile but according to YouGov she is currently Labour party supporters’ second favourite choice after Tessa Jowell.
She is likely to fare rather better in the race for the Labour nomination than she did when she ran for the Labour leadership in 2010, arguing that a choice between four Oxbridge-educated white men was inadequate — and what was needed was an Oxbridge-educated black woman.
The left-winger Abbott needed to get 33 nominations from MPs to get on the ballot paper for the leadership. She managed to do so only by relying on endorsements not just from her natural constituency on the far-Left of the Labour party but also from people who explicitly opposed her, including rival candidate David Miliband and right-winger Kate Hoey. In the secret ballot of Labour MPs and MEPs she received seven votes, presumably including her own — just over 2 per cent of the electorate. Abbott did better among party members, still coming last but gaining just over 7 per cent of the vote and beating both Ed Balls and Andy Burnham among trade unionists. Clearly, those who know Abbott best are those least likely to back her.
Just why does Abbott have so little traction with her fellow Labour MPs? Partly this can be explained by her having been out of step with the Labour leadership for many years. She is a member of the Campaign Group of Labour MPs, the leftmost grouping in the parliamentary party, and was resolutely opposed to New Labour and the Blair interregnum, frequently rebelling against the official line.
This may explain why she was not offered ministerial office while Labour was in power, but it does not explain why she has so little appeal even to her fellow left-wingers. The Campaign Group has 15 members in the current parliament, so she received the vote of less than half of them.
Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that she gives a very good impression of being a terrific hypocrite. All her socialist principles would presumably drive her towards supporting the proposed Mansion Tax on properties worth over £2 million; after all, it is claimed to be a redistributive tax on privilege. But no, since becoming interested in the mayoralty — and noting that Londoners will be disproportionately hit by it — she has come out strongly against the tax.
The best-known case of Abbott’s hypocrisy was her decision to send her son to a leading fee-paying school, City of London. Of this, she said, “Private schools prop up the class system in society. It is inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school.”
Her justification? “I’m a West Indian mum and West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children.” Why West Indian mums should be different from other mothers remains a mystery. Such explanations may make Abbott seem more human, but they certainly don’t burnish her credentials for idealistic socialist leadership.
After her failed leadership bid Ed Miliband made Abbott Shadow Public Health Minister in 2010, about as junior an opposition front-bench post as it is possible to award. She was sacked in 2013 for being insufficiently loyal to the party line and for a lack of commitment to the post. Abbott showed little displeasure at her sacking; this is perhaps unsurprising as it enabled her to return to Neil’s cosy sofa and blather on with Portillo about the week’s political events — at £700 of BBC licence-fee-payers’ money per session.