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Diane Abbott: "She won't be quitting any time soon"

LIFELONG FRIENDS: Former reporter and presenter Marc Wadsworth, left, alongside Diane Abbott

WHEN THE votes were counted last Thursday in east London’s Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency it showed Labour MP Diane Abbott not only increased her majority by more than 11,000, it significantly marked almost 30 years to the day that she was first elected to the House of
Commons.

SERVING

On June 11, 1987 Abbott, along with three others – Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz created history by becoming the first African Caribbean and Asian MPs elected to the Parliament. She is now the longest serving black female MP in the House.

Last week’s result was very poignant for Abbott as it saw her soundly overcome the public humiliation and ridicule she faced in the run-up to the election after right-wing politicians and their supporters in the mainstream press singled her out as someone the voters should fear holding office.

Abbott had hoped to celebrate 30 years in Parliament this year by becoming the boss of the government department she once worked in as a trainee, but a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, only revealed to the public after the election, saw the 63 year-old removed from her post as shadow home secretary by her close friend and leader Jeremy Corbyn on the eve of an election that sent shock waves through British politics.


STANDING STRONG: Diane Abbott

Abbott held her rock solid Labour seat, with an even bigger vote than in 2015, despite a vicious campaign against her. Tory politicians and the press singled her out as a bogey woman their supporters should fear holding office.

In her victory speech, she said:

“The Conservative party fought a campaign characterised by the politics of personal destruction, and yet the British people have seen past that.”

During the campaign, radio and TV appearances in which she was ambushed by interviewers asking questions she couldn’t answer – unusual for media-savvy Abbott – led to speculation about her health.

Comedian and journalist Ava Vidal noted anti-Abbott abuse had gone viral online. She said:

“Diane has faced an increasingly aggressive, threatening tone on Twitter following her appointment to Labour’s front bench.

“As a black woman, I and many of us will be asking, ‘is this the price we have to pay for participating in politics on the front line?’”


BACK IN THE DAY: From left - Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Jeremy Corbyn and colleague pictured in 1987

There were happier times for Abbott. One was at a trendy Stoke Newington Thai restaurant, where she moved from table to table greeting party activists and their guests at a fundraising dinner for her election campaign. It was an event I attended which was held to congratulate Abbott on the 30th anniversary of her election as Britain’s first black female MP.

Graham Bash, one of Corbyn’s closest allies, reminded me of a role I played as chair of the Labour Party Black Sections movement to help get her selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate.

Fiercely ambitious Abbott had been elected a Westminster councillor in 1982 and later tried to become an MP, without success.

London Labour Briefing magazine editor Bash was an influential member of the Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour parliamentary selection committee and initially backed the elderly sitting MP, ex-trade union official Ernie Roberts, because he thought Abbott was not as left-wing. Bash said:

“You played a key role in this. Ernie was the MP and there were three major candidates [including Ernie] as far as the left were concerned. The third was Hilda Keane, leader of Hackney council. Diane won by a couple of votes.”


DARKER DAYS: From left - Diane Abbott, Mayor Sadiq Khan and Home Secretary Amber Rudd with wreaths for those who died in the recent London Bridge terror attacks

He added:

“A fortnight beforehand, you gave me a lecture. ‘You’re committed to antiracism’, you said, so you’ve got to support Diane. And, I have to say, you were right, because she has consistently voted with the left in Parliament.”

Born to Jamaican parents in Paddington, London, in 1953, her father was a welder and mother a nurse. Top of the class, Abbott attended grammar school before winning a place at Cambridge, where she studied history. After graduation, Abbott worked as a Home Office trainee administrator for two years, before deciding that being a civil servant wasn’t for her. She became a race relations officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties, where former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman also worked.

Abbott was a researcher at my old employer Thames Television from 1980 to 1983, leaving to do the same job at the breakfast television company TV-Am.

The brief time she spent in each job – a couple of years each – made Rob Kirk, an editor at Thames TV when she was there, conclude: “I think she was happier as a politician than a journalist because that was her aim in life.”

Abbott flirted with being a town hall press officer, first at Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and then at Lambeth.


GRAFTER: A young Abbott hard at work

She was a Black Sections activist alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, who also made history by being elected MPs in June 1987, the same year as her. Boateng and Vaz became ministers – the former the first black cabinet member.

CONTROVERSY

Abbott’s career has not been without controversy. She was criticised for sending her son to a private school, after criticising other Labour politicians for doing the same. She also got into hot water after her appointment to the front bench.

Ed Miliband had made her health spokesperson.

Red top papers hysterically claimed she was racist when she said on Twitter to a black woman “white people like to divide and rule”. To keep her job, Abbott had to apologise. I went on TV to defend her, and got online abuse for doing so.

Some of Abbott’s friends say perhaps now is the time for her to bow out of politics while she is still held in such high esteem by her supporters. One said:

“Diane says she wants to set up a foundation.”

Abbott used to hold an annual conference about black boys and the school system. She would make a brilliant ambassador for this and other important community causes. But my hunch is she relishes being an MP, with the privileges, status and political platform it provides. And, with or without ministerial office, she won’t be quitting any time soon.

Marc Wadsworth was a Thames Television reporter and presenter and is editor of the-latest.com

A timeline of Diane Abbott's achievements will be included in another special piece celebrating her victory - check back tomorrow at 9am GMT to read it.

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