Interview: Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott leaves a New Statesman hustings event during the campaign
Diane Abbott leaves a New Statesman hustings event during the campaign

Diane Abbott talks to about her opponents, civil liberties and whether she'll return to the Daily Politics sofa.

By Ian Dunt

Apparently, modern Britain is too obsessed with staring at the screen in our living room. Politics is now supposedly a regrettable battle of TV personalities. So why did Diane Abbott only make it onto the ballot paper through the intervention of David Miliband, who himself only backed her in an attempt to create a more diverse Labour leadership race?

Surely Abbott's TV profile, not to mention the fact she is the only woman and the only black person running, should have given her some sort of boost, if not among MPs, then among the media and Labour members? If it has, we didn't notice.

Personally, I never enjoyed This Week, the Westminster programme which Abbott shares with Michael Portillo and Andrew Neil, simply because it's on too late, and the last thing I want to see before going to bed is the face of the former editor of the Sunday Times. But not everyone has my taste, and most political people watch it regularly.

Among much of the Westminster media, even in the most right-wing newspapers, Abbott is well respected. People see her as genuine and committed to her causes. No-one dares complain about her constituency work either. She's known as one of the best case-work MPs in the country. At the last election she actually increased Labour's share of the vote by six per cent. That's worth repeating. Increased Labour's share of the vote by six per cent at the 2010 general election. Her parliamentary performance is held in equally high regard. I never got over her speech against 42-day detention in parliament two years ago. It was everything parliamentary speeches should be - angry and intermittently funny and completely dignified.

But nothing, not her colourful language, nor her reputation as a fierce constituency MP, nor her status as the first black woman to enter parliament, has made a difference. She's still an afterthought in the Labour leadership race. Her greatest impact has been in describing her fellow contenders as "geeky young men in suits".

I catch up with her in Scotland, where she is sort-of on holiday, but going to a bunch of political debates anyway. "Have you even had a proper holiday since the election?" I enquire.

"I don't have the money the other candidates have," she answers, ever the politician. "I've enjoyed my time in Scotland though."

"On the leadership race, did you intend for the 'geeky young men' quote to become the defining comment of your campaign?"

"It's interesting it's considered defining. It wasn't a phrase I used. It's a phrase Laura Kuenssberg used on the BBC and I wasn't demure about it. The issue from my four rivals is not so much what they look like but what they stand for on a whole range of political issues. They all want to stay in Afghanistan. None of them want to scrap Trident. None of them query public sector cuts. Their only concern is about timing."

Surely Ed Balls is pretty tough on public sector cuts, I suggest. He's already said he regrets the promise to halve the deficit in four years and he's the chief target of the coalition's 'deficit denier' tag.

"Ed Balls talks about timing not about overall size of cuts."

"Do you question the need to reduce the deficit then?"

"Of course not, but I think that the balance of 80% cuts to 20% tax rises is wrong. It should be 50/50. You could raise some of the money through taxation. I would have a financial transactions tax, a bank levy of double what the Tories are suggesting. I would scrap Trident, I would make cuts in defence spending. The real way to get out of the situation we're in is to grow, and massive cuts are not going to do that."

Abbott's clear appeal to the left of the party is struggling for space in a leadership race where Ed Miliband is considered the electable leftie in a crowded market. But that hasn't stopped her taking pot shots at his elder brother, David, whose speech demanding Labour never forgets the middle classes was met by a sarcastic laugh from the Hackney North MP. She promptly wrote a piece in the Independent reminding politicians that they are unlikely to forget the middle class while it still dominates the media and political establishment.

Does that mean she is intent on appealing to Labour's lost voters in the northern heartlands? "It's a phoney choice, saying Labour leaders have to choose between middle class voters and voters in the industrial north," she answers. "We lost support across all groups. It didn't just happen at the last general election. A lot of it was to do with economic issues. I think a lot of people on the door step were talking about immigration, but they talked about it as a proxy for other things - the lack of houses, job insecurity, the increase in agency workers. People talked about immigration but it's these underlying issues that need tackling."

Where does that put her in the developing Labour debate on how to tackle the coalition? Jon Cruddas, the left wing figurehead who opted for David Miliband, indicated he did so because he did not approve of Ed Miliband's incessant attacks on the Liberal Democrats, who he plainly views as fellow travellers who should be respected. Abbott's answer is measured, but it's clear she shares Ed Miliband's anger over their decision to get into bed with the Tories.

"There is widespread disappointment with the Liberal Democrats from people who voted for them in the last election about the way they support the huge cuts the Tories are proposing in the public sector," she argues. "But as a leadership candidate my emphasis has been about what I would do rather than about attacking them as such.

"I think that what people have been talking about is really Nick Clegg and the activities of Lib Dem MPs and it is a fact that they will vote for a rise in VAT and they are supporting the Tory cuts. The public are well aware of that - it doesn't take us to point it out. The next leader of the Labour party has to concentrate on rebuilding the party and sending a clear message out on where we stand on things like civil liberties and the economy. I don't think the public will thank us for concentrating on an internecine battle."

"By internecine do you mean within Labour or within the left?"

"I say that in the sense that we are all parliamentarians. The public aren't interested in parliamentarians attacking other parliamentarians."

In that collegiate spirit, or the trace amounts of it on offer, is there anything the coalition government is doing right?

"The anti-terror review," she answers, quick as a flash. "Control orders and so on. I actually got up in parliament and said that was something I welcome."

"How about ID cards?"

"Oh, I think generally on civil liberties, the fact they are going to look at not putting children in detention centres, for instance. These are thing of which I approve."

I'm still trying to establish why it is Abbott is getting no traction from her leadership bid. I ask about her decision to claim an iPhone on expenses, which we discovered when more members' allowances were released this summer, or the regurgitated palaver over her decision to send her child to private school.

"I have to tell you, I've been all over the country for ten weeks and no-one has raised your iPhone. In fact you're the first interviewer to raise it."

"Do you think it was right to claim it?"

"I think you're the first interviewer to raise it."

I move on to Ed Miliband, which isn't an ideal topic either, but in the tight race between the two siblings, Abbott could play an important role. If enough of her supporters put Ed Miliband as their second preference, he could edge ahead of his elder brother. Such a move would be politically rather sensible. The shadow energy secretary has already mentioned the possibility of Diane not having to return to the Daily Politics sofa when this is all done. Some reporters treated that as a hint she could be being lined up for a shadow Cabinet role.

"Have you decided on a second preference yet?" I ask.

She knows it matters, and if she's going to reveal it to an interviewer it evidently won't be me. "I haven't made up my mind. They've all got their merits," she says, slightly cold.

"And what happens if you don't win?" I ask. "Is it back to the This Week sofa, or is there a chance this might end with you getting a place in the shadow Cabinet?"

"I haven't embarked on this leadership campaign to get a seat in the shadow Cabinet. I've embarked to win it, but also to raise the issues which I know are of concern. If by chance I don't win I will continue campaigning on those issues."

It's an answer which plays down the prospect, but doesn't quite shut it down. If Ed Miliband does secure the leadership, Abbott could make a formidable front bencher. At this point, it seems that's the most that she can secure from this fight, which has seen the TV personality, complete with a solid parliamentary profile and a stunning constituency record, unable to get a foothold in the contest.

It's not the kind of thing you expect of the TV age, but Labour MPs, members and the unions clearly feel differently.


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