- Interview by
- Jason Okundaye
Diane Abbott has had a landmark political career. First, as an activist with the Labour Party Black Sections, she forced a party which had entirely white political representation to confront issues of systemic racism in Britain. Then, in 1987, she became the first Black woman elected to parliament – and is today the longest-serving Black MP in Westminster history.
In 2010, Diane Abbott made history again as the first Black MP to contest the leadership of a political party in Britain. Launching in a sixth form centre on 28th May 2010, as a backbench MP against four men who had just served in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, Abbott’s campaign was motivated by a desire to challenge the party machinery – and offer party members better than a continuation of the New Labour consensus.
Ten years after launching her campaign, Abbott sits down with Tribune columnist Jason Okundaye to reflect on the leadership bid, its importance for the Labour Party, how , and how 2010 laid the groundwork for Corbyn’s eventual victory in 2015.
Diane, it’s the 10th anniversary of your leadership campaign. What was it that motivated you to run for the leadership, particularly considering the pool of contenders you were facing against – Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, and Andy Burnham?
At first, I wasn’t considering doing it at all. But I started to get letters from the public saying, “Why don’t you run?” Because the leadership candidates that were going forward were Ed, Ed, Andy and David. And at first I thought no, these guys have been planning to run for ages, and have built up a machine. But then Harriet Harman pressed me very strongly to run.
Now Harriet and I are not on the same wing of the party at all, but I’ve known Harriet for a very long time. I knew her before I became a member of parliament. We both worked for an organisation which is now called Liberty. She was a legal officer and I was a legislative officer. We were on friendly terms in parliament, we weren’t that close politically. But Harriet, ever since I’ve known her, is a very strong feminist. And she thought it was completely ridiculous that in 2010 the Labour party candidates were all white men. She thought it was just ridiculous.
Not only were they all white men, they were all white men of a really quite similar background. They had all been to Oxford or Cambridge, and they’d all been policy advisors. And Harriet felt strongly that it would make the party look terrible, if this is all we could find to compete for the leadership.
So when she said it to me, and I started to take the idea seriously. I saw her argument that we needed a more varied slate of candidates. And then David Lammy said to me, “you really should run.” And he said, “if you run, I will nominate you,” because you had to have a certain number of nominations to run. In the end, I decided to have a go.
When you launched your campaign in a Hackney sixth form centre, the focus on civil liberties was quite striking. New Labour had entrenched authoritarian governance in this country to new degrees, and in those years you made several speeches in parliament where you spoke against policies such as the 42 days detention. What was it that made you focus your leadership campaign on civil liberties? Was it your belief that the party needed to break with this record?
Well, I focused on civil liberties because I’d been through this very authoritarian period with New Labour after 9/11. I made speeches and campaigned and voted against some of their more authoritarian measures, such as the [2006 Terrorism Act] 90 days detention without trial. I knew that there were party members who felt very strongly about it also, but they weren’t getting a message from any of the others about it.
I also talked about immigration, because when we went into that leadership campaign everybody, including Ed Miliband, was saying, “one of the reasons we lost is because we’re not saying the right things about immigration. And we have to reach out to voters in the North.” It was actually a similar debate to the one we have now.
When I ran I was clear about taking the progressive position on migration. I was also clear about my family background, with a mother and father who were both immigrants from the Caribbean. And that campaign, there were 52 rallies and meetings – live rallies and meetings, it wasn’t the online Zoom era! And I think, to their astonishment, my four male colleagues found that me talking about immigration and my own background got a very strong response from party members.
And so, one consequence of me running is certainly that, in the course of the campaign, they backed off some of the things they’d been saying about immigration as the campaign began. They also started talking about their family background, which was curious. They hadn’t done that before.
Towards the end of the campaign, one of the people that was working for Ed Balls said, “if we’re not careful, you’ll all get confused and Ed will start saying he’s Spanish and Jamaican, Andy Burnham will start saying that his father was a Jewish academic.” I made it a personal thing about my background, that’s why I cared so strongly about migration.
You had, until then, spent twenty-three years as a backbench MP. How did the leadership campaign transform the working relationship between you and your parliamentary colleagues?
I had spent twenty-odd years on the backbenches and although I knew of Ed, Ed, David, and Andy, I never had much to do with them. For one thing, they’d all come in after I came into parliament. And for another thing, they were New Labour people. But, as I said, we did 52 meetings, we went up and down the country, Scotland, Wales, all over. And so we got to know each other, when we hadn’t known each other before, and it was quite interesting.
They had been within this kind of New Labour bubble, but going up and down the country and talking to party members, they realised there was an audience, there was an enthusiasm among all these party members for the kinds of politics I was talking about. And I think that took them aback slightly. So I do think, although I didn’t win and never really expected to win, I changed the nature of the debate.
How did your parliamentary staff, who would have been working on lower profile projects for years before your 2010 leadership campaign, support you at this transformative stage?
She doesn’t still work in my team because she’s now the member of parliament for Streatham! But Bell Ribeiro-Addy worked in the 2010 campaign and worked for me until last year and the 2019 general election. And the thing about the leadership campaign is, because you were going up against great odds, you learn how loyal people were, right?
You didn’t work on my leadership campaign because you wanted to advance your career in the Labour Party, let me put it that way. You worked on it because you thought it was the right thing to do. I still have people that I work with, and not necessarily just my staff, but I work with, that I got to know in 2010 and then again, actually, in 2015.
So I’ve got two people in my office that worked for me in 2015. Because the thing I most value in staff is loyalty. And when you run a campaign like 2010, or then in 2015, then you see how loyal people are.
Do you feel that your leadership campaign inspired hope for leftists in the party more generally, or at least those who wanted to champion your kind of politics?
There’s no question that me running at all made a lot of the left more hopeful – because they’d been faced with a set of candidates, none of whom were on the left. So having a left-winger run was important to a lot of people and gave them hope.
Having a left-winger run and take on New Labour and authoritarianism and some of the things they wanted to say about immigration, their attitudes on privatisation and so on, it gave people something to support. Although I didn’t win, I did better than everybody expected. The election was a kind of electoral college, so individual MPs had weighted votes, and trade unions had a block vote, and so on. But had it been a simple, one person, one vote election, I believe I might’ve come third based on party member support.
What was it like encountering the party machine again for the first time since you had run for selection as a member of parliament? Naturally, one of the greatest battles of your political career was being elected in the first place, as a member of Black Sections. And then after a backbench career where you had become well known as a media figure, to go against the party machine as a Black, left-wing candidate – it must have been intimidating.
Well, it was challenging because there was no question that the candidate that the party machine favoured was David Miliband. Not his brother, not Ed Balls, not Andy Burnham, but David Miliband.
It was a bonding experience for the rest of us because we could see that David had access to data which could only have come from the party, and that we didn’t have access to. We’d go to new towns to do our rallies and our supporters would say they’d been rung up by David Miliband’s people.
We didn’t have lists of party members all over the country, so in all sorts of ways, he had the support of the party machine. I even remember, on the day – this was in Manchester, when they were going to make the announcement of who had won – I remember before the announcement was made and before they told us, we went on stage just to see where we would sit. David made quite a big deal out of it, as if he assumed he was going to be the one standing in front of the microphone saying “thank you very much!”
In terms of the media, I think it’s true that before I ran for the leadership, I was more known as a kind of media figure because I wasn’t on the front bench. I got no support or encouragement from the party leadership, from Blair, and so on. But I had twenty-three years doing this work, and a lot of people that might not necessarily follow parliament knew of me.
But running for the leadership reinforced my position in the party. So for instance, after Ed Miliband won, he was obligated to offer me a role on the frontbench. It wasn’t a fantastically senior role, but it was something on the frontbench, and there was never any question of being on the frontbench before.
What was your view, at the time, of the unions and much of the left more broadly supporting Ed Miliband as a compromise candidate? Were you right to stand against that and run on a left-wing platform?
I don’t think people thought it was realistic to have a Black woman as leader. And in fact, I did all these different rallies and you could almost sense it from the audience. ‘What’s she doing up there?’ Not nastily necessarily, but what is she doing there?
So, I developed a line to reflect what I knew people were thinking, and I said it at nearly every rally. What I’d always say is, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at me and you’re thinking that I may agree with her on some things, but she doesn’t look like a leader of the Labour Party.” And then I would say, “But I am saying to you, that in 2010, in an international and globalised world, in a diverse Labour Party, this is what the leader of the Labour Party looks like.”
There was undoubtedly a sense that people, even Black people, couldn’t imagine a Black woman as leader of the party. But having said that, when I ran for parliament in ’87, there were people that couldn’t imagine me as a member of parliament. So I’ve taken on this cultural disbelief before, and I took it on one more time in 2010.
What was it like being on the shadow frontbench as compared to those years as a backbench MP. Did you, at times, feel like you were compromising your principles?
Not really, because in the end, Miliband had to sack me because I wouldn’t compromise my beliefs. The big issue was the bombing of Syria. He sacked me because I did speak out against that, and other stuff that was going on in the Middle East. And he said to me, when he sacked me, “You know I don’t like doing this, but I don’t want to fall out.” And then he asked me, “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” And I said, “You’re leader of the Labour Party, of course you’re doing the right thing.”
Is your relationship with Ed good now?
There was a whole sort of cadre – Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham, which I was never really part of. It was running for the leadership that put me on speaking terms with them. I wouldn’t say I have a close relationship with Ed Miliband, but I think he’s a good guy.
Do you think the Labour Party will see a Black leader, and who do you think it’s likely to be?
I’d like to think that the Labour Party would see a Black leader. I mean, I wouldn’t want to say who. There’s a lot of really talented Black women that came in at the 2017 election, and again in 2019. And I think any of them could be a potential leader of the party. Remember, David Cameron had only been in parliament five years when he became the leader of the Conservative Party. So some of the really talented Black women that came in during the last couple of years could surprise everybody in a few years and become leader of the party.
Final question from me. Your leadership campaign, did you have fun?
I enjoyed the campaign. Somebody told me years ago, “There’s only two types of election campaigns that you can really enjoy. Campaigns where you’re certain you’re going to win, and campaigns you know you can’t win.” I knew I couldn’t win, so I could have fun. And actually, we did better, particularly in front of Labour Party audiences, than anyone ever anticipated.
In the end, we got a good vote. And in the end, we stood up. I stood up for things I believed in, and laid the groundwork for Jeremy Corbyn winning in 2015. So yes, I did enjoy it, and I’m glad I did it. It was worth doing, and it helped to advance issues of racial justice, which is what this was all about.