Diane Abbott

Last updated on 18 September 2017

Diane Julie Abbott MP (born 27 September 1953) is a British Labour Party politician who was appointed Shadow Home Secretary in October 2016. She was first elected as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Hackney North and Stoke Newington at the 1987 general election, when she became the first black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons.[2]

Born in Paddington, London, Abbott studied History at Newnham College, Cambridge. She worked in the Civil Service and as a reporter for Thames Television and TV-am before becoming a press officer for the Greater London Council. Abbott was elected to Westminster City Council in 1982 and as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington in 1987. She unsuccessfully stood in the 2010 Labour leadership election, but was appointed as Shadow Minister for Public Health by Ed Miliband. She also unsuccessfully attempted to be the Labour candidate for the 2016 London mayoral election.

Abbott supported Jeremy Corbyn in his bid to become leader and was given a job as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. After multiple resignations in the Shadow Cabinet, she was promoted to Shadow Health Secretary, and further promoted to Shadow Home Secretary after Andy Burnham left to contest the Manchester Mayoral election. Following a series of poor interviews in the run up to the 2017 election, Abbott was temporarily replaced as Shadow Home Secretary by Lyn Brown. After the election, Abbott revealed that she suffered from type 2 diabetes, saying that it had affected her performance. With her condition back under control, she returned to her position.

Abbott is seen as being on the left of the Labour party and has voted against the party on several occasions, notably voting against the Iraq War, the introduction of ID cards and the renewal of Britain's nuclear deterrent. She has appeared frequently in the media, featuring in Have I Got News for You, Celebrity Come Dine with Me and Cash in the Celebrity Attic.

Official portrait of Ms Diane Abbott crop 2.jpg
Official portrait of Ms Diane Abbott crop 2.jpg

Early life and career

Abbott was born to Jamaican parents in Paddington, London, in 1953. Her father was a welder and her mother a nurse.[3] She attended Harrow County Grammar School for Girls, and then Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read history.[4] At Cambridge, she was tutored by historian Simon Schama.[5] She has since said that Cambridge was the making of her.[6]

After university she became an administration trainee (a fast track route to senior positions in the UK Civil Service[7]) at the Home Office (1976 to 1978), and then a Race Relations Officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties (1978 to 1980).[8] Abbott was a researcher and reporter at Thames Television from 1980 to 1983 and then a researcher at the breakfast television company TV-am from 1983 to 1985.[9] Abbott was a press officer at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone from 1985 to 1986 and Head of Press and Public Relations at Lambeth Council from 1986 to 1987.[8]

Political career

Abbott's career in politics began in 1982 when she was elected to Westminster City Council, serving until 1986. In 1983 she was active in the Black Sections movement, alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, campaigning for greater ethnic minority political representation.[10][9] In 1985 she unsuccessfully fought to be selected in Brent East, losing out to Ken Livingstone.[11] In 1987 she was elected to the House of Commons, replacing the deselected serving Labour MP Ernie Roberts as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington. Abbott was the first woman from an African Caribbean background to become an MP, elected in the same year as Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng.[12]

Diane Abbott low quality.jpg
Diane Abbott at the third European Social Forum in 2006.

Abbott's speech on civil liberties, in the debate on the Counter-Terrorism Bill 2008[13] won The Spectator magazine's "Parliamentary Speech of the Year" award[14] and further recognition at the 2008 Human Rights awards.[15]

Abbott has served on a number of parliamentary committees on social and international issues and held shadow ministerial positions. For most of the 1990s she also served on the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons.[16] She went on to serve on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.[16]

Abbott chairs the All-Party Parliamentary British-Caribbean Group and the All-Party Sickle Cell and Thalassemia Group.[16]

Abbott is founder of the London Schools and the Black Child initiative, which aims to raise educational achievement levels amongst black children.[17]

In May 2010, she was re-elected in her constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, with a doubled majority on an increased turn-out.[18] She was again re-elected in 2015 with 62% of the vote.[19]

At Goldsmiths, University of London, on 26 October 2012, a jubilee celebration was held to honour Abbott's 25 years in parliament, with a series of concerts by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kadija Sesay, Tunday Akintan and others.[20][21]

2010 leadership election and frontbench role

On 20 May 2010, Abbott announced her intention to stand in the Labour leadership contest. She secured the necessary 33 nominations by 9 June, assisted by the withdrawal of left-wing candidate John McDonnell and support from David Miliband and Jack Straw, among others.[22][23] On Saturday 25 September 2010, Ed Miliband was announced as the new leader of the Labour Party with Abbott eliminated in the first round of voting after securing 7.24% of votes.[24]

Abbott was later appointed Shadow Minister for Public Health by Ed Miliband, taking shadow responsibility for a range of issues including children's health, maternity services, sexual health, tobacco, nursing, obesity and alcohol abuse.[25]

On the issue of abortion, Abbott has become a vocal ‘pro-choice’ supporter, opposing moves towards changing abortion counselling policy, and reducing the abortion time limit. Abbott resigned from a cross-party group on abortion counselling saying it was no more than a front to push forward an anti-abortion agenda without debate in parliament.[26]

Following her move onto the front-bench, the Telegraph said on 27 September 2011 that Abbott had "become one of Labour’s best front bench performers".[27]

Removal from the front bench and 2015 London mayoral election

On 8 October 2013, Abbott was sacked as shadow public health minister in a reshuffle by Labour leader Ed Miliband,[28] and replaced as Shadow Public Health Minister by Luciana Berger.[29][30]

On 5 February 2013, following the Second Reading, Abbott voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.[31]

On 23 June 2014, Abbott had stated she would consider standing in the London mayoral election, 2016, as Mayor of London.[32] On 30 November 2014, Abbott announced her intention to put herself forward to become Labour's candidate at the London mayoral elections in 2016.[33] She was unsuccessful in her bid for Labour's 2015 London mayoral election nomination.

She was one of 16 signatories of an open letter to Ed Miliband in January 2015 calling on the party to commit to oppose further austerity, take rail franchises back into public ownership and strengthen collective bargaining arrangements.[34]

Return to the front bench

An ally of Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott was one of 36 Labour MPs to nominate him as a candidate in the Labour leadership election of 2015.[35] Following Corbyn's election as Labour leader, Abbott was appointed to the post of Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.[36]

On 27 June 2016, after the resignations of many of Labour's ministerial team including Heidi Alexander in the aftermath of Brexit, Abbott was promoted to the position of Shadow Health Secretary.[37]

On 6 October 2016, after the resignation of Andy Burnham, Abbott was appointed Shadow Home Secretary. She was sworn of the Privy Council on 15 February 2017.[38]

2017 general election

During the 2017 general election campaign on 2 May 2017, Labour’s pledge to recruit an extra 10,000 police officers was overshadowed by Abbott's inability to give accurate funding figures. In an interview on LBC Radio with Nick Ferrari, she repeatedly struggled to explain how the promise would be funded. In the interview, which was described by the Conservative Party as “excruciating”, Abbott frequently paused, shuffled her papers and gave out the wrong figures. When asked about her performance, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, insisted he was not embarrassed by what many pundits called a “car crash” interview.[39]

In a further interview conducted by ITV on 5 May 2017, as the 2017 local elections results were being announced, Abbott was again unable to give accurate figures on the Labour party's performance suggesting that the party had a net loss of 50 seats. However, her figure was corrected by the interviewer who stated that Labour had in fact lost 125 seats, at which point Abbott said that the last figures she had seen were a net loss of around 100.[40]

Appearing on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning programme for the BBC on 28 May, Abbott's apparent support for the IRA nearly 35 years ago came up, along with some parliamentary votes Marr thought questionable. These included her advocacy of the abolition of "conspiratorial groups" such as MI5 and Special Branch in the late 1980s, both of which she said had been successfully reformed. She defended a vote opposing the proscription of a list of groups, including al-Qaida, on the basis that some of the others had the status of dissidents in their country of origin and Abbott would have voted to ban al-Qaida in isolation.[41] Reportedly this appearance was arranged without the consent of Labour's campaign team.[42]

On 5 June 2017, during a Sky News interview, Abbott was unable to answer questions about the Harris report on how to protect London from terror attacks. She insisted that she had read the report, but was unable to recall any of the 127 recommendations. When asked if she could remember the specific recommendations, Abbott said "I think it was an important review and we should act on it".[43][44] Abbott also denied reports Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell were attempting to stop her from making broadcasts.[42][45] The next day, Abbott withdrew citing illness at the last minute from a joint interview on Women's Hour on 6 June with her Conservative frontbench opposite number Amber Rudd also participating.[46]

On 7 June, Corbyn announced that Abbott was "not well" and had stepped aside in her role as Shadow Home Secretary. Lyn Brown was temporarily assigned to replace her.[47] Barry Gardiner said in radio interview on LBC that Abbott had been diagnosed with having a "long-term" medical condition and was "coming to terms with that".[48]

In spite of these controversies, Abbott was resoundingly re-elected in her seat of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, receiving 75% of the constituency's votes with an increased majority of over 35,000.[49] The following week it became known that Abbott was diagnosed as suffering from type 2 diabetes two years ago. "During the election campaign, everything went crazy – and the diabetes was out of control, the blood sugar was out of control", she told The Guardian. Dealing with six or seven interviews in a row became problematic because she was not eating enough food which forced a break upon her. The condition is now back under control.[50] Abbott returned to the role of Shadow Home Secretary on 18 June.[51]

Media work

Until her appointment as a shadow minister in October 2010, Abbott appeared alongside former Conservative politician and media personality Michael Portillo on the BBC's weekly politics digest This Week. Abbott and Portillo have known each other since school, when they appeared in joint school productions of Romeo and Juliet (although not in the title roles), and of Macbeth as Lady Macduff and Macduff respectively.[52]

In August 2012 the BBC Trust ruled that payments to Abbott for her appearances on This Week were made in breach of BBC guidelines that banned payments to MPs who were representing their political parties. For her part, Abbott had correctly declared the payments in the Parliamentary Register of Members' Interests. The Trust also said that Abbott had appeared on the show too often.[53]

Abbott is a frequent public speaker,[54] newspaper contributor[55] and TV performer, appearing on programmes such as Have I Got News for You,[56] Celebrity Come Dine with Me[57] and Cash in the Celebrity Attic.[58]

Abbott was shortlisted for the Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Award in 2015 for her work on London Schools and the Black Child, and remains in the directory of the Grassroot Diplomat Who's Who publication.[59]

Political positions

Abbott has a record of differing from some party policies, voting against the Iraq war,[6] opposing ID cards and campaigning against the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons.[60][61]

Saudi Arabia

Abbott criticised David Cameron's government for its continued support for Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen. In March 2016, Abbott wrote: "over the past year alone, Britain has sold around £6bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, whose campaign in Yemen is targeting civilians – 191 such attacks have collectively been reported by the UN, HRW and Amnesty."[62]

Brexit

In January 2017, Abbott stated that Labour could oppose the bill to trigger Article 50 if Labour's amendments are rejected.[63] She abstained from voting on the second reading of the Brexit Bill, after becoming ill hours before the vote,[64] and later voted in favour at the third and final reading.

Political controversies

Education of Abbott's son

Abbott's decision in 2003 to send her son to the private City of London School after criticising colleagues for sending their children to selective schools, which she herself described as "indefensible" and "intellectually incoherent", caused controversy and criticism.[65][66][67][68]

Her son contacted a radio phone-in to say that his mother was following his own wishes: "She's not a hypocrite, she just put what I wanted first instead of what people thought," he told LBC. He added that he had wanted to go private rather than attend a local state school in Abbott's Hackney constituency.[69][70][71]

Register of Members' Interests

In 2004, following a complaint made by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, Abbott was investigated by the Committee on Standards and Privileges regarding payments she had received from the BBC. The committee found that she had failed to declare earnings of £17,300 in the Register of Members' Interests she had received for appearances on the television programme This Week. The Committee upheld the complaint and required Abbott to apologise to the House.[72]

Comments on race

In a 1984 interview with the journal of the Labour Committee on Ireland (LCI), when asked if she saw herself as Black British, Abbott replied "No - I would self-define myself just as Black. Though I was born here in London, I couldn't identify as British and anyway most British people don't accept us as British. God! British people can be so racist".[73][74]

In 1988, Abbott claimed at a black studies conference in Philadelphia that "the British invented racism."[75]

In 1996, Abbott was criticised after she claimed that at her local hospital "blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girls" were unsuitable as nurses because they had "never met a black person before".[76] Abbott's apology came as Marc Wadsworth, executive member of the Anti-Racist Alliance, who is half-Finnish, pointed out that the then-current Miss Finland, Lola Odusoga, is black, of Nigerian and Finnish descent. "She's a black Finn like me," he said. Abbott's position was supported by fellow Labour MP Bernie Grant: "Bringing someone here from Finland who has never seen a black person before and expecting them to have some empathy with black people is nonsense. Scandinavian people don't know black people—they probably don't know how to take their temperature".[77][78]

On 4 January 2012, Abbott tweeted that: "White people love playing 'divide and rule' We should not play their game", which again led to widespread criticism including accusations of racism.[79] Only after being told by the Labour Party leadership that the comment was unacceptable did she apologise for "any offence caused", claiming that she had not intended to "make generalisations about white people".[80][81] The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called her comments a "stupid and crass generalisation". Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP, said: "This is racism. If this was a white member of Parliament saying that all black people want to do bad things to us he would have resigned within the hour or been sacked."[82] Members of the public lodged complaints but the Metropolitan Police stated that no investigation would be launched and no charges would be brought against her, saying she "did not commit a criminal offence."[83]

In January 2012 Abbott suggested that taxi drivers discriminate on racial grounds, tweeting that she was "Dubious of black people claiming they’ve never experienced racism. Ever tried hailing a taxi I always wonder?"[84]

In a Guardian article in February 2017, Abbott wrote about receiving racist and sexist abuse online every day.[85] Soon afterwards, in an interview with Sophy Ridge on Sky News, Abbott proposed a parliamentary inquiry into the sexist and racist abuse of MPs in social media and the way Twitter and Facebook investigate cases which arise.[86]

IRA

The Sunday Times in May 2017 reported that Abbott backed the IRA in a 1984 interview with Labour and Ireland, a pro-republican journal.[73][87] In the 1984 interview, Abbott criticised the Unionist population of Northern Ireland as an “enclave of white supremacist ideology comparable to white settlers in Zimbabwe" and called for their views to be ignored on the question of Unification adding "Ireland is our struggle — every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us. A defeat in Northern Ireland would be a defeat indeed".[73][74]

In May 2017, while Shadow Home Secretary, she was asked several times by Andrew Marr if she regretted the comments but she would only say some of her views had changed, like her hairstyle. She told Marr: "It was 34 years ago and I've moved on".[88]

Charging fees for speeches to students

In 2017, Abbott was criticised after it emerged that in 2011, she charged the University of Birmingham £1,750 for a 50-minute speech. An online petition called on Abbott to repay the money to be used for educational purposes.[89]

Personal life

Abbott had a brief relationship with current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he was a councillor in north London in the late 1970s,[90][91] before marrying Richard Thompson, a Ghanaian architect, in 1991. They had one son together before divorcing in 1993.[3][92] Abbott chose her Conservative MP voting pair, Jonathan Aitken, as her son's godfather.[93]

In 2007, Abbott began learning the piano under the tutelage of Paul Roberts, Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for the TV programme Play It Again.[94] She performed Frédéric Chopin's Prelude No. 4 in E minor before an audience.[94]

Abbott was diagnosed as suffering from type 2 diabetes in 2015.[50][95]

References

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External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Ernie Roberts
Member of Parliament
for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

1987–present
Incumbent
Political offices
Preceded by
Gillian Merron
Shadow Minister for Public Health
2010–2013
Succeeded by
Luciana Berger
Preceded by
Mary Creagh
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
2015–2016
Succeeded by
Kate Osamor
Preceded by
Heidi Alexander
Shadow Secretary of State for Health
2016
Succeeded by
Jon Ashworth
Preceded by
Andy Burnham
Shadow Home Secretary
2016–present
Incumbent

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