Abbott, Diane 1953–
Diane Abbott 1953–
British member of Parliament
In 1987, Diane Abbott became the first black woman to be elected as a member of Parliament (MP) in Britain. Seven years later, although the number of black MPs had grown to six, she remained the only black female. When Abbott first decided to run for national office, she was perceived as a member of the “loony left” but has become less controversial the longer she has stayed in Parliament. Although well known for her radical, left-wing political views and her outspokenness, Abbott is one of the few politicians, observed Hunter Davies in the Independent, who “looks and acts like a human being.”
Abbott was born in 1953, in Paddington, a working-class neighborhood of London, to a welder and a nurse who had immigrated to Britain from Jamaica two years earlier. The family later moved four miles north to the lower-middle-class suburb of Harrow, where Abbott was the only black student at the Harrow County School for Girls. Even at this age, Abbott displayed her characteristic frankness. Frustrated with unchallenging English classes, Abbott informed the teacher that she would study the assigned books on her own instead. The fact that Abbott eventually earned an “A” did little to endear her to the teacher. Her parents, however, were always supportive; as she recalled in the Times, her father told her, “in order to get on, you have to be not just as good as white people, but better.”
Graduating with top marks, Abbott applied to Cambridge University, and was accepted, despite the doubts of her teachers. “My school didn’t send people to Oxford and Cambridge a lot,” she told the Times. “They were sort of proud of me, but only sort of.” Her history teacher had tried to dissuade Abbott from applying, claiming it would give her ambitions outside her social station, and make her a dissatisfied canteen worker in later life. Nevertheless, Abbott took her place at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she majored in history.
Abbott was one of three black female students at Newnham, but she was the only one to come from a working-class background. The traditionalism and elitism of Cambridge came as an unexpected shock; this time it was her class, rather than her race, that set her apart. “It was meeting class and privilege head-on,” Abbott explained in the Times. “I was terribly lonely.… In the end, though, I think it was a confidence-building experience.”
Although Abbott had been a high achiever at her grammar school, at Cambridge it was a different story, and she graduated
Born Diane Julie Abbott, September 27, 1953, in Paddington, London, Great Britain; daughter of Reginald Abbott, a welder, and Julia Abbott, a nurse; married David Thompson, an architect from Ghana, 1991; children: James. Education: Harrow County School for Girls; Newnham College, Cambridge University, B.A. in history. Politics: Radical wing of Labour party.
Administrative trainee for Home Office; race relations officer for National Council for Civil Liberties; researcher for Thames Television, c. early 1980s; reporter for TV-am, c. early 1980s; equality officer for Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT), 1985; press and public relations officer for Greater London Council; principal press officer for Lambeth Borough Council. Councillor, Westminster City Council, 1982–86; Member of Parliament, 1987—.
Member: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
with only average grades. She speculated in the Times that being “effortlessly top” perhaps had not been the best preparation for Cambridge, where all the other students had also been effortlessly top at their schools. In her final year, the college tutor asked her the standard questions about what career she wanted to pursue. “I said, ‘I want to do good,’” Abbott told the Times. “‘Ah,’ she said. ‘In that case, you should go into the civil service, and since you’re not very good at figures, the Treasury is out. But the next most powerful ministry is the Home Office.”’
The Home Office, for which there is no equivalent in U.S. politics, has long been the catchall for responsibilities left over from other, better-defined cabinet departments. As the Guardian has described it, the Home Office is responsible for “subjects as diverse as fire and films, summertime and sentencing, cremation and computers, not to mention cruelty to animals, relations between church and state, and civil defense.” In her initial interview, Abbott was asked why she wanted to join the Home Office. “Because I want power,” Abbott replied, as she later recalled in the Times. Apparently this was a satisfactory answer, and she joined the ministry as an administrative trainee.
After 18 months, however, Abbott realized that she would be unable to reform the Home Office singlehandedly, and left to take a job at the National Council for Civil Liberties. Surprisingly, she was their first black employee. “I found it very cloying, like walking through glue,” she told the Times. “Full of creepy liberals falling over backwards to be nice to you because you were black. It also gave me a lasting distaste for the race relations industry and the hypocrisy of making a living out of race.”
Next, Abbott tried the television industry, working as a researcher at Thames Television, and then as a reporter for TV-am. During this time, she was a member of the Association of Cinematograph, Television, and Allied Technicians (ACTT), and in 1985, the union offered her a job as equality officer. Abbott later moved into governmental public relations, working as press and public relations officer for the Greater London Council, and later as principal press officer for Lambeth Borough Council.
Meanwhile, Abbott remained an active member of the Labour Party, which she had joined in 1971. She first ran for office in 1982, when she was elected to the Westminster City Council representing the ward in which she had been born; she held this office for four years. In 1985, Abbott set her sights on Parliament, attempting to replace Ken Livingstone as the Labour candidate for the London district of Brent East. Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, was better known than Abbott, and he won the reelection contest easily by a margin of two to one. The following year, Abbott tried again, running for the Labour candidacy in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, part of London’s East End. Since Hackney was a “safe Labour seat” where a Conservative would stand little chance of being elected, the person chosen as the Labour candidate would be practically guaranteed a place in Parliament.
This time, Abbott was successful; however, she admitted to mixed feelings upon her selection as the Labour candidate, unseating Ernest Roberts, a 74-year-old MP who had first run for Parliament at the age of 67. First, she disliked replacing Roberts—a stalwart, if aging, left-winger— feeling that she would have preferred to put a Conservative out of a job. Second, she harbored ambivalent feelings about the House of Commons, just as she had about Cambridge. “There’s that club-like atmosphere which is both attractive and repellant,” she told the Times in the paper’s election run down. Still it looked certain that she was headed for Parliament. “And you notice how all the Labour and Tory members look so similar…. I think when I’m an MP, I’ll be spending a lot of time in Hackney, quite frankly.”
Abbott’s strong class-consciousness played an important part in her decision to run in this particular constituency. Although middle-class areas exist in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, it is generally the poorest constituency in Britain, with almost 50 percent of its population living in public housing. The East End of London has traditionally been a place of successive immigrations, from Jewish and French Huguenot in past centuries to Pakistani and West Indian in the twentieth century. In 1951, 70 people of West Indian origin were living in Hackney; by 1978 that number had swelled to 28,000, surpassing the area’s white population. “The working class of Hackney has been transformed in that time, and I thought it was about time the Labour party caught up with that,” Abbott told the Times.
When Abbott became Britain’s first black woman MP in 1987, she found that the British press—known for its ruthlessness—was tracking her every move. “When the media interest fell away, it came as a terrific relief,” Abbott confessed to the Times. “For the first six months it was overwhelming.” What particularly surprised her, Abbott explained, was the fact that even her Labour party colleagues had read the papers and believed the allegations that she was a member of the “loony left.” “I was in the tea-room once,” she recalled in the Times, “and this Scottish MP, Labour, said to me, ‘You don’t belong here,’ in a way that made me feel taken aback by the aggression.”
One of Abbott’s longtime goals has been to establish a black caucus within the Labour Party, modeled after the black caucus in the U.S. Congress. In 1986, Abbott predicted that a black caucus would form in the next parliament; but the next year, when she tried to form such a caucus, she was the only MP to show up at the first meeting. In 1989, Abbott tried again, even as senior Labour party members attacked the idea, claiming that it would be fundamentally racist to create a “party within a party.” The fledgling caucus disintegrated a few months later, partly because Paul Boateng, the only black Labour party member to hold a shadow cabinet position, did not want to join.
Despite the difficulty she encountered in Parliament and within her own party, Abbott continued to express her controversial views. In 1988, while speaking at a black studies conference in Philadelphia, she accused Britain of being one of the most fundamentally racist nations on earth. A front-page story in the Times quoted Abbott as having said, “The British invented racism. They built an empire on which racism was the organizing principle.” Labour leaders reacted with a mixture of resignation and annoyance. A senior party official commented in the Times that Abbott’s views “bear no relation whatsoever to the views of the Labour party and will not be treated as important.”
As the Labour party and the media heaped criticism upon her, Abbott also ran into problems with her own constituency. Activists in Hackney tried to have her removed from Parliament because she spent too much time in the U.S. and Jamaica, and that she did not adequately defend the interests of blacks and immigrants in Hackney. Ironically, this accusation came while the Times dismissed her as a “one-issue MP,” whose first speech in Parliament denounced Britain’s racist immigration policies.
Two years later, Abbott admitted to the Times that although she continued to receive invitations to speak abroad, she was trying to spend more time in her constituency. To that end, in 1994, Abbott established a network for black women running small and medium-sized businesses so that individual businesswomen could exchange information and make business contacts. Although the network was initially limited to London, Abbott considered extending it to the rest of Britain.
In 1991, Abbott had married David Thompson, an architect from Ghana; one year later, their son James was born. The marriage broke up shortly after that, and Abbott became one of Britain’s “single mothers”—a group much criticized by the ruling Conservative party, which blames the rise in poverty and crime on the disintegration of the nuclear family. In a speech in Parliament supporting working mothers, Abbott asserted that, as a mother, she brought the following special qualities to Parliament, “First, I can manage with very little sleep. Second, I am very flexible. You have to be flexible with children who one morning will eat only Weetabix [brand cereal] and the next morning won’t touch Weetabix. And third … I can put up with a lot of childish babble.”
Along with her blunt speeches in Parliament, Abbott is known for her strong language—as the Times has observed, in the middle of a literary allusion she is likely to break into “those words which the press denotes with asterisks.” The same newspaper has described her as “smallish, chubby, and outgoing, the sort of person you would ask for advice if you were lost.” Abbott’s own description of herself, quoted in Parliamentary Profiles, read, “I have a short neck, waist, and legs and very square shoulders, and I’ve always yearned to be a willowy Somalian woman; I’m always on a diet.” Nevertheless, as Parliamentary Profiles observed, “Her only truly outsize attribute is the massive chip on her shoulder.”
As a child, Abbott had three ambitions: to be an MP, to have a family, and to write a book. Having fulfilled the first two goals, she speculates that maybe when she turns 50, she will retire from politics and fulfill the third. Before she leaves office, however, she would like to see some changes made in Parliament, such as 50 percent female MPs, and mandatory retirement at age 60.
Abbott admitted, however, that she has not managed to accomplish very much in her time as an MP. She blames this not only on the fact that the Labour party is out of power, but also that politicians are simply not as powerful as many people think. “I came into politics to change the world,” she told the Independent. “When I turned 40 a couple of months ago, I looked into the mirror and said, ‘So, have you changed the world?’ The answer’s no, but I’m trying.”
Guardian, August 25, 1985.
Independent, January 18, 1994, p. 20; March 16, 1994, p. 8.
Parliamentary Profiles, edited by Andrew Roth, Parliamentary Profiles, 1988.
Times (London), April 29, 1985, p. 1; December 15, 1985, p. 34; October 3, 1987, p. 4; April 10, 1988, p. 1; October 6, 1990, p. R4; March 28, 1992, p. R25; May 3, 1994, p. 32.
Diane Abbott (born 1953) became the first black female elected to British Parliament in 1987, representing the Labour Party in the Hackney North and Stoke Newington districts. Abbott, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, remains strongly identified with the political left. In 2005, she was among 13 black members of the 659-member British House of Commons. Abbott, a former press aide, is still a frequent broadcaster and public speaker at universities, and on radio and television.
Attended Cambridge University
Abbott was born in London; her mother was a nurse, her father a welder. She attended Harrow County Grammar School and obtained her master's degree in history from Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. After college, Abbott worked for the government as a home office civil servant. She also worked for the National Council for Civil Liberties before entering journalism.
After doing considerable freelance work, she became a reporter for TV-AM, an early-morning station that aired in Great Britain through much of the 1980s, and the TV production company Thames Television. In addition, she was a public-relations consultant for public sector clients, including the Greater London Council and the left-oriented Lambeth Council. As a member of the Westminster City Council in the early 1980s, she was one of the few black female members.
Breakthrough Election in 1987
In 1987, Abbott was among a record number of non-whites running for British Parliament and political office elsewhere in Europe, reflecting the changing demographics of the continent. Though the presidential candidacy of the Reverend Jesse Jackson during that decade reflected the increasing role of minorities in U.S. politics, some observers said blacks had more of an uphill climb in Britain. "American blacks, their British counterparts repeatedly remind, have had nearly four centuries of coexistence with white society, compares [with] four decades here," Karen DeYoung wrote in the Washington Post in 1988.
"We're just at the beginning of the process," Abbott told DeYoung, shortly after her election. "It took slavery, reconstruction, the Harlem renaissance, the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], all of that to build a Martin Luther King. And it took more than 20 years to bring a Jesse Jackson." Dolly Kiffen, director of Broadwater Farm's Youth Association, told DeYoung, "You have blacks there, they're black Americans. Here in Britain, black people haven't got any identity. They like to call us by different names. Like 'ethnic minorities.' I hate that term."
Jackson visited London in 1985, after rioting had broken out at Broadwater Farm, among other places, and, according to DeYoung, urged British blacks to "fight for your share of everything that's available, vertically and horizontally … in the labor movement, in the government, in property ownership." Sons and daughters of Caribbean ownership, DeYoung wrote, "have grown up in a homogeneous white society that never planned for their existence and has shown little willingness to make a place for them." They were raised in such districts as Brixton and Tottenham in London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Handsworth in Birmingham.
The first generation of immigrants were reluctant to confront the largely white British establishment. In Britain, the generic term "blacks" often applied to Asians, African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern immigrants, and their children. Whites, meanwhile, felt "swamped" by nonwhite immigrants, Conservative Party leader and future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in a 1978 interview, according to DeYoung. "My generation know[s] we're here, and know[s] we're not going anywhere," Abbott said in DeYoung's article. "We don't have that awe."
Labour Struggled with Race
Abbott joined Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz, and Paul Boateng as minority Members of Parliament in 1987. Considered rebellious at times, she has called herself a Marxist, and the Guardian newspaper in 2005 described her as "an icon of the left." The four faced several uphill battles after joining Parliament, David S. Broder wrote in the Washington Post two years after their election.
Calling their struggle a "triple handicap," Broder wrote: "They lack experience and seniority. They are on the left of a party whose leadership is tugging it toward the center. And they are a handful of blacks in an institution which had been all-white since an Asian Communist was defeated after seven years' service in 1931. They express varying degrees of frustration and have chosen widely different tactics for advancing their goals and careers, causing some open divisions among them. But all of them know they cannot expect many reinforcements."
Abbott, who collaborated with Grant in forming the black caucus and over the years remained committed to black factions within the Labour Party, charged in Broder's article that "the Labour Party hasn't come to terms with race. They're like some of the leaders of the [U.S.] Democratic Party who think they can take black support for granted and win by appealing to the white middle class. Well, it didn't work in the United States and it won't work here."
Outspoken Critic of Educational Inequity
While in Parliament, Abbott served on several committees that addressed social and international concerns. In addition, she was elected to the Labour Party's national executive panel. She also served on the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, which addressed business and financial affairs, through much of the 1990s. Abbott traveled to Washington, New York, Frankfurt, and other financial hubs, frequently meeting with bankers, financial regulators, and senior politicians. In addition, Abbott has served on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and has traveled to several European countries, as well as China, Hong Kong, Uganda, and Kenya. In the early 2000s, Abbott established a special committee investigating gun-related crimes. "I urge the government to move away from excessively ideological approach to the so-called magic of the private sector and to adopt a more pragmatic approach," she said, as quoted in a profile in the Guardian.
Abbott has said that British public education has shortchanged black children. "Something is going seriously wrong between the age of five and the age of sixteen," Abbott was quoted as saying in the Economist, a British newspaper. "Black children do not perform nearly as well as other ethnic minority groups, nor as well as they should," the newspaper editorialized. "But the explanations—and, hence, the solutions—have less to do with bad attitudes among teachers and pupils and more to do with the old difficulties of poverty and place."
Abbott, though, drew harsh criticism when it was revealed that she would send her 12-year-old son to the exclusive, private City of London School rather than through London's public school system. Abbott had railed against such parents in the past. Author Adam Swift, in a 1996 commentary in the New Statesman, called Abbott a hypocrite. "It's hard not to think she's doing exactly what she criticized [Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [leading Labour politician] Harriet Harman for doing: opting out of local schools to get something better for her child. And neither Blair nor Harman—of whom Abbott said 'she made the Labour Party look as if we do one thing and say another'—chose private schools for their children."
Swift, a professor at the University of Oxford's Balliol College, also wrote: "Yet if she had simply condemned private education, without criticizing others' choices, she might have been cleared of hypocrisy. It can be quite consistent to think that there should be no private schools, yet send your own child to one." He added: "Hypocrisy is about whether you practice what you preach. If you preach that parents should never use their money to buy their children out of the state system, and then you go ahead and do exactly that, you are a hypocrite."
Still, Swift praised Abbott for addressing the problems of educational inequity. "Unlike many who go private, she at least has taken seriously matters of the public good, has done what she can do to persuade her fellow citizens to endorse a more equitable educational system, and to improve state schools in a way that might make them adequate for all children. I'd like to see all parents of privately schooled children champion the cause of social justice with her vigor. I hope Abbott does not think she must now mute her demands for a fair educational system in which all the children get to go to decent schools."
Abbott communicated with her constituents, among other ways, through her weekly column in the Hackney Gazette. A 1996 column in which she complained that the arrival of Finnish nurses jeopardized employment opportunities for black women elicited a rebuke from the New Statesman's Darcus Howe, who otherwise has generally supported her work. "It is worse than careless for Diane Abbott to have made such remarks," Howe said. "It smacks of right-wing reaction and is anti-labor. But for me these charges are mitigated by my belief that she is facing demons of doubt about her future in the new Labour Party." Howe went on to praise Abbott for her column and her often-unappreciated work in Parliament.
"Class of '87" Left Legacy
Abbott, who married in 1991 and divorced two years later, was nearing the end of her second decade in the House of Commons as the mid-2000s beckoned. Abbott and other British minority politicians realized their appeal must be broad-based. "You don't get elected in Britain on black votes alone," Abbott said in 2005, according to the Washington Post's Keith B. Richburg. Unlike the United States, where all African-Americans from the House of Representatives are Democrats and nearly all come from heavily black districts, members of Parliament are elected from a party slate, meaning seats are divided commensurate with a nationwide vote total. "Though still influential, she has become sidelined," the Guardian wrote.
Abbott has spoken at Ivy League universities in the United States, including Harvard. She also makes frequent radio and TV appearances. She has hosted a call-in show for LBC Radio, presented a program on the treasury for BBC Radio 4 and appeared regularly on the BBC1 late-night political talk show with fellow Members of Parliament Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo.
Remained Highly Visible Member of Parliament
"She has remained one of the most well-known MPs [members of Parliament] among the general public, with her outspoken views ensuring she is never far from sight," the British Broadcasting Corporation wrote on its Web site, BBC News. Abbott strongly opposes converting to a singular currency—the United Kingdom still uses the pound, not the euro—and she is the only MP among the "Class of 1987," the four black persons elected to Parliament that year. "Now only Abbott is left to hold the fort," Howe wrote in the New Statesman. Abbott and others, Richburg wrote, "are chipping away at one of the most durable color barriers in a fast-changing Europe, the doors to legislative chambers."
Economist, March 12, 2005.
New Statesman, December 6, 1996; November 3, 2003; March 21, 2005.
Washington Post, June 10, 1987; June 24, 1988; July 4, 1989; April 24, 2005.
BBC News, Diane Abbott profile, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2085582.stm (December 12, 2005).
Diane Abbott Official Web Site, Abbott biography, http://www.dianeabbott.org.uk/index.php?page=Biography (December 12, 2005).
Guardian Unlimited, Diane Abbott profile, http://politics.guardian.co.uk/person/0,9290,-4,00.html (January 3, 2006).