A backbench of her own

When I joined the Labour party in the wake of May’s defeat, it was for one reason above all others and with the advice of someone I once met ringing in my ears: “Always join a sinking ship; there is so much more you will learn from that experience, than from when it’s sailing”. Say what you like about Labour (and I do) but in May it felt like a sinking ship; hundreds of thousands of Labour voters fleeing for the terra firma of, well… not the Tories, and not the Lib Dems, unless you believe their hype. In fact, where did everyone go?

Diane Abbott was keenly aware of this, when I met her a few weeks ago for the last in the series of the Labour leadership interviews for LabourList: “People forget we’ve lost five million voters in 11 years – one million of them went to other parties, and four million of them don’t vote at all; Labour voters are very disillusioned” she reminded me. Over the course of our meeting, Abbott confirms a belief I’ve held for a while – that there are two kinds of battlers in life, those who fight for the positive, and those who fight from the negative. Get her on to what’s wrong, where it’s broken, how unjust, unfair, unequal this supposedly very modern Democracy is, and she’s full of fire. Brand Abbott: the backbencher MP holding her party to task on civil liberties and common sense. Down with Trident, down with tutition fees, down with New Labour, down with the Old Boy network of fast tracked Oxbridge graduates skipping from special advisors to Cabinet within a decade. Abbott is very clear about what she doesn’t want, but I’m not entirely sure I know what she does want.

When I ask her if being Labour leader can work in this context, she comments “I think doing the right thing works because voters give you credit for consistency, and voters give you credit for actually believing in something.” Later in the interview I venture that this consistency has, ironically, been one of her single biggest public issues; the thorn in her side ever since she decided to send her son to a fee-paying school after lambasting her Labour colleagues for doing the same. I caveat this particular question by proffering that I’m actually more interested in knowing about the difficulties of balancing the rules of the job with the decisions you need to make as a parent: “I don’t think there’s a disconnect between my public persona and what I believe in, and if there is then maybe people don’t think I was completely serious about being a mother” she retorts.  And that’s the problem with Abbott – she takes you so far, and then she loses you. Often because she has chosen to hear what she thinks you meant, and not what you actually said. For all Abbott stands for, it’s her personal narrative that chimes loudest, but sometimes I fear it’s at the expense of everyone else’s.

Regardless, Labour needs Diane Abbott in its ranks. She’s a force for good, and someone who isn’t afraid to step out of her constituency and speak as a person first, and an MP second. Four million AWOL Labour voters may find that quite refreshing, and, as if to neatly prove the point, she was the only candidate to double her majority in May’s Election. She’s also a successful woman in politics, a topic I push at from personal interest and one that has inescapably needled the Labour party from the moment David Miliband assured her place on the ballot. By the time we get onto the state of women in Westminster, I’m hoping for an eye-opening reveal about how she might make a positive difference were she to take the reins: “Frankly, if people are concerned about women’s issues, they have to recognise that having a woman at the head of party would be a transforming thing for women” she states.  It’s funny that, when she later huskily relays an anecdote about Margaret Thatcher, she doesn’t see the glaring fallacy of her own argument. True, it can be a transformative thing to have a woman in a position of power, but it must be the right woman. It must also go hand in glove with a raft of supportive measures that aid and improve life for women everywhere. If Diane will not accept that she was patronised onto the ballot, then I will not be patronised into who I vote for.

For a while, we talk at cross purposes about the leadership hustings – my goading that they must have become a bit dull after a while, her assertion that they’ve been extremely interesting, albeit “extremely challenging”. What we do agree on is their change of tone once Abbott was assured her place at the podium. You can tell that she’s proud of how she’s managed to steer the Alpha Chest Thumping Candidates back from the brink of runaway hyperbole about what lost them the election; and she’s absolutely right to point out that her seasoned reasoning from 23 years as an MP, working her way from pillar to post, from grassroots to the backbench, gives her a cool, calm air of confidence about her ability to know – instinctively – what is right for the party. She’s also clear on what has been the sorry result of wounded egos and Westminster in-fighting in the run up to May’s defeat. I admire her for this honesty, and for what – at times – even comes across as weary maturity; it’s as if you can hear her silent resignation aching, that if we could just give her the chance, it would be alright.

But of defeat, she will not speak. “What we keep reminding people is that although the Westminster insiders say I’m coming last and can’t win, the polls show that among Labour Party members and trade union members, who will also have a vote, I’m easily third, easily beating Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, and in some polls, I’m second behind David Miliband. So we’ve got everything to play for.” She refers to Harriet Harman’s own Deputy Leadership bid as a point to prove her own; that the bookies wrote her off but that she won on second preferences. And I think to Harman now, silently but superbly leading the opposition as Labour’s interim leader for the past four and a half months, and the things she has said and done in her time, as both Deputy and Acting Leader, which have often been brilliant but overlooked. “She’s often derided by other MPs but she’s been very consistent and very brave”, Abbott admits. It’s that consistency again, something which has plagued Harman too after her husband landed a safe seat when an All Woman Shortlist for that area was retracted.

And so I wonder whether this is something we will always encounter when brilliant women like Abbott enter politics. That their private lives are seemingly more flagrant, more delicious for the media to pick over, more open to interrogation and ridicule than those of their equally hypocritical male peers. It’s a rich vein of debate, but one that Abbott, I suspect knowingly, wouldn’t get too drawn on with me for fear of isolating too many people following the leadership race for whom this issue is not a prime concern. There’s a flash of knowing the depth of debate, when she tells me mothers ask to take a picture of her with their daughters because they want their children “to remember this moment”, but then it recedes again and the weight of the candidacy rests too heavily on her brilliant, eloquent feminism.

Can Diane Abbott be the next Labour leader? Of course she can; although that’s a different question to whether she should be, and whether far, far more crucially she should be Prime Minister. And on that we must all make up our own minds. With just one day left to vote, and the protocol in place to announce the successor, it is perhaps inevitable that it will be a familiar cabinet face chiding David Cameron every Wednesday at PMQs from hereon in. But truly, it makes my heart soar that if Abbott has done nothing else, she has shown me what is redeemable in the Labour party and in society at large – and for that we must all be grateful. A battler, fighting from the negative so that we might all find the positive.

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