Black History, Blog

Diane Abbott: A Potted Herstory of a Pioneer by Drs Robin Bunce and Samara Linton

In many ways, Diane Abbott is a pioneer. In 1987, she became the UK’s first black woman MP. This alone was a historic achievement and should entitle her to a place in any serious history of British politics. However, this was simply the first in a series of ground-breaking accomplishments. She was also the first black woman to run for Labour party leader, the first black person to represent their party at Prime Minister’s Questions and the longest-serving black MP.

Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography was conceived in the months following the 2017 general election, and writing began on election night in 2019. We met with Abbott frequently, interviewed her friends, her colleagues, and her political opponents during a time of political and constitutional upheaval and change. We flicked through Abbott’s personal collections of documents and photographs. We combed through archives from the Black Cultural Archives and British Film Institute Archive in London to the Hull History Centre in Yorkshire. The end result is a detailed and nuanced portrait of Abbott’s life and career.

Abbott often describes herself as ‘the daughter of these immigrants you’ve heard so much about’. She was born in 1953 to a Jamaican nurse and welder and grew up in Paddington, which, at the time, had one of the largest black populations in the country. Her childhood home was located little more than a mile from the frontline of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.

Abbott’s parents, both of whom had left school in rural Jamaica at fourteen, were determined that their children would get an excellent education, and Abbott did. After moving to Harrow, she attended Harrow County School for Girls, the local state grammar school and went on to attend the University of Cambridge, where she read History at Newham College. Diane was one of two young black people to gain a place at Cambridge University in the 1970s, and the only black person from a state school to study at Cambridge during the decade.  Cambridge was the making of Diane in two ways. Firstly, it was there that she became a socialist. Secondly, her time at Cambridge gave her the confidence to deal with the British establishment on equal terms.

On leaving Cambridge Abbott had her sights set on power. Initially, this meant a career in the Civil Service. However, working in the Home Office presented numerous challenges. She was the only black person employed in the institution which controlled policing, prisons and immigration: the only black person working in an institution that was constantly intervening deleteriously in black people’s lives. Equally, Abbott felt under pressure to assimilate. Some in Whitehall were keen to enlist her as a token, a symbol that the Civil Service was not wholly dominated by white men.

Next, Abbott’s quest for power took her to the National Council of Civil Liberties, where she led on ‘Race Relations.’ While the NCCL presented itself as a nirvana of progressive liberalism, Abbott was out of place. Most of the NCCL activists had, what Abbott regarded as, a theoretical commitment to civil liberties, which was of little practical help when confronting the realities of racism. Equally, she felt strangely vulnerable. The NCCL was a much less formal organisation than the Home Office. But in the absence of clearly articulated rules, the NCCL was structured around informal codes, which reflected the norms of the white middle class, and were all the harder to challenge as they were rarely acknowledged. Abbott won a series of important intellectual arguments at the NCCL, which pushed the organisation in a more progressive direction, but she did not flourish.

Nonetheless, at the end of the seventies, Abbott found a home in two organisations. OWAAD, the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, an umbrella for radical groups representing women of colour, was a revelation. Not only did OWAAD provide a forum for black and Asian women to organise themselves, OWAAD articulated a critique of modern Britain which reckoned with the realities of the triple oppression experienced by black, working-class women. Around the same time, she joined the Labour Party, where she quickly became friends with the likes of Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn, both influential figures in the London left.

By the early eighties, Abbott’s quest for power led her to seek election. She was a founder member of Black Sections, a group of black Labour Party members who wanted to increase black representation at all levels of the Labour Party in order to win black representation at all levels of government. Black Sections was extraordinarily controversial. The Labour leadership accused black radicals who demanded the right to organise within the Party of advocating ‘segregation’ and ‘apartheid.’ Leader Neil Kinnock and his Deputy Roy Hattersley went as far as to say that they, rather than Labour’s black members, had the right to define blackness. The Labour leadership’s antipathy to black representation may well have been rooted in electoral politics. A report preserved in Kinnock’s files indicates that the Labour leader believed that many white voters would not turn out for black candidates [1].  Indeed, in the run-up to the 1987 election, there was a change to the party’s rules which, in effect, made it easier to deselect black candidates. Abbott’s historic success in Hackney was achieved against the party leadership, rather than with their support.

Despite Abbott’s many accolades, she spent most of her political career on the margins of her party, out of favour with the leadership. She was part of a rebellious faction of the party – the ‘awkward squad’ or ‘looney left’ – which included Dennis Skinner, Corbyn, and John McDonnell. Although often written off as a serial rebel, Abbott argues that her opposition to New Labour, as the party was branded under Tony Blair, was principled. For example, when she voted against Blair’s cuts to single-parent benefits in 1997, she asserted, ‘We are not in power to cut the living standards of the very poorest’. So, while Abbott was critical of ‘reforms’ to welfare, restrictive immigration and asylum laws and draconian anti-terror legislation, she supported the more progressive parts of her party’s agenda. Abbott’s principled approach to politics was equally apparent when she joined the Labour front bench, where she challenged austerity, led the opposition to military action in Syria, and championed the rights of the Windrush generation.

Public life has undoubtedly taken its toll. For much of her time as an MP, she has been a single mother, constantly having to balance motherhood with public service in a Parliament designed around the convenience of married men. Equally, since the advent of social media, Abbott has received more abuse than any other MP. Speaking in 2017 she acknowledged this, stating, ‘People always talk about strong black women, and I’m sick of hear­ing that because everyone is human … Contrary to what you’ve heard about strong black women, even strong black women cry, even strong black women feel alone, even strong black women wonder, “Is this all really worth it?”’ [2]

Following the surge in Labour support in 2017, Abbott hoped to achieve another first: to become the first black Home Secretary and from this position of power advance a radical reforming agenda. Although this did not come to pass, thirty-three years after entering the Commons Abbott is still campaigning, still fighting for racial and social justice, still championing the causes which first animated her quest for power.

  1. Marian Fitzgerald, ‘Political Parties and “The Black Vote”’, December, 1983, Neil Kinnock Archives, Churchill College, University of Cambridge
  2. Nadine White, ‘“Even Strong Black Women Cry,” Diane Abbott Tells Supporters’, The Voice, 25 June 2017

Robin Bunce is Director of Studies for History and Politics at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. His biography of activist and journalist Darcus Howe, published by Bloomsbury in 2014, contained the first published history of the British Black Power movement. Bunce has also written on issues of politics and popular culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The Independent and the Huffington Post. Samara Linton is a qualified medical doctor, but her love for storytelling led her to freelance as a journalist and editor. After co-editing The Colour of Madness, an anthology exploring BAME mental health in the UK, Samara decided to explore new media through which to share unheard stories. Samara currently works at BBC Three as a Production Trainee.