The Diane Abbott interview

UPDATE: Diane Abbott has secured 33 nominations and will be on the Labour leadership ballot paper.

This was the second in our series of crowdsourced interviews with the leadership contenders.

Diane spoke to us last night at her office in Westminster, where everyone was keenly monitoring her leadership support with hours left until nominations closed.

She was completely unphased by your questions, which included her son’s private education, the demographic of her leadership opponents and how much she is paid by the BBC.

Q. (From Derek) You and John McDonnell both have solid socialist credentials, but isn’t there a danger that in standing you will split the left vote? I don’t really want the wishy washy alternative of the other 4 candidates. What are your thoughts?

A. There always was a tendency to say that if women stood it split the vote. I think that there is the politics that I’m on the left, and have as good a voting record on left wing issues as John McDonnell, but there’s another issue which is about gender.  It’s not so much that I stood against John, but that John stood against me.

Q. John McDonnell’s come out and said that if it means getting a woman on the ballot, he’ll stand down. In that case, do you wish he’d never stood in the first place?

A. I think it would have been easier if he hadn’t stood. If he was committed to gender issues it would have been easier if he hadn’t. Initially, it was very difficult for either of us to gain momentum. If there’d been just one of us standing then that person would have gained momentum much quicker.

Q. (From Jock) Can you with clear conscience tell the people of Britain that it’s OK for them to send their kids to state schools when they weren’t good enough for your own family?

A. Absolutely, with a clear conscience.  When my son was going up to secondary school about nine years ago, the school he was being offered in Hackney was about to be closed. Since then, we’ve had a Labour government. We’ve got five brand new secondary schools and I’d have no difficulties sending him to a local school. I’m proud that I was a Labour MP and the Labour government made the investment in Hackney schools. But I don’t apologise for putting my son first. I don’t apologise for putting my role as a mother above my role as a politician. It would be a pretty odd sort of person who put their job ahead of their children.

Q. (From Mary Maguire) How would you continue to provide quality public services and deal with the deficit?

A. There’s an assumption that we deal with the deficit largely through cutting the public sector.  But I think we should look at taxation, particularly taxation on business and on higher-income people.  There are also things that I would cut, such as Trident which is going to cost billions in the future.

The reason I’m wary of those cuts is because in a borough like Hackney, if you cut the public sector you don’t just cut public services, you cut people’s jobs. Most of my constituents work in the public sector, whether it’s teaching, hospitals, government agencies or the town hall. So people in Hackney are going to be hit by a double whammy; services are going to be cut and they’ll lose their jobs. And many of those people are women, from women-headed households, so whole families would suffer.

Q. (From Paul Cotteril) Would you encourage the party to accept the money on offer from the government for trial runs of primaries in safe Labour seats, as set out in the coalition agreement?

A. I’m not sure that the taxpayer should be funding politics actually. I’m really not sure about that at all. I don’t believe in the state funding of parties and I’d be very wary of government funding of that. I think if we want to have primaries, parties have to earn some money themselves.

Q. (From Stuart) How much have you been paid by the BBC since you first started appearing on This Week, and how much of this have you donated to your local CLP?

A. I haven’t got the figure, but I’ll say this: I get paid a lot less by the BBC than people might think. The BBC’s not generous when it comes to paying politicians. I’m often surprised that people raise this in relation to me but apparently they’re completely unmoved by other MPs appearing on TV. People find it difficult to pass over in me things they take for granted in others.  A lot of journalists appear on television, some of them get paid for it. People have to stop and think; do they want politicians that never go on TV and never write articles? What sort of political culture would they have?

So why do they pick on you in particular?

A. I can only leave it to you to speculate.

Q. (From Ashley) What is the best way to eradicate the American-inspired gang culture that is blighting the lives of young people in our most deprived areas?

A. One of the things I’ve always focused on is education, because by-and-large, boys that are at school doing their A-levels are not out in gangs. Boys are often excluded from school or just truanting. We have to look at education from a primary school level because the boy’s disaffection with school starts there. These schools need to do more to engage working class boys in general, but also black boys in education.

We need to get rid of the gap in achievement between different ethnicities in Hackney schools. Apparently Afro-Caribbean boys continue to do much worse than white boys although all boys at the school are doing the same. If we can deal with the education issues, we can do a lot in the long run to deal with the gang culture. Under a Labour government we built five new academies, one of them, Mossbourne, gets fantastic results and is very diverse, it’s not some kind of middle-class enclave.

I also run an award scheme for London’s top-achieving black children to encourage the young culture, and also I hold a conference most years about black children’s underachievement. So if you can drive up educational standards that helps to bear down on the gang culture, but that’s a medium to long term solution. The short term solution is better facilities, but more importantly better youth workers, and better enforcement. You have to be able to catch up with people who are doing bad things.

Q. (From ‘Billy Blofeld’) You are the leadership candidate who can be most honest about the mistakes Labour made in government. What are the biggest mistakes Labour has to learn from?

A. A few years ago we brought in a rise for pensioners of eight pence a week, which drove them crazy because it’s a derisory sum, and some of us tried to tell Tony Blair at the time; make it a shilling! Eight pence is ridiculous and it caused a big row.  More recently we did away with the 10p tax rate; that caused a big row, and again MPs tried to tell [the leadership] that. But the biggest thing is the Iraq war. My experience on the doorstep in Hackney has showed that no other thing has created a bigger sense of disillusion in the party. People felt they were lied to, rightly or wrongly.

Q. (From Dan) If, shortly after you are elected as leader, Portugal (or any other EU nation) were to suffer a similar fate to Greece’s collapse, what course of action would you urge upon the coalition?

A. We’re not part of the European currency, and if a country like that needs bailing out it doesn’t fall to us. I think it’s a good thing we aren’t, although I do believe in Europe in the general sense. The different economies in Europe are far to disparate to say they’re going to have one common regime. We don’t have to bail out Greece, and we wouldn’t have to bail out Portugal because we’re not part of that system.

Q. Do you think that your negative comments regarding the ‘two Eds, David and Andy’ will be damaging to the party unity, as one of them might become leader? (Abbott said the white, middle class nature of her leadership opponents meant they ‘could have run in the 1950s’).

A. I’ve not made negative comments about them at all. I don’t think you’ll find that I’ve said anything negative about them. All I meant was they were all white and male; that’s a statement of fact. It’s not negative, that’s who they are. They’re white, they’re male, they all went to Oxford or Cambridge, three of them did PPE, one did English, they were all SPADs under the New Labour government and they all used to play football together. Those are all facts, it’s not negative.

Q. (From Paul Cotteril) What approach would you like to see taken to resolve the ongoing instability in the Eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo?

I’m wary of neo-colonialist interventions by America, or America and Britain together. I think it’s something for the UN if they need some kind of military or peacekeeping intervention.  Or possibly some kind of regional force where the surrounding countries come together and intervene to keep the peace in the DRC.

Q. Does it bother you that Harriet Harman has nominated you but reportedly won’t vote for you in the leadership race?

A. I think Harriet knows that party members feel very strongly that it shouldn’t be an all male ballot. She’s conscious of it; she’s had hundreds of letters and emails. I haven’t spoken to her about it but my understanding is that she gave it a lot of thought but she wanted to show that at the very highest level, the party was committed to not having an all-male ballot. Labour have a lot to be proud of when it comes to equalities, and it would give the wrong impression if its leadership contest was all male.

Q. (From Paul Cotteril) What do you think of the Lisbon Treaty?

A. I’m a pro-European. I’m not a narrow nationalist. But as we’ve seen with Greece, there can be problems with our economic and political relationship with Europe. It’s important that we are able to exercise power as a society that are both transparent accountable. The problem with the Lisbon Treaty is the extent that it gives power to European institutions in a way which seems to ordinary people neither accountable nor transparent. I’m all in favour of the European concept, but it’s important that you’re able to vote out the people in power over you. That’s not necessarily true of European institutions currently.

Q. If you don’t end up being nominated for the leadership, who will you vote for?

A. I am going forward with the belief that I will be nominated and I’ll make that decision when the time comes.


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9 Responses to “The Diane Abbott interview”

  1. stopjump says:

    Nice to see Ms Abbott engaging with the party members – this kind of thing needs to be an important part of the leadership election, so the members feel part of the movement and that their vote is important.

  2. Not terribly happy about some of those answers.

    Get a number for the BBC appearances, then contextualise it. Just saying “less than you might think” won’t float.

    Similarly, can we drop the Oxbridge line, seeing as how you’re a Newnham alumna yourself? That’s no criticism – a working class black woman getting to Cambridge in the 1970s is impressive – but you aren’t entirely different yourself. I think it’s perfectly just to attack a proliferation of Oxbridge grads – and I say that as one myself – but you can’t do this when you are one yourself.

    Thirdly, the DRC answer is just nonsense, showing no understanding of the situation. The peacekeeping forces don’t involve the US or Britain, and are probably the worse for that, as our troops, whilst far from spotless, have better discipline records than the Pakistani army, which I believe is there. And a regional force would be lunacy – we had that before, and it was called the Second Congo War. Look it up some time – it’s Africa’s answer to the Great War, but with more civilian deaths. I don’t know if Hackney has a Congolese community, but south Tottenham certainly does, so it’s an issue I’d expect a bit more basic knowledge on.

  3. Dan says:

    On the schools question, Tony Blair and Harriet Harman used the same argument (rightly IMHO) over their choice of grant maintained schools in the mid-1990s. Ms Abbott criticised them vociferously for this. Leadership includes acknowledging mistakes and apologising for them – will she?

    On the European economy question. Where to begin? “We don’t have to bail out Greece”. But we have done through our underwriting of around £10bn of the EU stabilisation package. And with good reason. “We’re not part of the European currency”. Good. But we are part of the European economy. Eurozone countries defaulting on debt means banks holding those countries bonds will lend less. The recovery will falter and, for the UK, a much weakened euro will completely undermine exports.

    But “we’re not part of that system” eh, Ms Abbott?

  4. Paul says:

    I’m grateful to Diane for taking the time to answer some of my questions, even if the answers weren’t as good as I hoped, and for Labour Uncut setting it up. That’s a welcome move forward.

    I have marked Diane’s answers to my questions. Overall she gets 4/10. Some potential as a Labour activist but needs to work harder on socialist principles in concrete contexts. See http://tinyurl.com/3yxobn6

  5. Mick Lawley says:

    I think Diane’s answers were reasonable bearing in mind that she has just got the nod for the
    leadership contest ( and trying to appeal to people further to the left of her as well as the
    majority of the party who are to the right of her )

  6. Many thanks for including my question. I can’t believe that someone with aspirations to lead the Labour party would give that kind of one-dimensional analysis and talk only about their own borough!

    So it’s all the fault of the school system not engaging young black men? How very 1980s.

    http://www.mixtogetherandfriends.org/uncategorized/cruddas-backs-diane-abbot-would-she-return-the-favour/

  7. Mike says:

    Very disappointing. Some good policy points but as Labour Leader you have to represent working public and private sector workers and their families everywhere, not just in the particular circumstances of North London.

    Diane refused to answer the question about how much she gace to her CLP from her TV appearances (presumably £0, then) and as someone who campaigns day in, day out for the Labour Party, and for an MP who gives large amounts of money to the CLP despite not having a TV career, I consider that reprehensible.

    As for the attitude that any other Left candidate would be “standing against ME” and shouldn’t, that’s just arrogant. I clicked the link for this interview with the presumption that I was going to vote no. 1 for Diane. I’m really not sure now.

  8. Matthew Stiles says:

    Edmund
    Your criticisms are unfair to some extent. South Tottenham is not in Diane’s constituency. “The peacekeeping forces don’t involve the US or Britain” She didn’t say that they were.

  9. Simon says:

    Lightweight.

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