Interview by Brahma Mohanty, former OULC BAME Officer, Disabilities Officer and Social Secretary. Diane Abbott is undoubtedly an icon of the Labour movement.
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Diane attended Harrow County Grammar School for Girls before reading History at Newnham College, Cambridge. After working as a journalist and civil servant, she eventually took the plunge into politics in 1982 by winning election to Westminster City Council. In 1987 she made history by being the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons, as the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. A long-term ally of Jeremy Corbyn, she has served in his Shadow Cabinet both as the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, and for Health before being appointed the Shadow Home Secretary in October 2016.
This year marks your 31st year in parliament. What have you seen change for the better, or indeed for the worse?
Well, there are now many more women in parliament than when I first entered. When I first entered parliament there were about twenty-one women and there’s now over a hundred female MPs in the Labour Party alone and there are also now many more black MPs in both parties. So, I think that things have changed somewhat for the better because I think it’s right that we now have a parliament that looks more like Britain demographically.
Do you have any personal high or low points from your 31 years in Parliament?
One of my highlights is when Nelson Mandela came to visit parliament and when I got the chance to meet him. It was so extraordinary to have met him, having been on so many demonstrations, picket-lines and so on in support of him.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. What does that mean to you?
Before I became an MP, I campaigned on issues surrounding social justice, but I also campaigned for more women MPs, and the fact that we now have many more women MPs in the Labour Party is important. The only thing is that the Conservative Party have now had two women prime ministers and [the Labour Party hasn’t] had any! So, I’m hoping that whoever succeeds Jeremy as leader and prime minister, which I hope will be in a very long time of course, will be a woman.
Would you say the Party has been revitalised under Jeremy’s leadership? What does his leadership mean with regards to tackling BAME issues?
Well I think there’s absolutely no doubt that Jeremy has revitalised the party with more than half a million members and [making us] the largest socialist democratic party in Europe, and while other socialist movements like the French Socialist Party are struggling, the Labour Party has never been bigger […] Jeremy now has more black people, and particularly black women, in his Shadow Cabinet than ever before, and Jeremy is very committed to tackling issues surrounding racial injustice.
Do you think it’s hypocritical for Conservatives to criticise Labour for instances of anti-semitism when they have such deep problems with Islamophobia and racism within their party?
Yes, I think the Conservative Party’s criticism of Jeremy for alleged antisemitism is a gross hypocrisy. We know [the Conservative Party has] a problem with Islamophobia, we all know about the disgusting campaign targeting Sadiq Khan during the London Mayoral Campaign [in 2016], they are gross hypocrites. October is Black History Month. How important is Black History Month to you? Well, the reason I think that Black History is important is because people shouldn’t just think of black people as victims, or ‘objects of charity’, but to learn about the contribution of black communities and of individual black people to this country’s history, going all the way back to slavery. So, I think it is important, but a lot more needs to be done.
We’re hearing a lot about the ‘hostile environment’ being created for immigrants, culminating in the Windrush scandal. What are your views on this?
People seem to forget what that generation of West Indian and South Asian people contributed to our society, whether it was in the National Health Service, or in the manufacturing industry, or in public transport and so on. And I’m glad in a way because although the Windrush Scandal has been terrible, it’s made people think about what that generation has contributed.
What more do you think needs to be done at Oxford and other elite universities to address the underrepresentation of black students?
I think that this problem lies with the schools, that’s my view. The schools really need to do a lot more both to raise academic attainment in working-class communities, and to encourage more young people to apply [to these elite universities].
Do you think we will one day see a non-white prime minister?
Well people said we couldn’t have a left-wing leader of the Labour Party, and we’ve proved them wrong. But I’m sure it’s time. It’s only a matter of time!