So Diane Abbott made it but was it on merit?

Can Diane Abbott be Leader of the Labour Party?

A guest post by Ekow Nelson

Diane Abbott

So at the eleventh hour, Diane Abbott MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington squeaked through the nominations process and made it on to the final short list of contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party. But did she do it on merit and she is capable of being leader of the Labour Party?

These are provocative questions and especially so because Diane Abbott is black. But they are also legitimate questions given Diane Abbott’s record as a parliamentarian over some 23 years.

By merit I do not mean intellectual capability: after all, like her other four nominees, she too is Oxbridge educated and is intellectually as capable as any of them. She is steeped in the traditions and history of the Labour Party as any of the candidates and what she lacks in ministerial experience she makes up for with longer parliamentary experience – which is only some 5 years shorter than the combined parliamentary experience of Dave and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham.

Merit for leadership of any political party however also depends on having a base of support. And while we are yet to see how much support she enjoys among the boarder electorate in the Labour Party (i.e. Party members and trades unions) as late as a day before nominations closed, support for her candidacy among Labour MPs was less than 5% with only 11 of her peers nominating her. As it became clear that neither she nor the other left-wing candidate would make it if they both remained in the race, John McDonnell withdrew from the contest allowing his support to transfer to her.

Earlier, growing and palpable pressure on the Labour leadership to field a more diverse set of candidates had forced the deputy leader Harriet Harman to take the unusual step (she is supposed to be impartial) of nominating Diane Abbott which encouraged the likes of Denis McShane to follow suit. Indeed even one of her fellow contestants David Miliband helped her over the finish-line because it was increasingly becoming clear among the sensible in the Labour Party that it would be disastrous in the 21st century to conduct an all-male leadership contest fielding a cast among whom there were at best only nuanced political differences.

For a party that has done most for female parliamentary representation, and prides itself as progressive and carries the burden of not having given the UK its first or indeed any female Prime Minister, not even to field a member of the of opposite sex – who form 52% of the population – would have been untenable.

Given that Diane Abbott was the only female who stuck her neck out – and she ought to be congratulated for that – it was obvious that she would be the beneficiary of attempts to window dress the leadership contest and give some appearance of diversity. As it happens she gave them double diversity by being both female and black. Harman’s masterstroke has, for now at least, averted disaster and restored some semblance of respectability.

Still, if the field included other female candidates or if John McDonnell had been female, it is questionable whether Abbott would have made the short list – after all going into the final day before the close of nominations he had the support of 16 MPs to her 11. On that score alone I contend she did not win her nomination on merit. Indeed that many of those who nominated her will not vote for her in the final ballot is clear evidence that she is there to save the Labour Party from shame.

After all the effort that went to all women’s short list, the idea that no woman was available to stand for the leadership against an all male cast half of whom have no more than 5 years experience in parliament (Ed Balls and Miliband were both elected in 2005) is a travesty. But that is a matter for the Labour to reflect on over the coming years.

My second issue with Diane Abbott’s nomination is whether she is capable of leading the party; again not in terms of her credentials or intellectual capability, but given her track record of near-permanent rebellion. Diane Abbott prides herself and revels in being a Labour left-wing rebel; one who will not be whipped into voting for her party on issues on which she fundamentally disagrees such as her admirable stance on Iraq and the Labour government’s decision to cut lone parent benefits early in their first term.

As the parliamentary nominations however demonstrate, the left-wing candidates secured just over 10% of their peers’ support (before Diane was helped over the line). Since 1997 the gravitational tilt of the parliamentary Labour Party under both Blair and Brown has been toward the centre and not the Left. So the question is how can Diane Abbott preside over a bunch of parliamentarians, majority of whom do not share her political views? Since she has shown herself to be a rebel rather than loyal to the Party throughout her career, how can she unite them?

If we play fantasy politics and assume she wins, there are three options for resolving this conundrum: the first is to pursue her left-wing agenda and beliefs and risk open rebellion and with that a reversion to the bad old days of the 1980s, the longest suicide note in history and all that. The second will be to clamp down on the rebels; but a life-long rebel reining in others taking a leaf from her book? I am not so sure. The final option will be for her to disavow her previous positions in the interest of party unity and carry out the wishes of her more right-leaning or centrist colleagues – indeed John McDonnell criticized for saying she had no intention of taking the party to the left. While this option may appear hypocritical it won’t surprise many of us because she has done it before – over private education.

Before she had a son of school-going age, Diane Abbott was one of those firebrand left-wingers who railed against the iniquities of private education. A product of the selective grammar school herself, she criticized colleagues who sent their children to selective schools. When it came to choosing a school for son, however, she did worse in Labour party terms by opting for private education and then had the chutzpah to suggest that as a mother she could not put her politics before her son’s future – as if politicians like Blair and Harman whom she criticized were not parents, did not put the interests of the children first or indeed had no right to do such a thing as doing the best by their children.

In recent times her defence has changed to one of “black-single-mother exceptionalism” – again as if (a) she is the first black single mother in the United Kingdom who had has had to make a decision about what school to send her teenage son to and, (b) that private education can only be justified for black single mothers – perhaps ones relatively well-off like her. When she railed against others’ decision to send their kids to private or selective schools she appealed to political ideology and her supposed to belief in fairness; when she became a turncoat and was rightly pilloried for her inconsistency she took refuge in her gender and ethnicity.

I have nothing against private education; indeed I think they are good for society and should be expanded, particularly to people from poor families. But what I can’t abide is Diane Abbott’s hypocrisy – her denial to others the right and opportunity she availed herself. Specifically, by supporting the Labour Party’s abolition of the assisted places scheme she denied many poorer single black mothers the same privileged education she chose for her son. That is hypocritical and inexcusable.

She and her Labour party colleagues – many of whom are now crying about proposed Tory cuts having forgotten the cuts they themselves introduced at the start of their administration in 1997- will argue that the assisted places were being abused by middle-class parents who hired clever accountants to misstate their earnings. Most of these abuses, however, could be have been reduced or even eliminated all together with greater vigilance, tightening of the rules, transparency and better targeting.

The gap between Dianne Abbott’s political grand-standing and her actions is the reason she has scant support among her parliamentary colleagues. She may yet do well in the elections with wider Labour party electorate because she will be the only female candidate on the ballot paper and many members will want to cock-a-snook at the young pretenders who cut their political teeth in the engines rooms of New Labour and have done little else besides.

If there is one redeeming thing about Diane Abbott’s candidacy it is that she has vowed not allow immigration and immigrants to be scapegoats for Labour’s loss. Let’s hope she delivers on that at least!

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Read more from Comment, Education, Multi-culturalism, Trade Unions, UK Politics
African-Caribbeans, Andy Burnham, David Miliband, Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, John McDonnell MP, Labour Party, Tony Blair

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