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Spiritual awakening

Globalisation has been good for gods in the Indian subcontinent. As the region has remade itself, it

On a foggy winter's night in November 1998, Om Singh, a young landowner from Rajasthan, was riding his Enfield Bullet back home after winning a local election near Jodhpur, when he misjudged a turning and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. As a memorial, his father fixed the motorbike to a stand, raised on a concrete plinth under the shelter of a small canopy, near the site of the crash.

“We were a little surprised when people started reporting miracles near the bike," Om's uncle Shaitan Singh told me on my last visit. "Om was no saint, and people say he had had a drink or two before his crash. In fact, there was no indication whatsoever during his life that he was a deity. He just loved his horses and his motorbike. But since his death a lot of people have had their wishes fulfilled here - particularly women who want children. For them, he has become very powerful. They sit on the bike, make offerings to Om Singh-ji, and it is said that flowers drop into their laps. Nine months later they have sons. Every day people see him. He comes to many people in their dreams."

“How did it all begin?" I asked. We were in the middle of a surging throng: crowds of red-turbaned and brightly sari-ed villagers gathered around the bike, the women queuing patiently to straddle its seat and ring the bell on the canopy. Nearby, two drummers were loudly banging dholaks, while chai-shop owners made tea and paan for the pilgrims. Other stalls sold plaques, postcards and statues of Om Singh and his motorbike. Pieces of cloth were tied to branches all over the tree and gold flags flapped in the desert wind. Everywhere buses and trucks were disgorging pilgrims coming to visit Rajasthan's newest shrine.

“First it was just family and friends who came," Shaitan Singh replied. "Then people realised there was a certain power here. It wasn't just the Hindus: Muslims came, too. Now the truck drivers will never pass this spot without stopping and making an offering. Every year the crowd grows."

“Do you believe in Om's power?" I asked.

“The more faith grows," he answered enigmatically, "the stronger it becomes."

Across the subcontinent, faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as the region develops and reinvents itself. In 19th-century Europe, industrialisation and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went hand in hand with the Death of God: organised religion began to decline, and the church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of south Asia has been more or less the reverse of this.

During the early 20th century, educated, urban Hindu reformers moved away from ritualised expressions of faith, and early leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar constitutionally formed India as a model secular state with no official faith: this was to be a nation where, in the words of Nehru, dams would be the new temples. But over the past 20 years, just as India has freed itself from the shackles of Nehruvian socialism, so India has also gone a long way to try to shake off Nehruvian secularism, too. The revival of religiosity and religious extremism in Pakistan may be more the focus of the international media, especially as Barack Obama grapples in vain with the troubled region now hyphenated as Af-Pak, but what is happening in India is equally remarkable and in many ways surprisingly similar.

The dramatic revival of piety and religion in India has recently been the subject of a remarkable study by Meera Nanda, a Delhi-based academic who has shown how globalisation may be making India richer, and arguably more materialistic, but it is also making Indians more religious, and at the same time making religion more political. "Globalisation has been good for the gods," she writes in The God Market.

As India is liberalising and globalising its economy, the country is experiencing a rising tide of popular Hinduism which is leaving no social segment and no public institution untouched. There is a surge in popular religiosity among the burgeoning and largely Hindu middle classes, as is
evident from a boom in pilgrimage and the invention of new, more ostentatious rituals. This religiosity is being cultivated by the emerging state-temple-corporate complex that is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehruvian era . . . a new Hindu religiosity is getting more deeply embedded in everyday life, in both the private and public spheres.

India now has 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals. Pilgrimages account for more than 50 per cent of all package tours, the bigger pilgrimage sites now vying with the Taj Mahal for the most visited sites in the country: the Balaji Temple in Tirupati had 23 million visitors in 2008, while over 17 million trekked to the mountain shrine of Vaishno Devi.

In a 2007 survey jointly conducted by the Hindustan Times and the CNN-IBN news channel, 30 per cent of Indians said they had become more religious in the past five years. Such is the appetite for rituals in this newly religious middle class that there has recently been a severe shortfall of English- and Sanskrit-speaking priests with the qualifications to perform Vedic and Agamic rites. When it comes to rituals in the new India, demand has completely outstripped supply.

In her book, Nanda writes engagingly about what she calls "karma capitalism" and the Indian equivalent of American televangelists, the TV God Men, some of whom have huge followings: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is in many ways India's Pat Robertson, has built a global spirituality empire called the Art of Living, which claims 20 million members, and much of whose land has been donated by Indian state governments.

Meanwhile, religion and politics are becoming ever more entangled. Nanda presents interesting evidence about the dramatic increase in state funding for yagnas (fire sacrifices), yoga camps and temple tourism, as well as the sharp increase in state donation of land for temples, ashrams and training schools for temple priests. In Rajasthan, the government annually spends 260 million rupees on temple renovations and training for Hindu priests. Mass pujas (prayers) and public yagnas have become an important part of political campaigning for all parties, not just the overtly Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Perhaps surprisingly, India's growing band of techies and software professionals seems particularly open both to religiosity in general and to hard right-wing Hindu nationalism in particular, so much so that many have joined a special wing of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Association of Volunteers), the organisation to which Mahatma Gandhi's assassin belonged. The RSS now organises regular social meetings called IT-milans, where right-wing techies can "meet like-minded people and get a sense of participating in something bigger than just punching keyboards all day".

The modernisation of the RSS is certainly one of the more worrying trends in Indian religiosity, as is the organisation's increasing respectability in the eyes of the urban Indian middle class. For, like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements. Like its 1930s models, it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes (the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest). The idea is to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will bring about a revival of what the RSS sees as the lost Hindu golden age of national strength and purity.

The BJP, which governed India from 1999 until 2004, and is now the principal opposition party, was founded as the political wing of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both organisations. Though the BJP is certainly much more moderate and pragmatic than the RSS - like Likud in Israel, the BJP is a party that embraces a wide spectrum of right-wing opinion, ranging from mildly conservative free marketeers to raving ultra-nationalists - both organisations believe, as the centrepiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation and that the minorities may live in India only if they acknowledge this.

The most notable political manifestation of the increasing presence of religion in Indian life took place in the early 1990s as the Hindu right rose slowly to power, partly as a result of taking advantage of a long-running dispute over a small mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. The argument revolved around the question of whether Mir Baqi, a general of the Mughal emperor Babur (1483-1530), had built the mosque over a temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram.

Although there was no evidence to confirm the existence of the temple or even to identify the modern town of Ayodhya with its legendary predecessor, Hindu organisations began holding rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple. Finally, at a rally in December 1992, a crowd of 200,000 militants, whipped into a frenzy by inflammatory BJP statements, stormed the barricades. Shouting "Death to the Muslims!" they attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, like symbols of India's traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.

Over the next month, violent unrest swept India: mobs went on the rampage and Muslims were burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the street. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It was a measure of how polarised things had become in India that this violence played so well with the electorate. In 1991, the BJP had taken 113 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous ­election. In 1996 that proportion virtually doubled, and the BJP became the largest party. After the 1999 general election, with 179 seats, it was finally able to take the reins of power into its hands.

Since then, however, the BJP has lost two general elections, largely for economic reasons, and perhaps especially their neglect of India's farmers; the ability of the religious right to mobilise votes by exploiting communal religious grievances seems, thankfully, to have diminished. But as large-scale anti-Christian riots in Orissa last year showed, it doesn't take much to wake the sleeping dragon of communal conflict from its slumber, and Ayodhya remains an emotive and divisive issue. If religion is no longer a vote-winner for the BJP, it is largely because other parties have found more subtle ways to use its ever-growing power.

F or the growing politicisation of faith among the middle classes is only part of a much wider story. Behind the headlines, and beyond the political sphere, in the small towns and villages suspended between modernity and tradition, Indian religion is in a state of fascinating flux. Over the past couple of years, while researching Nine Lives, my book on local and folk beliefs in contemporary India, I have been very struck by how fast forms of traditional Indian devotion have been changing, even in the villages and backwaters, as India transforms itself at breakneck speed.

As is now well known, India is already on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third-largest economy in the world; the Indian economy is expected to overtake that of the United States by roughly 2050. Much has now been written about the way that India is moving forward to return the subcontinent to its historical place at the heart of global trade, but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected the diverse religious traditions of south Asia, and particularly the archaic and deeply embedded syncretic, pluralist folk traditions that continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

Though the west often likes to imagine the religions of the east as deep wells of ancient and unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself beyond recognition.

Certainly on my travels around India for Nine Lives, I found many worlds strangely colliding as the velocity of this process increases. In Jaipur, I spent time with Mohan Bhopa, an illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan who keeps alive a 4,000-line sacred epic that he, now virtually alone, still knows by heart. Living as a wandering bard and storyteller, he remembers the slokas of one of the great oral epics of Rajasthan praising the hero-god Papuji. Mohan told me, however, that his ancient recitative art is threatened by the lure of Bollywood and the Hindu epics shown on Indian TV, and he has had to adapt the old bardic tradition in order to survive.

The epic that Mohan recites contains a regional variant on the "national" Ramayana myth. In the main Ramayana tradition, the hero Lord Ram goes to Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, who has been captured by the demon king Ravana. In the Rajasthani version of the myth, the hero is Papuji, and he goes to Lanka, not to rescue a kidnapped spouse, but to rustle Ravana's camels. It is exactly these sorts of regional variants, and self-contained local cults, which are being lost and menaced by what the eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar calls the new "syndicated Hinduism".

As Thapar explains in a celebrated essay on the subject, Hinduism is different from other major world religions in that it has no founder and no founding text. Indeed, the idea that Hinduism constitutes a single system is a very recent idea, dating from the arrival of the British in Bengal in the 18th century. Used to western systems of faith, early colonial scholars organised many of the disparate, overlapping multiplicity of non-Abrahamic religious practices, cults, myths, festivals and rival deities that they encountered across south Asia into a new world religion that they described as "Hinduism".

Since the mid-19th century, Hindu reformers such as Vivekananda have taken this pro­cess forward, so that Hinduism has slowly become systemised into a relatively centralised nationalist ideology which now increasingly resembles the very different structures of the Semitic belief systems that its more extreme adherents tend to abhor. "The model," writes Thapar, "is in fact that of Islam and Christianity . . . worship is increasingly congregational and the introduction of sermons on the definition of a good Hindu and Hindu belief and behaviour [is] becoming common, and register[s] a distinct change from earlier practice."

According to Thapar, the speed of this homogenising process is now rising. "The emergence of a powerful middle class", she believes, has created a desire for a "uniform, monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements". This Hinduism masquerades as the revival of something ancient and traditional, but it is really "a new creation, created to support the claims of [Hindu] majoritarianism".

All over India, villages were once believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods who were said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life. They were worshipped and propitiated, as they knew the till and soil of the local fields and the sweet water of the wells, even the needs and thirsts of the cattle and the goats in the village. But increasingly in urban India, these small gods and goddesses are falling away and out of favour as faith becomes more centralised, and as local gods and goddesses give way to the national, hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Ram, a process that scholars call the "Rama-fication" of Hinduism. New deities are emerging, but carefully tailored for satisfying modern and middle-class needs, such as Santoshti Ma, who first reached national consciousness in the 1970s Bollywood film Jai Santoshti Ma. Also popular are other new deities such as Shani Maharaj, who neutralises the negative impact of the planet Saturn, and Aids Amma, who reputedly has the power to do away with HIV.

Ironically, there are strong parallels between the way this new Hinduism is standardising faith and what is happening in south Asian Islam - a religion Hindu nationalists routinely demonise. There, too, the local is tending to give way to the national as the cults of local Sufi saints - the warp and woof of popular Islam in India for centuries - lose ground to a more standardised, middle-class and textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the Wahhabis, Deobandis and Tablighis in their madrasas. Today, the great Sufi shrines of the region find themselves in a position much like that of the great cathedrals and saints' tombs of northern Europe 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation. As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans are on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals and the devotional superstitions of saints' shrines. As in Europe, they look to the text alone for authority, and recruit the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, which looks down on what it sees as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Where this process differs from 16th-century Europe is in the important role played by colonialism. Religiously conservative Hindus and Muslims alike suffered the humiliation of colonial subjugation, and had to watch as their faith was branded degraded and superstitious by the victorious colonisers and their missionaries. In both faiths, reform movements re-examined and reinvented their religions in reaction to the experience of failure and conquest; but while Hindu reformers tried to modernise their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults to become more like western Christianity, Muslim radicals opted instead to turn their backs on the west, and return to what they saw as the pure Islamic roots of their faith.

In the aftermath of the brutal massacres by the British following the Great Uprising of 1857, Muslim radicals left the ruins of Delhi and the demolished Mughal court, rejecting both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors and the ways of the west. Instead, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband that went back to Quranic basics and stripped out anything syncretic, Hindu or European from the curriculum. A hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern west has yet had to face. In the al-Qaeda training camps of Kandahar, Deobandi currents of thought received a noxious cross-fertilisation with ideas that emerged from two other intellectuals forced to rethink their faith in reaction to domination by the west: the fathers of the intellectual Egyptian jihad, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.

Understandably, while it is the Islamists' assaults on India and the west that have absorbed our press of late, it is sometimes forgotten that the Taliban are also at war with rival comprehensions of Islam. Last year, in a new front on this war, they dynamited the shrine of the 17th-century Pashtun poet-saint Rahman Baba at the foot of the Khyber Pass in the North-West Frontier. For centuries, his shrine was a place where musicians and poets had gathered; Rahman Baba's Sufi verses in Pashto had long made him the national poet of the Pathans. Some of the most magical evenings I have ever had in south Asia were spent in the garden of this shrine, under the palm trees, listening to the sublime singing of the Afghan Sufis.

Then, about ten years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the dargah (Sufi shrine). Soon its students took it upon themselves to halt what they saw as the un-Islamic practices of the shrine. On my last visit there, in 2003, I talked about the situation with the keeper of the shrine, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists regularly came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry, immorality and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," he said. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble."

“What sort of trouble?" I asked.

“They tell us that what we do is wrong. They tell women not to come at all, and to stay at home. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out - even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually they have stopped coming."

“How long has this being going on?"

“Before the Afghan war there was nothing like this," he replied. "But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda to stop visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching ishq [love]. Now this trouble happens more and more frequently."

The end came on 4 March 2009. A group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn and placed dynamite around the squin­ches of the dome. The shrine chamber was completely destroyed. The Taliban issued a press release blaming the shrine for opening its doors to women and allowing them to pray and seek healing there. Since then several other shrines in areas under Taliban control have been blown up or shut down, and one - that of Haji Sahib Turangzai, in the Mohmand region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - has been turned into a Taliban headquarters.

If the North-West Frontier is now dominated by the Wahhabis and their mad­rasas, in Sindh the Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of their saints and the old, mixed culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam. Here, 60 years after Partition and the expulsion of most of the Hindus of Pakistan into India, one of the Sajjada Nasheens, or hereditary tomb guardians of the great shrine of Sehwan, is still a Hindu, and it is he who performs the opening ritual at the annual Urs (death ceremony). Hindu holy men, pilgrims and officials still tend the shrine, replenishing the lamps and offering water to visiting pilgrims.

Many scholars believe that the Sufi fakirs of Sehwan Sharif model their dreadlocks, red robes and ecstatic dancing on those of Shaivite sadhus. For Sehwan was once the cult centre of a Shaivite sect called the Pashupatas, who believed in emulating the dance of Shiva as part of their rituals, and using this shamanistic dancing as a way of reaching union with God.

As elsewhere in south Asia, these local, composite and pluralistic traditions are under threat; but, as in India, the Sufis of Sindh are not going down without a fight. As one female Sufi devotee put it: "I sometimes feel that it is my duty to protect the Sufi saints, just as they have protected me. Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis and Tablighis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is shirk [heresy].

“Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet. Mullahs and Aza­zeel [Satan] are the same thing."

As the great saint Shah Abdul Latif wrote:

Why call yourself a scholar, o mullah?
You are lost in words.
You keep on speaking nonsense,
Then you worship yourself.
Despite seeing God with your own eyes,
You dive into the dirt.
We Sufis have taken the flesh from
the Holy Quran,
While you dogs are fighting with each other.
Always tearing each other apart,
For the privilege of gnawing at the bones.

William Dalrymple is the New Statesman's south Asia correspondent. His most recent book is "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India", published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge