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The mom supremacy

America’s “mama grizzlies” – homely, conservative women with their hearts set on power – are easy to

In Douglas County, Colorado, lives Lu Busse - mother, grandmother, activist and the original "mama grizzly". Long before Sarah Palin conjured up the image of a mother bear "that rises up on its hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs", Busse had been calling herself "Grizzly Granny Lu" on her blog. "I always said that if we give up on the Republican Party and start a new party, we're going to be the Grizzly Bears," she tells me. "These donkeys and elephants, that's ridiculous. In America, if you're not a grizzly bear, you're not really American."

Busse founded her local 9.12 Project group in April last year, just a month after the Fox News presenter Glenn Beck launched the national project based on nine principles and 12 values (numbers one and two: "America is good" and "I believe in God and He is the centre of my life"). Busse now chairs the statewide coalition of 9.12 groups, and works closely with the Tea Party movement. Locally, female membership is dominant; Busse says that around 60 per cent of the activists she works with are women. It mirrors the national picture. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in March this year suggested that 55 per cent of Tea Party sup­porters are female. And they are growing in power. In the past few months, a string of ultra-conservative female candidates, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Kristi Noem in South Dakota, have won in the Republican primary elections.

Palin calls it a "mom awakening", a movement of newly empowered conservative women who are anti-government, anti-establishment and seeking to destabilise a political system they perceive as elitist and remote. The appeal of candidates such as O'Donnell is their lack of political experience: they are traditional, homely mothers. Yet the ambition of activists such as Busse is huge. She wants to change "the whole direction of the way the country's moving" - and believes she can.

When I ask her if she feels part of a women's movement, Busse reflects for a moment, and then says: "It's not a women's movement in a way that the movement that generated feminism is. This is a movement that wants our country to be the country we grew up in - we want that for our children and our grandchildren. So it gets to our motherly instincts. It's not about women's issues."

It is a telling distinction. For Busse and others like her, feminism is a word laden with alien liberal values, wedded to a time of sexual liberation and immorality. Instead, their bond is motherhood, as reflected in an expanding behind-the-scenes network of activist organisations: As a Mom; Concerned Women for America; Moms for Ohio; Homemakers for America; American Mothers.

Palin gave her "mama grizzly" speech at a breakfast meeting of the Susan B Anthony List in May this year. Founded in 1992 and named after the 19th-century civil rights leader who campaigned for women's suffrage, the List works like an engine room behind conservative female candidates, providing financial backing and mobilising supporters. With 280,000 members, it has funded and campaigned for O'Donnell, Noem and about 25 other candidates across the US. It also has one specific aim, says the group's chair, Marjorie Dannenfelser, which is to "help elect and involve pro-life women in the political project": to end the practice of abortion.

“What we're seeing," Dannenfelser tells me, "is a correction of the term feminist, an editing - women who feel very strongly about the talents and skills and power of women, but who don't feel that abortion is an avenue to that." For Kathleen Blee, a professor of sociology at Pittsburgh University, the idea that women such as Dannenfelser describe themselves as feminists is extraordinary. "It's a terrible distortion," she says. "It strips most of the meaning away from feminism . . . They don't support equal rights, they don't support abortion - you name the feminist issues, they are on the other side." Dannenfelser says that the election races she gets most excited about are those featuring "women running against women where there's a clear contrast between the type of feminism the two candidates represent"; as in, one is pro-life, the other pro-choice. It's
a strange kind of sisterhood.

Conservative feminism in the US is hardly new. One of its early incarnations was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, established in 1880 as part of the temperance movement campaigning for the prohibition of alcohol (a movement in which Susan B Anthony was heavily involved). According to Blee, early rightist women's activism often had a racist tendency. Those involved in the pro-suffrage movement, for example, were galvanised to ensure that white female voters could out­number black men. A number of those women, Blee says, became an influential presence in the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership included at least half a million women at its peak in the 1920s.

Women were also involved in the pro-fascist movements in the Second World War, and in anti-desegregation campaigning during the civil rights movement. But rightist women's movements "exploded", Blee says, with the emergence of an organised Christian right in 1979, the year the pastor Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.

As an evangelical movement that coalesces around issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the Christian right has played a significant role in US politics ever since. The Republican strategist Karl Rove's direct appeal to its base was seen as a deciding factor in George W Bush's re-election in 2004.

The Tea Party has proved to be a magnet to the Christian right, and has been infused by the movement's socially conservative values, even though its original objectives were ex­clusively fiscal. (Busse is typical in citing the bailout of the banks after the 2008 financial crisis as the trigger for her activism.) For Tea Party purists, the infiltration by Christian groups is not necessarily welcome. One activist I spoke to felt their preoccupation with moral issues was potentially divisive, and diluted the Tea Party's central messages around tax and spending. But Dannenfelser sees it differently. "There is so much overlap in the Tea Party movement between economic and social issues that there is really no discontent," she says. "It is simply a matter of emphasis."

For activists such as Dannenfelser, who have been fighting abortion for decades, the events of the past two years have been a perfect storm: the financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama and the consequential birth of the Tea Party have given social and Christian conser­vatives a wave to ride and, in the form of Palin, a ready-made, pro-life, "hockey mom" leader with a direct line to Fox News and, some seem to think, God.

Mum's the word

There is, as yet, no Concerned Women for Britain, or Mums for Basingstoke. Perhaps the closest thing we have to a mass women's movement is Mumsnet. But while the social networking website has political influence - all three party leaders raced to interact with its 1.1 million users before the last election - it is resolutely non-partisan. Its co-founder Justine Roberts tells me she can't imagine the site ever aligning itself with a party or ideology, given the diverse political views held by the mothers who contribute to its discussion forums.

Yet Britain, like America, has a history of conservative women's activism. The British Women's Temperance Association was formed at almost exactly the same time as its US counterpart. With campaigns for sexual purity and chastity, it played a central role in the women's suffrage movement. And Margaret Thatcher (a "heroine" to Palin) is a role model of sorts for British conservative women - although the feminist writer Natasha Walter argues that Thatcher was an anomaly, and one of her own making: "She didn't put in place any policies to encourage equality or to encourage women."

Today, Theresa May is conspicuous as the only woman in a senior cabinet position in the new government. Lower down the ranks, however, there has been a shift. A raft of new female Tory MPs entered parliament at the last election - up from 17 to 49. One, Louise Bag­shawe, chick-lit author and MP for Corby, says this is partly a result of May's efforts to alter the gender balance of the party by starting the Women2Win campaign in 2005. Bagshawe defines herself as a feminist and describes May as the "godmother of a movement".

Like some of her American sisters, Bagshawe is also anti-abortion. "I've never had a problem with being pro-life and a feminist," she says.
“I don't consider them to be at all incompatible." She reveals that she is a member of a prominent US pro-life lobby group, Feminists For Life, and that she admires Sarah Palin. "I watched her acceptance speech at the Republican party conference and it seemed to me that it was a glorious moment, a birth of a new political star." Bagshawe acknowledges that the campaign exposed "various problems" (such as a glaring lack of policy knowledge), but is impressed by the comeback Palin has achieved since the 2008 election, and the power she now wields. "She's a remarkable figure."

Bagshawe's adulation is echoed by one of her colleagues in parliament, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries (who is also pro-life and has campaigned vocally for a reduction in abortion term limits). "I think Sarah Palin is amazing," Dorries says. "I totally admire her." She particularly likes how Palin has spoken up for a certain type of woman - the same women, she believes, who are ignored in Britain today. "Do you know the people who have no voice in this country? Who are never written about, who journalists never talk about? The mums. Mums who decide that they will give up their careers and stay at home and look after their children."

She directs me to a blog post she has just written, "The Invisible Woman", which contains a link to a video of a motivational speech given by an American woman, Nicole Johnson. The central message is one from God to mothers: "You are not invisible to me. No sacrifice is too small for me to notice. I see every cupcake baked, every sequin sewn."

Dorries says she has been inspired by recent events in the US - the primary victories of O'Donnell and others. With a new government in place, she senses a "wind of change" in the political atmosphere in Britain. In the last parliament, she says, it was "very difficult to talk about the family unit, and to talk about mothers and children . . . as the foundation of society, because it was seen as a very unsexy, untrendy thing to do and the opposite of what a woman should be doing". Now, she feels these issues can be discussed.

Her assessment is borne out by Walter, who tells me of a recent meeting she attended with coalition ministers in which they discussed the sexualisation of children. The ministers said they felt it was their duty to provide moral leadership to the country. "That's something I am not comfortable with," Walter says. "But I can see that a Conservative government would think that's where they have to lead."

It is certainly what Dorries thinks. And not only that. Given the sympathetic political climate, she sees an opportunity to mobilise a perceived constituency of ignored, stay-at-home mothers. "I think it's time somebody started to represent those mums," she says.

Not to be dismissed

Since the Tea Party rose up across the US in 2009, a common response to its more extreme factions and candidates has been amusement. Conservative female politicians such as O'Donnell are routinely dismissed, even by leading figures within the Republican Party. Karl Rove recently described O'Donnell's rhetoric as "nutty". Yet the mass appeal of these women is already translating into votes and victories. To discount them is to underestimate their growing power, and also makes for ineffective opposition. As Blee says: "People here do not take women very seriously, they do not take the Tea Party as a whole very seriously, and I think it's clear that's a mistake."

The point on which all the women I spoke to agreed, whatever their shade of politics or feminism, was how often female politicians of all parties and ideologies are patronised. "I wouldn't want to claim Sarah Palin as a sister," Walter says, "but I don't like it when she is despised and trivialised simply for being a woman." And it's not just the Americans. Parliamentarians such as Dorries (nicknamed "Mad Nad") are derided and disregarded as a matter of course.

The "mama grizzlies" are undeterred as they gear up for the midterm elections in November. Dannenfelser is optimistic, pointing out that she has "four strong viable pro-life women who are running [for the Senate] and could win, and three governorships in the same situation". Blee, however, is doubtful about the Tea Party's political longevity. She suggests that the range of views and motivations within the wider movement will make it hard to sustain. Electoral success in the midterms, she believes, might precipitate a collapse by exposing factions and splits.

Nonetheless, uniting all these women and issues is one woman, a de facto leader who appears to be on her way to the very top. "The prospect of Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate is not worth discounting," Blee says.

But could she win the presidency? "Yes, as crazy as that is." As Lu Busse says, laughing, just before she hangs up the phone: "The folks in Washington ought to know that they're in real trouble . . . They've got the women after them now."

Sophie Elmhirst is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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