My female colleague made me realise that new Labour is a strange country of which I know nothing
I am sitting here at five in the morning laboriously typing out this, my first New Statesman diary. My brilliant secretary, Deborah, is sick, and I am reduced to typing it out myself. Or missing the deadline and incurring the wrath of Miss Cristina Odone. And probably (knowing her background in religious journalism) the wrath of God as well. And I cannot type. Before I became an MP I had a longish career in journalism. But I am as good with a keyboard as the English football team is at penalty shoot-outs. (Yes, Mr Tebbit, I do not just fail the cricket test. I fail the football test, too.)
My pathetic inability to type goes back to my days as a student. I was a Cambridge undergraduate. This was under an old Labour government, when a working-class black girl like me could go to university for free, we had full employment and the sun shone every day. On one of those sunny afternoons I went to see the Cambridge appointments board. There I received my one and only piece of careers advice. The rather grand lady leant confidentially towards me. "My dear," she said, "whatever you do, do not learn to type. And if you do, do not tell anyone." Those were the days.
Amazingly for someone who cannot type, programme her VCR, change a fuse or drive a car, I love the Internet. I would normally be up at this time in the morning surfing the net. It is a strange passion for someone so resolutely technologically illiterate.
But I am a life-long news junkie. So every morning, before I brush my teeth, I have been in cyberspace reading the Internet editions of the Press Association, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and the Washington Post. My greatest pleasure, though, is to go to the website of Radio Jamaica. Thanks to the wonders of modern computer technology, I can listen to Jamaica's most popular early-morning radio show. With my curtains drawn and Good Morning Jamaica pumping out the latest reggae hits and traffic news from Kingston, I can allow myself the fantasy that I am not in cold, wet Stoke Newington at all, but in glorious, sunny Kingston.
All too soon my Internet odyssey is over and I have to get my seven-year-old son to school. He goes to primary school on the border of Hackney and Islington. It takes two buses to get him there. I read with wonder posh lady newspaper columnists complaining about the "school run". They should try waiting for the 106 bus.
People are often surprised that I use public transport. They ask me if I do not get stared at. In fact, regular users of the 106, which travels in groups of three for company and at half-hour intervals, are grateful to see a bus at all. They wouldn't care if Ghengis Khan and his Mongol hordes got on.
In the school playground James shoots off with his friends and I wait with other mothers for the doors to open. Many of these women are sad, silent refugees from places such as Nigeria, Somalia, Algeria and Kurdistan. Little do these poor women know, but the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is planning (in his new Immigration and Asylum Bill) to take away all their cash benefits and give them food vouchers instead.
This is not a money-saving move. The voucher system is more expensive to administer than giving them income support. Every concerned organisation has warned against it. And it is almost certainly contrary to our obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees.
But Jack is determined to do it. He is more concerned with appeasing new Labour's god - Middle England - than with these mothers. No doubt someone showed Tony Blair some focus group findings which revealed that Middle England thinks refugees are all fraudsters and drug- dealers. So, cheered on by the Daily Mail, we are to have a "crackdown" on refugees.
And soon James's schoolfriends' mothers will have food vouchers instead of money. No cash for school outings, no cash for gym money, no cash for the latest "must-have" item among seven year olds, and perhaps not even enough cash for sweets after school. Little things, perhaps. But big things for a seven year old.
By 10am, I am in parliament. This morning, on my way to a committee meeting, I pass one of my female colleagues in the corridor. She-who-must-not-be-named is part of new Labour's praetorian guard - not one to get sentimental about seven-year-old refugees from Somalia. One of her first acts as a new MP was to get together with another female MP and prepare a letter of denunciation against me. Which she (apparently) got hundreds of her colleagues to sign. I do not know what I was denounced for. She did not tell me she was doing it and I was never allowed to see the letter. I believe it had something to do with my opposition to cutting benefit to single parent mothers. Presumably it was supposed to lie on the file until the time comes when I am to be flung out of the parliamentary Labour Party, when it can be used in evidence.
At the time, I inquired of my colleague whether she had ever considered discussing my political opinions with me instead of denouncing me to the authorities. She gave me a look of withering scorn. It was at that point I realised that new Labour is a strange country of which I know nothing.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
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