In praise of a woman who stays true to her roots
Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is the subject of a strange memo, supposedly written at Robin Cook's behest but, according to newspaper reports, actually written by somebody who wants to smear Cook as a smearer. As Diane wrote in the NS two weeks ago, new Labour is a strange country of which I know little. All I know is that the memo, whatever its provenance, contains the most abusive and libellous garbage. Diane's personal life is smeared and she is charged with associating with Yardies and black extremists. The only offence she is not charged with is being a Blair babe.
Diane, as it happens, is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In that capacity she opposes the mighty Foreign Office, which is closely allied with the security services in what looks like an effort to recolonise Africa, to the sweet sound of diamonds crackling in bank vaults. Diane is taking forward the long anti-colonial tradition that is fundamental to the Labour Party. I can recall old Fenner Brockway shuffling slowly to the podium at Central Hall, Westminster, to address a huge throng gathered in solidarity with the long and murderous armed struggle waged by Amilcar Cabral and the rest of them in Portuguese Africa. Diane cut her teeth in her teens in this mood and moment. No surprise now that the collaboration between this government and the Sierra Leone regime, which is as corrupt as any in Africa, drives her to ask questions.
I am certain of one thing about the anti-Abbott memo: that it originated from the British establishment, from official society, so to speak.
Many a time I have disagreed with Diane in these very pages and not once has she taken offence, unlike so many others in the political arena. I am not a member nor a supporter of her party, or any other for that matter. But I understand very well that her presence in parliament has added strength to the democratic fibre of this country. She is a party activist: "the party", "our party" are phrases that trip off her lips with consummate ease. She has been elected to Labour's National Executive.
She is no opportunist. She was born into a working-class West Indian home and attended Cambridge University. So many of that social type have broken with their origins in a desperate and ambitious climb up the social ladder. They bend their knees, bow and scrape before authority until their foreheads are bruised, and the words, "yes sir", are never far from their voice box.
She has found a natural habitat in the Labour Party, a vehicle that embraces the radical and the egalitarian in a broad alliance. She would have been a willing protegee of Aneurin Bevan, a friend of Michael Foot in those good old days. She is now in a parliamentary confrontation with Jack Straw, who is seeking to deny welfare benefits to asylum seekers and give out paupers' vouchers instead. She is militant in opposition to any attack on the poor.
On the day the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was presented to parliament, Diane got a seat just behind Jack Straw. It was she, with Bernie Grant, who took the Lawrences to meet the Home Secretary. She has been quite discreet about this but she was crucial in advancing the Lawrence case to the point of an inquiry. Discretion is rare among those in power, I tell you.
And one final observation. When I went to meet her for lunch at Westminster recently, and she stood waiting for me, all I could see as I approached was her back, square and relaxed, not at all anorexic, the style of the modern woman. Her posture was absolutely and completely Caribbean, like so many of our sisters, mothers and grandmothers. More than any other quality, she brings to British politics the deep concerns of Caribbean women, former slaves and concubines to their masters, revolutionary in their hostility to oppression. The current leadership of the Labour Party is doomed unless it respects that constituency. I wish her well and invite others to do the same.