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How the left was lost: the need to relearn what true progress means

Incomprehensible scholasticism, emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure.

Image: Sonia Roy/


The word “progress”, which signifies a “going forwards”, cannot have a fixed meaning. In these quickly changing times, we have to ask what is really future-directed and in the majority interest, as the far right advances. If “progress” is not to be measured by the statistics of “growth”, by the pretended success of a “pro-competition and pro-enterprise agenda”, by open borders, by a moral free-for-all and the rest of it, what is the alternative?

Certainly it is not “socialism”. Its time has come and gone, whether in its state-socialist or in its innocently idealist forms. In particular, the “working class” has never been further from dethroning capital, and has itself been near consumed by market forces. The classless utopia dreamed of in Marx’s heaven was an illusion, while the collapse of communism took socialism down with it, too.

Rifling through the goods on the free market’s stalls from Milan to Moscow and Birmingham to Beijing, the productive “proletarian” has turned into a mere shopper, poor as may be. It is market-thought (not Marxist thought) which now promises humanity’s salvation, and with the same degree of illusion. In times that have brought Starbucks to Hanoi, even the word “socialism” – let alone “class” – is increasingly avoided in public debate, including by most British “progressives”; and few readers of the New Left Review or the London Review of Books would swap Islington and Hampstead for Pyongyang or Havana.

State socialism’s failures have made the privatisation (or theft) of public goods seem to many a virtue, and the common good appear synonymous with the good of the market. Even modest measures of economic regulation and social intervention – let alone renationalisation – are condemned by the free marketeer as “socialist”, while the freedom to exploit others is seen as an expression of freedom as such. There is little “working-class solidarity” now, and protest is sporadic.

The out-of-date “progressive” must therefore reckon with the fact that despite the free society’s dangerous inequalities, bank crises, cuts in welfare provision, real-estate bubbles and youth unemployment, today’s collapsing liberal democracies cannot be saved from themselves by socialists of whatever stripe or kind. They had their chances and blew them.

In Britain, to make matters worse, the trade unions have been harmed by their Tammany practices, falling memberships and overpaid leaders, while MI5 “Trotskyites” skilfully discredited the British left in the 1970s and 1980s, steering it to self-destruction. Even May Day was cancelled by Mrs Thatcher, while “Blairism” ate away at the old Nonconformist and upright Labour ethic to its very core, an ethic of mutuality, decency, equity and co-operation. Or as Peter Mandelson declared in October 1998 when he was Labour’s trade and industry secretary, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” It was the most repellent statement made in Labour’s name since the party was founded.

In order to stake out new ground for the true progressive, nothing less than a new (and very old) chapter in political thought is needed. Most sectarian “left” intellectuals – who always needed the working class more than it needed them – are not much use for the task, endlessly talking to themselves in their private enclaves. Some, like Tony Benn, were mere flatterers of the “lower orders”. Other pretended class warriors went off to well-paid jobs in the US once the Marxist tide in Britain had ebbed, while more moderate left and pseudo-left thought was impoverished by banal “Third Way” nostrums made of chalk and cheese.

Incomprehensible scholasticism, “fluttering over its bookes”, as Thomas Hobbes expressed it, and emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure. Talk of “class struggle” was plain enough. But it gave way to the mystifying nonsenses of structuralism and semiotics, with their “narratives”, “discourses” and “tropes”, their “moments”, “shifts” and “ruptures”: the language of political and moral paralysis.

With socialism at the end of its historical evolution, the “left” now lacks a coherent sense of what progress is. It has only a ragbag of causes and issues, rational and irrational, urgent and idle: a politics of personal rights and “lifestyle choices”, of anti-racism and environmental protection, of multicultural separatism, individual identity and gender, and much else besides.

Neither rhyme nor reason – and certainly not socialist reason – can be made of it, especially when mere transgression is confused with progress. In fact, we are now landed with a “left” concept of freedom which is little different from Milton Friedman’s “right to choose”, a libertarianism that has overshadowed the social in what used to be socialism. It is itself a market freedom; after all, self-restraint has less market worth than self-indulgence. Nor is today’s “freedom’n’liberty”, whether right or “left”, the freedom fought for in the Reformation or in the revolutionary overthrow of the anciens régimes. It is not the freedom for which the 19th-century emancipationists and the suffragettes struggled. It is the freedom to do what one wants and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder that the far right is advancing.

There is ignorance, too, in this pseudo-left libertarianism. It is reactionary, not progressive, to promote the expansion of individual freedoms without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole. Those who want the right to choose, and who object to moral or social restraint as “authoritarian”, cannot logically object to the rights of Capital to do whatever it wants also. The rapacious equity trader has as much right to be free as you or me; these “rights” differ only in scale and consequence, not in essence.

Together we are smashing the essentials of any society, and especially a free society, in the name of a false notion of freedom. “Doing what one wants, as happens in democracies, is the very reverse of beneficial,” as Aristotle put it. Instead, as I will argue, restraints on some forms of liberty are essential to both individual and public well-being, and therefore essential to a new definition of what is truly progressive.

Yet most on the “left” have lost their way in the political desert created by socialism’s demise. Or, as Ed Miliband declared in his first conference speech as party leader in September 2010, Labour’s purpose – with “growth” as “our priority” – is to “expand freedom and opportunity for all our people”. This was Milton Friedman’s aspiration, too. “I am determined to make Labour the party of enterprise,” Miliband added for good measure. In February this year, he also pledged to govern with the same sense of conviction as Thatcher. It is not possible. The damage done by Tony Blair to Labour purposes and to its former movement has been too great, and Miliband’s political inheritance is too incoherent, for such resolve. It is also unfair to accuse him of being “weird”. Anyone attempting to make public sense of Labour’s “project” would be hit by a speech defect.

But that Labour should be wandering about in circles in ideological limbo when a “top football star” earns as much in a week for kicking a ball as a nurse earns in ten years for the care of the sick remains astounding. “Growth” brings wealth to some and increasing indigence to many, yet the discrediting of socialism is such that increased public spending or hiking the minimum wage raises the spectre of a “leftism” that would be “anti-business” and “hostile to wealth creation”, rather than helping to save a disintegrating free society from itself.

All that remains for Labour to do, it seems, is to work on its “brand” – but it has no “brand” – and give its leader a cosmetic makeover. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of trade unionists are said no longer to vote Labour, and rootless consumption rules. “What I’m about is how do we make markets work properly in the public interest?” Miliband clumsily declared in May; his “Trotskyite” father, with his professed contempt for “parliamentary socialism” itself, would turn in his grave to hear of a project so paltry. Instead, these times of greed, “growth” and globalisation – while Islam advances and free societies degrade to the benefit of the far right – demand bold reconsideration of what being “progressive” should mean today.

Most important of all, now, is the defence of reason. Today, true progressivism must above all be secular. It must pit itself against the advance of obscurantism in the free society in order to protect
our – yes, our – Enlightenment’s hard-won conquests in the realms of political and ethical thought.

What obscurantism? The obscurantism that is expressed, for example, in racism, or in the more benighted provisions of sharia law and Islamic practice, which would impose its ways even in non-Muslim lands. With the arms of reason, but if necessary by authoritarian sanction also, progress must hold out against all who would intrude darkness of mind upon us, an intrusion increasingly justified by libertarians in the very name of liberty.

Certain forms of feverish or hysterical belief are merely absurd: superstitious food taboos, for example – halal or kosher. Others are fearsome, as is the case with the barbarisms of FGM, against which western feminism has been able to do little. The excision of the clitoris is not Enlightenment’s work, yet “progressives” have not turned out in their thousands in Trafalgar Square to protest it. Reason is also repelled, and mental progress also set back, by the stigmata of a Padre Pio or the obsessional nitpicking of ultra-Orthodox Hebraism. But the fatwa death sentence against Salman Rushdie was in a league of its own.

Islam is right to scorn the “infidel’s” bending of the knee to plaster saints, holy relics, bleeding martyrs and other idols. But Islam is wrong and must be fought by true progressives – Michael Gove is one such, in this respect – if it should seek to shackle our hard-won freedoms of thought and speech, and most grossly wrong if it attempts to do so in education’s name.

Instead, it is the most important of all truly progressive causes to help each new generation, whatever its origins, to make sense of our increasingly embattled and complex times. The rule of reason must be taught; it is Enlightenment’s continuing task as a means of societal self-defence. Yet educational standards are falling at the very moment when the need for knowledge of our – yes, our – history and culture, traditions, language and literature is growing. Why the need? Because such knowledge is future-directed, in the interests of the majority, and therefore progressive; while the true reactionary of today, backwards-looking, describes as “elitists” those who want to see higher standards.

Here, as in so many areas of debate, truth about the free society’s woes is stopped in its tracks by “political correctness”. It is a creed as rigid as any religious dogma. In some instances it dictates a just sensibility in language, and objects to insult and incitement, but for the most part it is a form of reactionary self-censorship driven by cowardice. It blocks reason with repressive taboos about what may be said and (almost) about what should be thought. At its command, crime rates are said to be falling even when they are rising, and educational standards rising when they are falling. The true progressive must reject such political correctness as yet another orthodoxy of mind, a product of fear of the truth.

The pseudo-progressive’s “non-judgementalism”, holding its tongue, is no virtue either. Without moral judgement of our mounting ills there will be no true progress in social reform. Equally dishonestly, pseudo-progressives, letting down the secular cause, keep quiet about aspects of the morality of Islam that they would not tolerate for themselves. Similarly, fear of being thought an “Islamophobe” is more potent among pseudo-progressives than fear of radical Islam itself. True progressives in the 1930s were not so scared of reason’s foes. They knew unreason for what it was, and rallied their political and intellectual forces against it.

On the right, bad faith is also rife, as when it denies the worldwide harms that corporate interests and free markets cause. On the “left”, equal falsehoods rule: “Family life’s the best it’s been for a thousand years,” a Guardian columnist told readers in May 2012. Moreover, phoney progressives make their own pick’n’mix selection of ills on which to focus and ignore others, or oppose measures to deal with them. Their politically correct, “non-judgemental” and random concerns are easily understood. They help fill the hole in the ground where the “socialist project” once stood, and are surrogates for real belief.

The pseudo-progressive’s refusal to face up to the lost sense of identity, place and nation in today’s free societies leaves the field even wider open to reaction. Indeed, “political correctness” denotes as “right-wing”, or even as “fascist”, those new and true progressives, or forward-thinkers, for whom tradition is not a “deadweight”, “law and order” is not a matter for mockery and mass migration not a boon, and for whom belief in nation does not make one a Nazi. What was the New Statesman called from 1931 to 1957? The New Statesman and Nation. Perish the thought, says the dumb political corrector.

Today, true progressives must come to terms with a hard fact: that neither socialist nor libertarian prescriptions can deal with the free society’s accelerating disintegration. Wishy-washy centrists, for their part, need to recognise that a market-driven liberal democracy such as ours, with a few human rights protections thrown into the mix, does not stand at the summit of political evolution.

Meanwhile, the far right waits at the ruined city’s gates. Why ruined? Because the combination of a market free-for-all and pseudo-progressive libertarian excesses is bringing the whole lot down. Yet some on the loony libertarian “left” believe that we are living in a “police state”; they did not know Honecker’s East Germany or Ceausescu’s Romania, as I did. The truth is quite different: civil society, which was wrecked in the “Soviet bloc” by state socialism, is being wrecked now in the name of “freedom”.

Indeed, most members of the free society are no longer real citizens at all. What was once a polity is now largely composed of rights-bearing isolates, wheeling their trolleys through a shopping mall in unending file. Disoriented by its swirl of entitlements and choices and overwhelmed by incomers – forget the political correctness – democratic politics is increasingly helpless in the face of the free society’s disorders.

Mainstream parties are in fluid motion, most of them searching in confusion for the “centre ground”. “What is to be done?” is an old political question. It is a question that most of our democratic politicians cannot answer, while the far right’s knocking at the door gets louder.

The true progressive must start recoiling in earnest from the free-for-all in the market’s merry-go-round, in which most bounds are broken, relationships founder, the collapse of self-esteem quickens, and the search for palliatives grows more despairing. It is also clear that redemptions by coke, Botox or a gastric staple are poor alternatives to the devout Muslim’s vision of Paradise Garden.

Even the sense that we belong to a social order is evaporating. It is untaught in school and lost from view in the digital limbo most of us inhabit, while the term “civil society” is largely unknown. There could be 15 billion people in the planet’s global market by 2100, bringing even more flux and disaggregation.

Yet despite the quickening dissolution of the free society, public institutions that stand at the heart of the body politic continue fatally to be sold off, to the harm of the ethos of community service itself. Private contractors in free societies now collect taxes, manage citizen databases, gather military intelligence, conduct army recruitment, patrol borders, control air traffic, preside over and even own prisons, deport illegal migrants and operate key areas of the social security system – for profit. As citizen-identity wanes to disappearance, it is a civic philosophy, not “socialism”, or “statism”, which demands the taking-back of the purloined public domain. The provision of public goods by public authority is an essential component of civil society’s very existence.

Worst of all is the unscrupulous belief that nothing is owed by us for the rights we possess. Instead, true progressivism in a free society demands a politics and ethics of duty. If freedom is to survive, we must fulfil our obligations to the civic order to which we belong (or may have recently joined), the civic order that serves us. There must be reciprocity between our rights and our duties, or the far right will insist upon it for us, to the greater harm of millions.

It is a civic consciousness, not a class consciousness, that we need. Pluralism, yes; but we are citizens before we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, or freethinkers.

That is the true centre ground, or foun­dation, on which state, civil society and nation stand; indeed, a lively and popular sense of nation is a valuable source – among others – of identity in dangerously identity-less times. Above all, to rescue our sense of civic belonging and obligation from the self-regarding libertarianism and anti-“moralising” of the phoney progressive is the work of true progress, if the far right’s hankerings for a “new order” are to be countered. 

David Selbourne’s “The Principle of Duty: an Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order” (1994) was republished by Faber & Faber in 2009

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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?



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.



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.



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