Diane Abbott MP is the most popular London mayoral candidate among Labour supporters, according to a YouGov poll. Photo: Getty
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Poll reveals Diane Abbott MP as Labour voters’ favourite for London mayoral candidate

What does the surge in popularity for Hackney's MP tell us about Labour voters' hopes for the London mayoralty?

The Evening Standard is reporting a YouGov poll that shows Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, to be the favourite contender for London Mayor in 2016 among the party’s supporters.

Dame Tessa Jowell, the veteran Labour frontbencher and MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, has so far been the favourite among those who say they intend to vote Labour in the 2015 general election, so this is a significant development for those jostling to be Labour’s mayoral candidate in 2016.

The survey found that 17 per cent of Labour supporters would back Abbott, whereas 14 per cent would go for Jowell, the first time the latter – who served as Olympics minister – has been overtaken in this kind of poll. However, she is still the favourite among general voters: 11 per cent compared to Abbott’s nine per cent.

But what chance does Abbott have?

The way that Labour’s mayoral candidate will be chosen is through a closed primary in 2015, where party members and people who register as a party supporter and pay a small fee can take part in the vote. This differs from their old system, which gave trade unions 50 per cent of the vote. It is also a different system to that which then-shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy proposed, in which any Londoner could have voted.

This means whoever is up in ordinary Labour voters’ estimation at the time is most likely to be chosen, rather than the parliamentary party having a great deal of influence. So, in theory, political manoeuvring among candidates matters less than pounding the pavements.

Around Westminster, I’ve heard Abbott criticised by both sides of the House. She was given a lot of stick when running for the Labour leadership in 2010. Lazy is a slight that is often thrown her way (I remember a fellow political journalist telling me they once went to interview her at her house and she emerged blearily in a nighty). By party loyalists she’s often felt to be too divisive and disloyal, approaching politics from quite a hardline leftwing perspective, and Tories can be derisive about her.

One Labour staffer who works on London issues tells me, "I can't imagine Diane Abbott doing that well amongst the PLP, especially considering some of the candidates she is apparently going up against. Personally, I must say the thought of her in charge of London and a multi-billion pound budget to boot is a truly terrifying prospect."

However, the fact that support for Abbott appears to have risen above that of more established candidates such as Jowell and serial frontbencher and current shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan tells us what Labour voters want from their version of Boris. Someone who hasn’t been tainted by too many years on the frontbenches, and therefore speaks plainly and is not afraid to be outspoken against their party.

This is reinforced by Tottenham MP David Lammy, a figure in the Labour Party of a similar ilk to Abbott (though with different politics), being third most popular in the poll. It’s not so much about political leaning; it’s about supporting an outsider who’s more comfortable in their London constituency than around the shadow cabinet table.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

COREY HOCHACHKA/ALAMY
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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era