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Beware the clunking fist

Ignore the conventional wisdom. The combination of an improving economy and Gordon Brown’s sheer blo

Conventional wisdom is a poor guide to the future.

At the end of the 20th century, few would have thought that the coming decade would see the election of a black US president, a power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, and the nationalisation of some of Britain’s biggest banks.

Yet, even in the face of such unexpected recent events, we still cling to the notion of political ­inevitability. It is now widely regarded as a certainty that Labour will lose the next election, with the Tories on course to form a large majority in the Commons.

A combination of sleaze, exhaustion and economic meltdown are said to have finished off the Labour government. Gordon Brown is seen as a political corpse. The only question to be decided at the polls, it seems, is the scale of his defeat.

But once more, conventional wisdom could be wrong. Labour might look doomed at the moment, in the febrile atmosphere created by the expenses scandal, but the picture could be very different next summer, if the worst of the charlatans have been kicked out of the cabinet and an economic recovery is under way. Moreover, a number of features of the structure of our political system are likely to benefit Labour in the run-up to the next general election.

Even now, in the midst of crisis, it is not all gloom for the government. On 21 May, Labour won a council by-election in Salford, the seat of the discredited Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, whose conduct over her home allowances has been condemned by Brown as “totally unacceptable”.

Given Blears’s role at the centre of ­Scamalot, the Labour vote in Salford might have been expected to collapse dramatically, but it held up. Meanwhile, the Tory vote dropped, as the party’s candidate was overtaken by both Ukip and the BNP.

Indeed, the Conservatives have not been doing nearly as well in council by-elections as they should be for a party on the verge of government. In one poll at the start of May, in the Rossmere ward of Hartlepool, the Labour vote actually went up, while the Tories were consigned to fifth place.

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair’s third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath – defying conventional wisdom and the polls – defeated Harold Wilson’s government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

Nor do all of Cameron’s target seats appear to be in fertile territory for Conservatism. On the list are places such as Keighley, Dewsbury, Derby North, Rossendale and Dumfries and Galloway. It is difficult to envisage all of them turning blue, especially if the general election next year takes place against a backdrop of improving economic news.

When the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced in the pre-Budget report last year that recovery could start in the autumn of 2009, he was derided for his prediction. But this could be the reality. Such a recovery would not address the appalling state of the public finances, with levels of national indebtedness far worse than at any time in our history.

Yet it is unlikely that the ­question of the national debt will be a deciding factor at the next election. People will be much more influenced by their own job prospects and personal income. Most homeowners lucky enough to be in work have not suffered too badly in this recession because of the dramatic fall in ­interest rates. There is no sign that rates will increase over the coming year.

By next year, the impact of the expenses scandal and the Smeargate fiasco may have faded. All the opinion polls over the past two years demonstrate that Brown’s ratings improve when economic questions predominate. Again in defiance of conventional wisdom, the Prime Minister’s strange political personality might assist in Labour’s revival in the months before the next election.

His combination of bullying, indecisiveness, cowardice and lack of vision have rightly made him despised by large sections of the public. Yet his strongest trait, his aggressive partisanship, currently a vice, could in future become an asset to Labour.

Every decision Brown makes is dictated, not by the national interests, but by his narrow determination to outflank the Tories. This has led him to absurdities like his notorious pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, but some of his negative campaigning may prove more fruitful.

The stark warnings about “Tory cuts” will be pounded home relentlessly over the next 12 months, and this message is bound to find a receptive audience among two key groups of voters: public-sector workers and welfare claimants, both of whom have done comparatively well from Labour rule. Together, these two groups have more than 12 million votes.

Brown’s partisanship will ensure that every aspect of the political system is ruthlessly exploited to Labour’s advantage. Labour’s turnout will be heavily boosted by postal voting, which, as a series of fraud scandals have proved, is open to corruption by agents and activists. One judge, presiding in 2005 over a case involving a municipal postal voting fraud in Birmingham, said the scale of abuses by six local Labour candidates would have “disgraced a banana republic”.

Indeed, the Labour government cynically introduced postal voting on demand without safeguards in 2000 precisely because it knew the party would be the big winner from such a flawed method. At the 2005 election, 6.5 million people voted by post. The figure will be even higher in 2010 and the misrepresentation even worse.

Similarly, the government will indulge in a wealth of feel-good propaganda over the next year, dressing up pro-Labour publicity as consultation and information exercises. Already the government is by far the biggest advertiser in the country, with the Central Office of Information holding a budget of £400m. Marketing by other pro-Labour public-sector organisations will be added to the political spin.

We can expect schools, hospitals, regeneration projects, community groups and Sure Start centres to start putting up signs at their entrances explaining how much the government has recently invested in their sites. In the same way, the £2.3bn regional development agencies, which the Tories have pledged to abolish, will have everything to gain by launching expensive billboard campaigns telling us about wonderful economic success ­stories in their regions.

Conventional wisdom holds that there will be a big anti-incumbency vote at the next election because of public disillusionment over the current House of Commons. But the opposite may be true. Sitting MPs have two great advantages.

First, their casework means that they have had supportive contact with thousands of voters. The huge increase in staffing allowances in the past decade means that they can often employ two or three assistants in the constituency working on behalf of their local public.

In the 1980s, Chris Smith managed to hang on to a wafer-thin majority in Islington South partly through his assiduity in handling an epic volume of casework, most of them housing issues that should really have been dealt with by local councillors. His winning slogan in the 1987 election was: “Everyone knows somebody who’s been helped by Chris Smith.”

This will be a theme taken up by a host of Labour MPs in 2010. The second advantage is the £10,000-a-year communications allowance, which enables incumbents to spread the gospel of their devotion to their constituents through glossy newsletters.

The changing demography of Britain will also help Labour. The phenomenal increase in mass immigration over the past decade has not only transformed the make-up of our urban society, but has undoubtedly been a significant boon to Labour. All studies show that the overwhelming majority of voters in migrant communities tend to vote Labour. Eighty per cent of black voters back the party and at least 60 per cent of Asians.

Tellingly, many of the highest concentrations of ethnic minorities are in the swaths of marginal seats in outer London, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire. According to the campaign group Operation Black Vote, as many as 70 marginals could be decided by black and Asian voters.

Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, with its legalisation of positive discrimination in favour of minorities, will be a strong campaigning point for Labour. The influence of the ethnic vote on Labour thinking was graphically revealed in the diary of Chris Mullin, where in January 2004, he lamented how little the government had done to tackle immigration abuses. “We’ve barely touched the rackets that surround arranged marriages. What mugs we are.” Then he added a comment to the effect that there was the difficulty that “at least 20 Labour seats, including Jack Straw’s, depend on Asian votes”.

Brown’s campaign in 2010 may be desperate, cynical, even deceitful, but that does not mean it will not work. Negative campaigning has worked in the past, most famously in 1992 when the Tories’ demolition of “Labour’s tax bombshell” led to John Major’s victory and one of the biggest upsets in history. A discredited government in the fifth year of its third term can stil

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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