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2 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

In praise of Diane Abbott, one of the only MPs to come out of Windrush with any credit

When it comes to one of the biggest political scandals in recent years, she has been impeccable.

By Nesrine Malik

I’m not quite sure when it became conventional wisdom that Diane Abbott was a bit of a joke, or more of a joke than the rest of her peers. It just sort of happened. A bad interview here and an off comment there added up to an exaggerated sum of parts. She is now “gaffe prone” Diane Abbott. The LBC interview with Nick Ferrari where she fluffed her numbers did her in for good, but as far back as 2012 there were lists of “Diane’s history of gaffes”. Most seem to be completely banal, especially in a parliament that houses Boris Johnson and David Davies. Around the gaffes then swirled derivative accusations. Slow, lazy, thick Diane Abbott.

When she pulled out of Question Time a few weeks ago to meet with Windrush victims and was replaced by Emily Thornberry, a number of people on Twitter responded with a collective “who are we going to laugh at now!” The unquenched appetite for a kicking was so strong that even I, who was on the panel that episode, caught some it. I don’t think I have to spell it out, dear reader, why anyone would want to direct their frustration at an absent Diane at me, who is neither Diane, nor a Labour party MP. I am other things that Diane shares, but we won’t mention them because that is totally irrelevant identity politics.

It is a playground you see, and Diane Abbott has been collectively singled out as the one whose failings we’re going to fixate on and whose successes we are going to discount. Whatever you think of her, the tone of critique has always smacked of bullying. You know the feeling, when people around you are laughing at someone and you can’t bring yourself to join in because you just know it’s laced with something nasty. 

But the joke’s on the bullies now. Diane Abbott is one of a pitiful number of MPs to have emerged from the Windrush scandal smelling of roses. Not only did she defy the whip and vote against the 2014 Immigration Act which hardened the hostile environment and made border guards of doctors, bank managers and landlords, she specifically asked Theresa May a question raising the possibility that the new measures introduced would affect those who are British nationals, but who might appear to be migrants. The gaffe prone Abbott does not today join those such as Andrew Gwyenne and Chris Williamson, who are expressing regret over their abstention and admitting that they did not even study the bill or its implications properly, or Vince Cable who is doing the media rounds apologising for the Liberal Democrats’ support of the act.

Reading the statements of those who opposed the bill is chilling. Jeremy Corbyn said: “If we descend into a Ukip-generated xenophobic campaign, it weakens and demeans all of us and our society, and we are all the losers for that.” John McDonnell called the bill “the most racist piece of legislation that this country has witnessed since the 1960s… aimed at setting up a regime of harassment for migrants.” This is four years before any Windrush cases came to light.

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Abbott has since fended off attacks on immigration from her own party, who accused her of following a “disastrous” election policy and who painted her as some open borders hippie when, in fact, she was calling for the one thing Labour has failed to do – present the British public with the facts and make a case for an immigration policy that many in the party know is the right one, but dare not argue for lest it make them look, well, make them look like Labour. Or at least the Labour that the right is always caricaturing. A bogey man that is bad with money (specifically, your money), and that is a soft touch. A lily livered, bleeding heart party that wants to let all the immigrants in and stick roses in the machine guns and turn the nuclear warheads into energy generators for giant allotments. It has become unfashionable to have principles that need to be sold. It’s just not grown up. This is a simplification, but at the heart of so much of the current schism in the left’s politics is the conflating of idealism with naivety and cynicism with mature pragmatism. There is a balance of course, but there comes a point when one simply has to believe that a stand for what is right must be taken, even if in the immediate term it looks like it might not bring about results.

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I mean, what are politicians for really, in the end? They are not there to look and sound polished and rehearsed, to roll out all the correct numbers with silken charm in interviews, but then return to parliament and capitulate on legislation that turns the country effectively into a police state that hunts the undocumented. Politicians should not just be avatars in sharp suits, trying to divine which way the winds are blowing in order to position themselves in the safest spot (not pointing any fingers Yvette Cooper, just stating facts). What is a member of parliament for if not to represent the interests of their constituents, and do so against the plotting and machinations of other parties, even their own?

So sure, Diane Abbott is a hypocrite who sent her son to private school. She sometimes fluffs her lines and once made a sucking sound that was caught on a hot mic when Keith Vaz praised the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson (japes in the House of Commons! Have you ever heard of such a thing!). She doesn’t weigh her words too well when it comes to race, having been subjected to decades of racist abuse. She is flawed and unpolished and often does not seem entirely in command of her brief. But when it comes to one of the biggest political scandals of recent years, she has been impeccable. She did her job, her real job, not the PR version of her job, when almost all others across all parties did not.