Labour London mayoral hopeful Diane Abbott MP attacks "candidates of the party machine"

Diane Abbott on shadow cabinet doing "the worst thing" by failing to confront "rubbish" policies, why Labour should campaign separately from the Tories on the EU, and how the leadership contest is too white and on the right.

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Diane Abbott’s first experience of London was living one family to each room in a three-floor house in north Paddington. There was one cooker on the landing. Both her parents had moved to London from Jamaica in the Fifties, and she was born in London in 1953. Back then, living in such conditions was how many immigrant families could afford to settle down in London.

“But if I go back to where I was born in north Paddington, all those houses are now painted pink and occupied by one merchant banker and his family,” Abbott says. She is recounting her memories of London to me from a very different location – her parliamentary office that looks over a sun-drenched Parliament Square.

She has had a varied view of the capital. Her father, a welder, eventually moved the family out to Harrow, in northwest London suburbia. At the time, it was a world away from Abbott’s roots in immigrant-populated north Paddington. “It was extraordinary because we were the only black family in Harrow. So if I went out and saw a black person on the street, I'd run home and tell my mother. I really would!” she chuckles.

Attending Harrow County Grammar School helped her along the way to a history degree at Cambridge. The handful of media and political research and communications jobs that followed led to her becoming a Westminster councillor in 1982. Five years later, she was elected Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington – the first black woman to reach the Commons.

Now Abbott is running to be Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty election, which takes place next May. She sees her diverse experiences of London as the perfect background for tackling such a role.

“You can't win the mayoral race on the core Labour vote alone,” she says. “Ken [Livingstone, Labour’s last London mayor] held the Labour vote in Zones 1-3, but how he lost was because Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ genius, raised the level of turnout in the outer suburbs, and he was beaten there.

“So it’s really important to have a candidate who is actually known and can reach out to people who aren’t necessarily Labour voters.”

One example of Abbott’s broad pitch is she would like to see rent controls to enable ordinary people to live and work in central London, but is also adamant about protecting the greenbelt from developers, for those who live in outer London boroughs.

Abbott’s key focus is housing. Her policy proposals include a “proper survey of all brownfield land” to meet London’s immediate housing needs, a fiscal levy on non-doms buying property from abroad – often off-plan – and leaving it empty, allowing local authorities to borrow to build, and working with them on giving mortgages to certain types of Londoners, like young people and key workers.

Abbott herself received a mortgage from the council when she bought her first flat, at the age of 28, in Maida Vale. “I remember that winter very clearly because I had absolutely no money, no money at all,” she smiles. “And I slept on a mattress in my living room, I always remember that. I didn't have any central heating, I had a gas fire. But I could own my own flat.”

Gentrification has hit east London hard. At best, this means overpriced artisan fare and novelty infantilised cafés, and at worst, alienation of ordinary residents, and social cleansing.

As MP for Hackney, the heart of the housing bubble, Abbott has seen first-hand how destabilised society could become as property and rent costs risk forcing swathes of Londoners out. She says gentrification is part of this, but blames the problem mainly on haywire property prices.

“Hackney is actually a very diverse borough now; it's got people who live on council estates, tech entrepreneurs, hipsters, the whole thing,” she says proudly.

Abbott has always been a mansion tax-sceptic – it was the “wrong name”, and extra council tax tiers would be more effective. “I was the first mayoral candidate to talk about the challenges that the mansion tax posed. I'm interested that now everyone is following in my wake,” she says, one eyebrow arched.

Abbott is clearly appalled at the cynicism of some of her colleagues, backtracking on Ed Miliband’s policy programme so soon after his election defeat.

“I was slightly taken aback – I mean, Ed Miliband sacked me, so I’m no great, you know, Ed Miliband apologist! – but I'm so amazed at all these people in the shadow cabinet who didn't wait 48 hours before saying it was all rubbish,” she says.

“If you thought it was all rubbish, why did you stay in the shadow cabinet? Why didn't you come out and say that you thought it was terrible? . . . They did the worst thing, some of them, in my opinion – I'm not going to say names, but it was particular individuals – they undermined him [Miliband] by briefing against him, but would not come out and have the debate,” she concludes, banging her fist on the table upon each syllable.

Abbott believes name recognition is crucial for choosing Labour’s mayoral contender, and can often be found on the BBC This Week sofa chummying up beside Michael Portillo, as well as pounding the pavements of Hackney.

“I think I'm the best candidate because I think I have the right policies for London, I think I have one of the highest profiles of any of the potential candidates, and I think I'm a good communicator.”

Her most high-profile rivals are former shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, former culture minister David Lammy, and former Olympics minister Tessa Jowell. She says they are all “very nice”, but is forthright about what sets her apart.

“She's the Blair continuity candidate,” she says of Jowell, and also highlights Khan’s New Labour credentials. “Sadiq and I are quite different politically,” she says. “I remember on 42 days’ detention without charge, which was a huge thing for the Muslim community – I voted and spoke against it, and Sadiq whipped for it. It was a huge issue of principle in many of our communities.”

She recalls Khan’s pre-election open letter to Ukip supporters apologising for Labour’s record on immigration: “I’m not going to be writing any articles like that any time soon.”

Abbott also compares her voting record to that of David Lammy. “He voted for the Iraq war. I didn't. He supports tuition fees. I don't. I voted not just against the Tories, but I voted against them when a Labour government brought them in. I really like David, but over the years, we've taken different positions on issues.”

She concludes: “I think of all the candidates, nice as they all are, I am the one that has the reputation in the public of being independent and prepared to stand up when it's difficult,” adding that what Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have in common is “Londoners perceive them not to be candidates of the party machine.”

Abbott ran for the Labour leadership in 2010, and has some stern words for those in the race this time round. She is concerned that they are “all from one wing of the party” (I am speaking to her the day before the socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn declares).

“I've got an open mind. I know them all. They all have their own distinct attributes. I might wish that they weren't all from one wing of the party, because they are, and all of them – with the exception of Mary Creagh – are former special advisers,” she sighs.

“And all of them seem to be saying that the answer to everything is to move closer to the Tories on issues, be it immigration, be it business . . . just giving speeches about how we've got to be nice to businessmen – I don't think that gets to the root of the problem.”

Abbott argues that part of winning back blue-collar voters is having an authentic leader – somewhere she feels the party has fallen behind.

“I think that, in the Blair era, we parachuted one too many special adviser into former mining or industrial seats. And they're some of the people who are panicking about Ukip.”

There is just one BME candidate in the race (Rushanara Ali, running to be deputy leader). “I think it's a great shame,” she laments, recalling 2010 when “it was four white guys and me”.

Abbott also argues that the leadership rivals have all dropped the ball – or rather the hot tatty – on Scotland, where Labour lost all but one of its seats.

“Some of my colleagues seem to talk as if hard-bitten Labour voters in Glasgow suddenly got swept away by nationalism and wanted to have a free kilt and eat more shortbread. No!” she cries. “They voted for a party which they perceived to be to the left of the Labour party.

“None of the leadership candidates are addressing Scotland. Unless we have a strategy for getting Scotland back, I don't see how we can win in 2020. It seems to me their only strategy for Scotland, they're all sat there implying they're going to win Scotland back on sheer personal charisma alone. I don't think so.”

Abbott is adamant that a lesson Labour can learn from Better Together is to campaign separately from the Tories on Britain staying in the European Union. “One of the things you hear is people in Scotland just could not understand what Labour was doing on a platform with the Tories. But we really have to make a positive socialist case for Europe . . . We'd have to have a separate campaign.”

It remains to be seen whether Labour is prepared to choose a politician as unafraid as Diane Abbott to campaign separately from the mould not just of the British political establishment, but of her own party.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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