Campaigners have leapt to the defence of Labour MP Diane Abbott, who has been the subject of intense media scrutiny over the public cost of an oil painting hanging in the Houses of Parliament.
An Evening Standard investigation into commissioned portraits of MPs led to widespread criticism of what has been described as “an expensive vanity project” but some are questioning why Ms Abbott’s, in particular, was singled out.
Kunle Olulode, Director of Voice4Change , said: “Diane Abbott was part of a historic group of Black MPs elected to parliament in 1987 alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz.
“It is right and fitting that she should have a portrait as an elected representative. There is a need for all people to see images of black people in positions of authority. Parliament is one such place.”
The Evening Standard reported the painting of Abbott, by the artist Stuart Pearson Wright, cost £11,750, as did a similar piece on former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett. Baroness Boothroyd, the first female speaker, was disclosed as being the subject of three works of art, including a bronze bust costing £9,000, and current Speaker, John Bercow, has a piece that cost £22,000 to commission and an additional £15,000 to frame and incorporate the coat of arms.
Critics have branded the works, which also include portraits of Iain Duncan Smith, Ken Clarke and Tony Blair, a waste of the public’s money, with the pressure group TaxPayer’s Alliance, calling it an “expensive vanity project”.
The group also said that: “While the public might expect former prime ministers or speakers to be afforded the honour of a painting or bust in Parliament, it would certainly seem that the net is being cast increasingly wide when it comes to identifying subjects”.
When pressed for comment, Diane Abbott said: “The subjects of the portraits commissioned by Parliament are chosen by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art; many people seem to believe that these pictures are commissioned at the request of the individuals depicted, which is not the case. In the case of my own picture, when it was commissioned, 11 years ago, I had no knowledge of the portrait’s cost”.
A Commons spokesman corroborated this view, saying: “The Parliamentary Art Collection at the House of Commons records those who have made a significant contribution to UK political life over the centuries and in each parliament the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art endeavours to update this record by adding to the contemporary portrait collection”.
The focus on Abbot, compared to her colleagues, has left some calling for fairer representation of the case in the public sphere.
Olulode added that: “The petty media attack on Diane simply lacks any balanced objectivity. For some of the critics it’s not clear whether their comments relate to the cost of the work or the aesthetic quality of the image.
“The fact that the MP John Bercow spent £22,000 on his paintings and is not seen at all on the front pages of newspapers raises the question as to why they chose Abbott to be the lead face in this”.
Simon Wooley, Director of Operation Black Vote, echoed this sentiment. He said: “The demonisation of Diane Abbott has been persistent sadly for many years and this latest episode is no different.
“The fact is that hundreds of MPs have had their portraits taken over many, many years in what is a parliamentary tradition, to single out Diane Abbott as though she’s personally enriched herself is truly appalling.
“However Dianne Abbott is made of strong stuff and we are confident she will carry on delivering racial and social justice to the wider community”.