Exclusive: Diane Abbott on strikes, racism and why Corbyn should have the whip restored

Diane Abbott MP Pic: Areeba Hasan

Amid the current wave of strikes, Hackney’s longest serving MP, Diane Abbott has voiced her support for workers fighting for a “fair wage.”

Abbott told Eastlondonlines: “I support people who are campaigning to get a fair wage.” She added: “I wouldn’t call [the strikes] social unrest, because that suggests…something unpleasant and…threatening.” She said the strike action shows “people are really suffering and they’re really having their income squeezed.” 

“Inflation of food prices is as high as 13 per cent and food [being] a disproportionate amount of low paid workers salary. And when you have inflation of up to a certain level percent overall, then…you’re only offering people 2 per cent or even 5 per cent.” 

She said that this impacted those on lower wages who would suffer the effects of inflation of food prices and “have to choose between being able to heat their house and being able to buy food.” 

Abbott has been open in supporting local trades union activism. She attended the UNISON library protests at Hackney Town Hall, and the Hackney Communication Workers Union fundraiser earlier this month.

In response to Keir Starmer’s decision not to support strike action, she said he “must decide for himself.” She said she is speaking privately with shadow ministers and will soon publicly raise issues of pay with her colleagues.  

As a long term close ally to Starmer’s predeccesor, Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott believes the Islington North MP should have the Labour whip restored. Corbyn had the whip withdrawn when he refused to apologise over comments made in the wake of the EHRC report on anti-semitism within the party. Abbott said: “He still works hard to serve his community. He is a Labour Party member now and he is a Member of Parliament. So I think he should have his whip restored.” 

Abbott does back Starmer’s “New Britain” strategy of abolishing the House of Lords. She said: “We’ll have to see when we’re actually in power,” adding, “I do expect us to be in power [in] 2024.” we will have to see how far he can get with it. [‘New Britain’ strategy’].” 

She added: “I hope it (the strategy) will restore trust. People have more confidence in our local politicians than they do in Westminster politicians. So if we’re giving more power to local authorities […] mayors and so on, that ought to help with people’s trust for the political system.” 

Abbott told ELL how she allied with Ngozi Fulani, head of the Hackney Charity, Sistah Space, who became the centre of the Buckingham Palace racism row.

Diane Abbott (middle) at Communication Workers Union picket line. Pic: member staff on Diane office

Abbott said: “I consider [Fulani] as a friend. [Lady Susan Hussey] said ‘Where are you really from?’ Now that’s offensive. Your age isn’t an excuse for being offensive. It’s precisely the case that she’s old enough to know about it. Sadly, just walking around London, you can see racial incidents, and it’s very regrettable and it shouldn’t be happening in 2022.” 

Abbott herself has suffered extensive online abuse. She said that over half of all online abuse sent to MPs in the run up of the 2017 election was sent to her. She said: “No one got close to our abuse. In recent years, I don’t…look at some of the comments on Twitter because there’s so much of it. It’s so unpleasant.”  

As a woman and a Black MP, antagonism is inevitable, she said: “If you’re a female member of parliament, you do get unfairly treated by the media. And you have to remember when I was first elected in 1987, for 10 years, I was the only Black woman MP in Parliament. And that means the media will focus on you in a way.” 

She has worked throughout her career to try and combat institutional racism: “I have campaigned around policing before I was a member of parliament. I used to be involved in a campaign called the Stop Sus Campaign, and that was a predecessor campaign…against stop and search. Policing has always been a concern of mine, whether in public or in private.” 

“The majority of party members [in Hackney North and Stoke Newington] did work for me and worked very hard. And that’s how they’re able to beat the odds and make me the first Black woman MP. But I’ve had fantastic support from Labour Party members in Hackney and also people in Hackney. I’m very proud and pleased to be able to say that.” 

Abbott said an immediate problem was improving the standards of Hackney’s housing: “We’re trying to find out more about how many people, how many flats, and how much accommodation in Hackney people are suffering from mould. We’re speaking to the local authority [and] housing associations. Then in the new year, we want to have a campaign about this. I believe there are many people in Hackney…who have faced problems with damp,…mould and their lives are at risk.” 

Abbott, born in west London in 1953, was educated at Harrow Grammar School and studied history at Cambridge,. She worked a reporter for Thames Television and TV-am before becoming a press officer for the Greater London Council. In 1982, she was elected as a Councillor for Westminster City Council. By 1987, she was a Labour Party Member of Parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She is the first Black woman elected to Parliament, and the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons. Abbott served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Home Secretary between 2016 and 2020.

Abbott intends to stand for re-election in 2024:“I’ve been on the backbenches for most of my career. I can be a voice for my constituents. And I can learn more and get involved more in different campaigns. I’ve always enjoyed it.” 

Leave a Reply