Back in the 80s, I spent some time as a Labour Party member. In much of the country, Labour was still the defender of organised labour (the clue’s in the name), but in London, a variety of fringe groups and interests from outside the traditional labour movement had made Labour their home.
One of the favourite tricks of the middle-class London left was “positive discrimination” – what Americans call “affirmative action”. They felt that Labour was lacking non-white faces, so decided to fast-track some into the ranks. This was a strange thing to do: black and Asian workers were rapidly climbing trade union power structures on their own merit. Some very talented socialists from India and the West Indies had migrated to the UK and had joined the Labour Party. These black activists didn’t need a hand up: Bernie Grant, a fiery Jamaican activist won a parliamentary seat in Tottenham; Bill Morris, another Jamaican, was ascending the trade union ranks on his own merit and would soon lead the UK’s biggest union, before taking the most powerful union job of all, as leader of the TUC. But the middle-class left were impatient, and perhaps were uncomfortable with black class fighters like Grant and Morris.
The result of the “positive discrimination” era was not good, either for Labour or the black and Asian communities. The people who gained careers in London Labour had no base in the communities, and no respect from them. They were not picked based on talent, but on the colour of their skin. Rather than bring the black communities into Labour, it helped alienate them. A number of embarrassingly untalented individuals, selected by Labour, were now claiming to speak for black Londoners, and black Londoners were not impressed.
One of the fruits of this process seems to have been Diane Abbott, a Hackney MP. Abbott has always made left-wing noises, and for many years I thought she was a genuine socialist. Then, when it came time to send her son to secondary school, she exposed her lack of political belief or solidarity with the people of her poor, Hackney constituency, and sent him to private school. Abbott, a Cambridge graduate, had exposed a simple fact that local Labourites should have noticed years before: she had nothing in common with the poor communities of Hackney other than sharing her skin tone with some of them.
Her choice of school surprised me, and many others who had considered ourselves Abbott supporters; we hadn’t understood that her socialism was skin-deep. It was only when she began to appear on the late-night BBC1 programme This Week that things began to click into place.
Abbott was a regular on this political discussion programme, alongside Michael Portillo, who had been a right-wing minister in the Conservative Thatcher and Major governments. I began to tune in to the programme each Thursday, eager to see Abbott espousing left-wing values, and attacking Portillo’s right-wing ones. It didn’t work out like that for two reasons: first, Portillo was revealed to be an intelligent, thoughtful man, who had drifted to the centre ground in his years since leaving power. And second, Abbott seemed incapable of explaining her own beliefs. Time after excruciating time, Portillo would gently help her outline a concept before explaining why she was wrong. After watching the programme for some time, my respect for Abbott had collapsed, while I had developed some respect for Portillo (a man I had despised for his record in government).
Bizarrely, when Gordon Brown stepped down as leader, Abbott stepped up as the “candidate of the left” (see Charlotte Gore’s post on Labour tokenism in selecting Abbott); if we needed a sign that the Labour left was defunct, this was it. Abbott was soundly defeated (perhaps Michael Portillo wasn’t available to help write her speeches). Even more bizarrely, Ed Miliband appointed Abbott to a front-bench position after he won the leadership election. Abbott’s job seems to be to make left-wing noises and placate whatever remains of a genuine left in the Labour Party. And admittedly, she does tweet good links (no doubt, thus persuading those who don’t pay much attention that she is some kind of progressive).
If any more evidence were needed of Abbott’s ideological emptiness, it came last week. The coalition pushed through an attack on benefits for some of the poorest people in Britain. The Labour hierarchy instructed their MPs to abstain; but there was a rare rebellion! Over 40 Labour MPs stood up for their principles (and the lives of millions of people who are struggling to survive).
And as for Abbott, whose constituency is one of the poorest in the country? She abstained, of course. Diane is clearly enjoying her stint in front-bench politics, and voting against the Labour machine would have meant standing down from a nice job which she no doubt realises she has no chance of getting a second time.
As Ken Loach and others wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, The Labour party has failed us. We need a new party of the left. They’re a decade or two late in noticing, but hey – better late than never. Given that there are still 40 Labour MPs with principles, perhaps now is the time to get moving – before the entire Labour benches are filled with empty, principle-free career politicians.