Posted Under: Anti-War,GreenFeed,Human Rights,Interviews,Labour,Socialism
As the Labour leadership contest enters its final leg, party members will be receiving their ballots in the post today. But while the national media is zooming in on a two-horse race between the two Milibands – one the candidate of continuity, the other of modest change – The Third Estate talks to Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, sofa star of This Week and the only contender for Brown’s vacant throne offering genuine left-wing reform.
“I am running for the leadership because I am the best candidate for the job,” Diane Abbott confidently declares. “The most immediate task is to rebuild and revitalise the party and no other candidate has my experience of the party.”
Drawing on her experience as a trade union official, a councillor, an MP, a member of the national executive and a veteran of many grassroots campaigns, Abbott believes she is better placed to engage with ordinary Labour party members than any of her rivals.
“I want to build on the best of the New Labour years, but I am the only candidate offering a fresh vision for the party,” Abbott says. It’s a vision that ranges from greater internal democracy to putting civil liberties back at the heart of its politics. At home, she wants to challenge, not just to the timing of government cuts but their scale, while abroad she wants to see new thinking about Britain’s place in the world by scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent and withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, advocating bringing the railways back into public ownership, Abbott seeks to address one of the core failures of New Labour. “We need to admit that the market is not the answer for everything,” she says.
Labour’s defeat in May’s election has ushered in a new period of reflection for the party. But while most of her rivals are seeking to trim around the edges, pushing for centrist reform, Abbot is clear about her party’s mistakes and how they must be addressed.
“Ordinary people thought that New Labour was not on their side,” Abbot says. “Increasingly it seemed like an elitist project trapped in a Westminster bubble. New Labour became increasingly undemocratic. The Prime Minister was not listening to his cabinet and the Parliamentary leadership was not listening to its own members and supporters or the general public.”
Abbott argues that if ordinary party members had had a real say, Labour could have avoided some of its most damaging mistakes.
“Scrapping the 10p tax rate, the introduction of tuition fees, the failure to regulate the banks properly, the attempt to introduce 90 days detention without trial, locking up children in immigration detention centres, the failure to bring the railways back into public ownership, creeping privatisation in the NHS, and, above all, the Iraq War. These are all things that contributed to our defeat at the last election.”
It has been fifteen years since Clause IV was famously re-written and Labour became New Labour. But after thirteen years of New Labour government, on the day that Tony Blair’s memoir hits the shelves defending his decision on Iraq and urging Labour not to return to the left, what would Abbott say to disaffected left-wingers who have abandoned a party they feel abandoned them long ago?
“I cannot defend the many right-wing decisions that were taken over the past thirteen years and I never have,” Abbot says. “But I can offer an alternative. Under my leadership we will get back to the business of being the Labour party that delivers for the people of this country. Being in opposition gives us a chance to have a real look at the state of the party, and get back to the principles we were built on.”
While a spell in opposition may well be what the party needs to reflect on its many mistakes in government, the conclusions it draws will depend largely on who it selects as its next leader. Abbott’s candidacy, like those of Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, has been overshadowed somewhat by the Miliband brothers, and in particular the elder front-runner. But if David Miliband wins, will it prove the party has learnt nothing from the failings of New Labour?
“David Miliband is the New Labour continuity candidate, the heir to Blair,” Abbott says. “The majority of ordinary Labour party members were against many decisions of the New Labour project. However they see the desperate times we face under the coalition and some think that David Miliband is the quickest way out of it and back to power.”
Abbott believes voters will naturally return to Labour, but the sell will be a hard one. “My view is that the general public are not fools,” she says. “When the Lib-Cons have finished destroying our country we will certainly have voters that will naturally come back, but the rest will take convincing. There is nothing convincing about the same old, New Labour rhetoric, which offers no real alternative to the status quo.”
As a left-winger, and as the country’s first female black MP, Abbott neither sounds nor looks like the status quo of British politics. Her place on the ballot paper was far from secure, however, until fellow Socialist Campaign Group MP, John McDonnell, withdrew his leadership candidacy. By doing so, he said he hoped he could help ensure that a woman got onto the ballot paper of an otherwise testosterone dominated contest. But should politics be about gender, or race, or should it be about having the right ideas and the right policies?
“I am most grateful to John McDonnell, because his withdrawing did ensure that a woman made it on to the ballot,” Abbott says. “However he is a staunch socialist and would not have withdrawn for another principled progressive.”
Abbott agrees that politics is all about policies, but argues that in the 21st century, a winning progressive movement in any country has to reflect the views and concerns of women and minorities. “If we do not have a political leadership which looks like the community around us then it will lack the legitimacy we want to represent,” she says. “Politics should be about representing the needs of people and people come in many different forms. A lack of diversity and a lack of representation in any institution are instantly reflected in debate, policies and implementation.”
One policy that Abbott keenly supports is electoral reform which, more than any other, threatens to split the coalition government. A referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) system was, albeit rather too little rather too late, included in Labour’s manifesto and Abbott has pledged to back the key coalition proposal.
“It may not be the ultimate solution, but will certainly be fairer than the first past the post system we currently use,” she says. “It is more proportional, reduces the need for tactical voting and will help to reflect true public opinion of fascist parties. Groups like the BNP are very unlikely to get 2nd or even 3rd preferences.”
Like many of her fellow party members, however, she is somewhat less keen on the government’s decision to link the referendum on voting reform with boundary changes.
“I am appalled at the Lib-Cons attempts to use voting reform to bring about boundary changes,” Abbott says. “These are clearly designed to ensure that they maintain and gain more seats in further elections. Tainting the reforms with trying to maintain power is highly inappropriate and may mean that people will not vote for AV reform despite believing this is the best system. This in effect defeats the point of the entire reform.”
This last comment perhaps best reflects Abbott’s philosophy. A socialist, a democrat, a thorn in the side of the Blairite establishment, but Labour through and through.
“We have difficult times ahead,” Abbott says. “I love my party and believe that we will rise to this challenge. But to do this we need every disaffected activist in the Labour movement behind us. They are a group of people who understand solidarity and I am certain they see the importance of uniting against the Lib-Cons.”
The task ahead for Abbott, and for her party, will not be an easy one. In less than a month it will choose which direction it will take. And contrary to the retired rhetoric of the Mandelsons of this world, that choice is not between backwards and forwards, but between left and right. If, after thirteen years of Blair and Brown, after Iraq and Afghanistan, after the systematic rollback of civil liberties and human rights and the stark betrayal of its socialist roots for a market-orientated philosophy, Labour elects David Miliband, it will have learnt nothing from the failings of a leadership that sacrificed genuine progressive principles for power for power’s sake. If, on the other hand, it chooses Diane Abbott, reported to be the favoured candidate of Miliband’s Marxist mother, voters may once again find themselves faced with a genuine choice at the next election and the Labour Party may find itself saying out with the New and in with the old.