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Diane Julie Abbott (born 27 September 1953) is a British politician serving as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987. She was the country's first black woman MP and is the longest serving black MP in the House of Commons. As a member of the Labour Party, she has held various positions in successive Shadow Cabinets; Abbott has been Shadow Home Secretary since 2016.


Diane Abbott
Official portrait of Ms Diane Abbott crop 2.jpg
Shadow Home Secretary
Assumed office
6 October 2016
LeaderJeremy Corbyn
Preceded byAndy Burnham
Shadow Secretary of State for Health
In office
27 June 2016 – 6 October 2016
LeaderJeremy Corbyn
Preceded byHeidi Alexander
Succeeded byJon Ashworth
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
In office
13 September 2015 – 27 June 2016
LeaderJeremy Corbyn
Preceded byMary Creagh
Succeeded byKate Osamor
Shadow Minister for Public Health
In office
9 October 2010 – 8 October 2013
LeaderEd Miliband
Preceded byAnne Milton
Succeeded byLuciana Berger
Member of Parliament
for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
In office
11 June 1987 – 6 November 2019
Preceded byErnie Roberts
Majority35,139 (62.4%)
Personal details
Born
Diane Julie Abbott

(1953-09-27) 27 September 1953 (age 66)
Paddington, London, England
Political partyLabour
Other political
affiliations
Socialist Campaign Group
Spouse(s)
David Ayensu-Thompson
(m. 1991; div. 1993)
Children1 son
Alma materNewnham College, Cambridge
WebsiteOfficial website

Born in Paddington to a working-class British Jamaican family, Abbott studied History at Newnham College, Cambridge University. She worked in the civil service and as a reporter for Thames Television and TV-am before becoming a press officer for the Greater London Council. Joining Labour, she was elected to Westminster City Council in 1982 and then as an MP in 1987. She would be re-elected in the 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2017 general elections, although she received a great deal of sexist and racist harassment, including death threats. Critical of Tony Blair's New Labour project which pushed the party to the centre during the 1990s, in the House of Commons she voted against several Blairite policies, including the launching of the Iraq War and the proposed introduction of ID cards. She stood for Labour Party leader on a leftist platform in 2010, although lost to Ed Miliband, who appointed her Shadow Minister for Public Health.

Abbott supported Jeremy Corbyn's bid to become Labour leader in 2015. After he succeeded, she became Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, then Shadow Health Secretary, and eventually Shadow Home Secretary. As a key Corbyn ally, she supported his leftward push in the party. She unsuccessfully attempted to be the Labour candidate for the 2016 London mayoral election, and backed the unsuccessful Britain Stronger in Europe campaign to retain UK membership of the European Union. She contributes to The Guardian and The Independent. On 2 October 2019, Diane Abbott became the first minority ethnic parliamentarian to represent their party at Prime Minister’s Questions, when she stood in for Jeremy Corbyn in remembrance of Black History Month.[2]

Early life and careerEdit

Abbott was born to Jamaican parents in Paddington, London, in 1953. Her father was a welder and her mother was a nurse.[3] She has stated in interviews that both of her parents left school at the age of 14.[4] She attended Harrow County School for Girls (a grammar school), and then Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read history.[5] At Cambridge, she was tutored by historian Simon Schama.[6]

After university she became an administration trainee (a fast track route to senior positions in HM Civil Service)[7] at the Home Office (1976 to 1978), and then a Race Relations Officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties (1978 to 1980).[8] Abbott was a researcher and reporter at Thames Television from 1980 to 1983 and then a researcher at the breakfast television company TV-am from 1983 to 1985.[9] Abbott was a press officer at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone from 1985 to 1986 and Head of Press and Public Relations at Lambeth Council from 1986 to 1987.[8]

Political careerEdit

Abbott's career in politics began in 1982 when she was elected to Westminster City Council, serving until 1986. In 1983 she was active in the Black Sections movement, alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, campaigning for greater ethnic minority political representation.[10][9] In 1985 she unsuccessfully fought to be selected in Brent East, losing out to Ken Livingstone.[11] In 1987 she was elected to the House of Commons, replacing the deselected serving Labour MP Ernie Roberts as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington. Abbott was the first black woman to become an MP, elected in the same year as Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng.[12]

Abbott's speech on civil liberties, in the debate on the Counter-Terrorism Bill 2008,[13] won The Spectator magazine's "Parliamentary Speech of the Year" award,[14] and further recognition at the 2008 Human Rights awards.[15]

Abbott has served on a number of parliamentary committees on social and international issues and held shadow ministerial positions. For most of the 1990s she also served on the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons.[16] She went on to serve on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.[16]

Abbott chairs the All-Party Parliamentary British-Caribbean Group and the All-Party Sickle Cell and Thalassemia Group.[16]

Abbott is founder of the London Schools and the Black Child initiative, which aims to raise educational achievement levels amongst black children.[17]

In May 2010, she was re-elected in her constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, with a doubled majority on an increased turn-out.[18] She was again re-elected in 2015 with 62% of the vote.[19]

At Goldsmiths, University of London, on 26 October 2012, a jubilee celebration was held to honour Abbott's 25 years in parliament, with a series of contributions by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kadija Sesay, Tunday Akintan and others.[20][21]

2010 leadership election and frontbench roleEdit

 
Diane Abbott speaking at the New Statesman hustings for the 2010 Labour Party leadership election.

On 20 May 2010, Abbott announced her intention to stand in the Labour leadership contest. She secured the necessary 33 nominations by 9 June, assisted by the withdrawal of left-wing candidate John McDonnell and support from David Miliband and Jack Straw, among others.[22][23] On Saturday, 25 September 2010, Ed Miliband was announced as the new leader of the Labour Party with Abbott eliminated in the first round of voting after securing 7.24% of votes.[24]

Abbott was later appointed Shadow Minister for Public Health by Ed Miliband, taking shadow responsibility for a range of issues including children's health, maternity services, sexual health, tobacco, nursing, obesity and alcohol abuse.[25] Following her move onto the front-bench, the Telegraph said on 27 September 2011 that Abbott had "become one of Labour’s best front bench performers".[26]

On the issue of abortion, Abbott has become a vocal 'pro-choice’ supporter, opposing moves towards changing abortion counselling policy, and reducing the abortion time limit. Abbott resigned from a cross-party group on abortion counselling saying it was no more than a front to push forward an anti-abortion agenda without debate in parliament.[27]

On 5 February 2013, following the Second Reading, Abbott voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.[28]

Removal from the front bench and 2015 London mayoral electionEdit

On 8 October 2013, Abbott was sacked as shadow public health minister in a reshuffle by Labour leader Ed Miliband,[29] and replaced as Shadow Public Health Minister by Luciana Berger.[30][31] On 23 June 2014, Abbott had stated she would consider standing in the 2016 London mayoral election as Mayor of London.[32] On 30 November 2014, Abbott announced her intention to put herself forward to become Labour's candidate at the London mayoral elections in 2016.[33] She was unsuccessful in her bid for Labour's 2015 London mayoral election nomination.

She was one of 16 signatories of an open letter to Ed Miliband in January 2015 calling on the party to commit to oppose further austerity, take rail franchises back into public ownership and strengthen collective bargaining arrangements.[34]

Return to the front benchEdit

An ally of Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott was one of 36 Labour MPs to nominate him as a candidate in the Labour leadership election of 2015.[35] Following Corbyn's election as Labour leader, Abbott was appointed to the post of Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.[36]

On 27 June 2016, after the resignations of many of Labour's ministerial team including Heidi Alexander in the aftermath of Brexit, Abbott was promoted to the position of Shadow Health Secretary.[37]

On 6 October 2016, after the resignation of Andy Burnham, Abbott was appointed Shadow Home Secretary. She was sworn of the Privy Council on 15 February 2017.[38]

2017 general electionEdit

 
Diane Abbott at a Jeremy Corbyn leadership rally in August 2016

During the 2017 general election campaign on 2 May 2017, Labour's pledge to recruit an extra 10,000 police officers was overshadowed by Abbott's inability to give accurate funding figures. In an interview on LBC Radio with Nick Ferrari, she repeatedly struggled to explain how the promise would be funded. In the interview, Abbott frequently paused, shuffled her papers and gave out the wrong figures. When asked about her performance, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, insisted he was not embarrassed by what many pundits called a "car crash" interview.[39]

In a further interview conducted by ITV on 5 May 2017, as the 2017 local elections results were being announced, Abbott was again unable to give accurate figures on the Labour party's performance suggesting that the party had a net loss of 50 seats. However, her figure was corrected by the interviewer who stated that Labour had in fact lost 125 seats, at which point Abbott said that the last figures she had seen were a net loss of around 100.[40]

Appearing on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning programme for the BBC on 28 May, Abbott's apparent support for the IRA nearly 35 years ago came up, along with some parliamentary votes Marr thought questionable. These included her advocacy of the abolition of "conspiratorial groups" such as MI5 and Special Branch in the late 1980s, both of which she said had been successfully reformed. She defended a vote opposing the proscription of a list of groups, including al-Qaida, on the basis that some of the others had the status of dissidents in their country of origin and Abbott would have voted to ban al-Qaida in isolation.[41] According to Sam Coates in The Times, this appearance was arranged without the consent of Labour's campaign team.[42]

On 5 June 2017, during a Sky News interview, Abbott was unable to answer questions about the Harris report on how to protect London from terror attacks. She insisted that she had read the report, but was unable to recall any of the 127 recommendations. When asked if she could remember the specific recommendations, Abbott said "I think it was an important review and we should act on it".[43][44] Abbott also denied reports Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell were attempting to stop her from making broadcasts.[42][45] The next day, Abbott withdrew citing illness at the last minute from a joint interview on Woman's Hour on 6 June with her Conservative frontbench opposite number Amber Rudd also participating.[46] On 7 June, Corbyn announced that Abbott was "not well" and had stepped aside in her role as Shadow Home Secretary. Lyn Brown was temporarily assigned to replace her.[47] Barry Gardiner said in radio interview on LBC that Abbott had been diagnosed with having a "long-term" medical condition and was "coming to terms with that".[47]

In spite of these controversies, Abbott was re-elected in her seat of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, receiving 75% of the constituency's votes with an increased majority of over 35,000.[48] The following week it became known that Abbott had been diagnosed as suffering from type 2 diabetes in 2015.[49][50] "During the election campaign, everything went crazy – and the diabetes was out of control, the blood sugar was out of control", she told The Guardian. Dealing with six or seven interviews in a row became problematic because she was not eating enough food which forced a break upon her. The condition is back under control.[49] Abbott returned to the role of Shadow Home Secretary on 18 June.[51]

Since 2017Edit

On 2 October 2019, Abbott made history by becoming the first black MP at the dispatch box at Prime Minister's Questions.[52] She served as a temporary replacement for Jeremy Corbyn as Dominic Raab stood in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.[53]

Media workEdit

Until her appointment as a shadow minister in October 2010, Abbott appeared alongside former Conservative politician and media personality Michael Portillo on the BBC's weekly politics digest This Week. Abbott and Portillo have known each other since school, when they appeared in joint school productions of Romeo and Juliet (although not in the title roles), and of Macbeth as Lady Macduff and Macduff respectively.[54]

In August 2012 the BBC Trust ruled that payments to Abbott for her appearances on This Week were made in breach of BBC guidelines that banned payments to MPs who were representing their political parties. For her part, Abbott had correctly declared the payments in the Parliamentary Register of Members' Interests. The Trust also said that Abbott had appeared on the show too often.[55]

Abbott is a frequent public speaker,[56] newspaper contributor[57] and TV performer, appearing on programmes including Have I Got News for You,[58] Celebrity Come Dine with Me[59] and Cash in the Celebrity Attic.[60]

Abbott was shortlisted for the Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Award in 2015 for her work on London Schools and the Black Child, and remains in the directory of the Grassroot Diplomat Who's Who publication.[61]

Political positionsEdit

Abbott has a record of differing from some party policies, voting against the Iraq War,[62] opposing ID cards and campaigning against the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons.[63][64]

Abortion rightsEdit

Diane Abbott supported a number of pro-choice amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (now Act).[65][66] (along with Katy Clark MP and John McDonnell MP[67]) – including leading on NC30 Amendment of the Abortion Act 1967: Application to Northern Ireland.[68] Writing for The Guardian, Abbott argued that

When it comes to the right to choose, women in Northern Ireland are second-class citizens. They are denied the NHS treatment and funding for abortion that is permitted to every other woman in the United Kingdom.[69]

It was reported that the Labour Government at the time (in particular Harriet Harman[65][66]) asked MPs not to table these pro-choice amendments (and at least until Third Reading) and then allegedly used parliamentary mechanisms in order to prevent a vote accordingly.[65] Speaking in the debate in Parliament, Abbott criticised these "manoeuvres":

I speak against the programme motion because—and I say this with no pleasure—it and the order of discussion appear to be a shabby manoeuvre by Ministers to stop the full debate of some very important matters. I appreciate that Ministers did not intend this to be a Bill about abortion. I am open to the argument that we should have another piece of legislation that would enable a full debate on most of the matters in relation to abortion that have been raised as amendments and new clauses to the Bill, but there is a special case for debating and voting on the particular new clause that I tabled to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.[70]

Saudi ArabiaEdit

Abbott criticised David Cameron's government for its continued support for Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen. In March 2016, Abbott wrote: "over the past year alone, Britain has sold around £6bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, whose campaign in Yemen is targeting civilians – 191 such attacks have collectively been reported by the UN, HRW and Amnesty."[71]

2016 EU membership referendumEdit

Abbott campaigned and supported the Labour Party's official preference for the remain campaign in the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum.[72][73]

However, in January 2017, Abbott stated that Labour could oppose the bill to trigger Article 50 if Labour's amendments are rejected.[74] She abstained from voting on the second reading of the Brexit Bill, after becoming ill hours before the vote,[75] and later voted in favour at the third and final reading.

Windrush scandalEdit

Abbott wrote to Sajid Javid demanding that he publish the figures for people caught up in the Windrush scandal, and also tell how many Commonwealth citizens lost their jobs, became homeless and were prevented from using public services. Abbott wrote, "warm words are not enough" and maintained that transparency was needed to give the Windrush generation confidence ministers have come to grips with what is, "clearly a systemic problem at the Home Office. In order to make good on your promise to do right by the Windrush generation and begin to right this historic wrong, you must stop covering up the extent of the Windrush crisis and publish these figures. (...) It is unacceptable and frankly scandalous that the extent of the Windrush crisis is yet to be revealed and that the home secretary is still to publish these figures. As the Windrush scandal shows, the hostile environment inevitably catches our fellow citizens who are legally entitled to be here in its net. The government now needs to stop covering up the true human cost of the hostile environment."[76]

In August 2018 Abbott complained that there were still delays in settling Windrush claims, Abbott said, "From the Windrush scandal to immigration detention, to these outrageous delays – it is long past time that the government takes responsibility for leaving people distressed and destitute."[77]

Comments about Mao ZedongEdit

In 2008, during a BBC One This Week interview between Abbott, Michael Portillo and Andrew Neil about who was history's worst dictator, Abbott said about the Chinese leader Mao Zedong: "I suppose some people will judge that on balance Mao did more good than harm... He led his country from feudalism, he helped to defeat the Japanese and he left his country on the verge of the great economic success they are having now." She finished by saying: "I was just putting the case for Mao."[78][79]

Political controversiesEdit

Education of Abbott's sonEdit

Abbott's decision in 2003 to send her son to the private City of London School after criticising colleagues for sending their children to selective schools, which she herself described as "indefensible" and "intellectually incoherent", caused controversy and criticism.[80][81][82][83]

According to the Daily Mirror she said: "I'd done a lot of work on how black boys underachieve in secondary schools so I knew what a serious problem it was. I knew what could happen to my son if he was sent to the wrong school and got in with the wrong crowd. I realised they were subjected to peer pressure and when that happens it’s very hard for a mother to save her son. Once a black boy is lost to the world of gangs it’s very hard to get them back and I was genuinely very fearful of what could happen."[84]

Her son contacted a radio phone-in to say that his mother was following his own wishes: "She's not a hypocrite, she just put what I wanted first instead of what people thought," he told LBC. He added that he had wanted to go private rather than attend a local state school in Abbott's Hackney constituency.[85][86][87]

Register of Members' InterestsEdit

In 2004, following a complaint made by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, Abbott was investigated by the Committee on Standards and Privileges regarding payments she had received from the BBC. The committee found that she had failed to declare earnings of £17,300 in the Register of Members' Interests she had received for appearances on the television programme This Week. The Committee upheld the complaint and required Abbott to apologise to the House.[88]

Comments on raceEdit

In 1996, Abbott was criticised after she claimed that at her local hospital "blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girls" were unsuitable as nurses because they had "never met a black person before".[89] In response Marc Wadsworth, executive member of the Anti-Racist Alliance, who is half-Finnish, pointed out that the then-current Miss Finland, Lola Odusoga, is black, of Nigerian and Finnish descent. "She's a black Finn like me," he said. Abbott's position was supported by fellow Labour MP Bernie Grant: "Bringing someone here from Finland who has never seen a black person before and expecting them to have some empathy with black people is nonsense. Scandinavian people don't know black people—they probably don't know how to take their temperature".[90][91]

In 2010, in defending her decision to send her son to a private school, she asserted that "West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children", prompting criticism about this perceived slight on white mothers.[92]

On 4 January 2012, Abbott tweeted that: "White people love playing 'divide and rule' We should not play their game", which again led to widespread criticism including accusations of racism.[93] Abbott later apologised for "any offence caused", claiming that she had not intended to "make generalisations about white people". Abbott also stated in an interview with Andrew Neil that her tweet referred to the history of the British Empire.[94][95][96] The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called her comments a "stupid and crass generalisation". Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP, said: "This is racism. If this was a white member of Parliament saying that all black people want to do bad things to us he would have resigned within the hour or been sacked."[97] Members of the public lodged complaints but the Metropolitan Police stated that no investigation would be launched and no charges would be brought against her, saying she "did not commit a criminal offence."[98]

In a radio interview in March 2019, Amber Rudd described Abbott as "a coloured woman".[99] Responding in a tweet, Abbott said the term was "an outdated, offensive and revealing choice of words".[100]

IRAEdit

In May 2017, The Sunday Times reported that Abbott backed the IRA in a 1984 interview with Labour and Ireland, a pro-republican journal.[101][102] In the 1984 interview, Abbott criticised the Unionist population of Northern Ireland as an "enclave of white supremacist ideology comparable to white settlers in Zimbabwe" and called for their views to be ignored on the question of Unification adding "Ireland is our struggle — every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us. A defeat in Northern Ireland would be a defeat indeed".[101][103]

In May 2017, while Shadow Home Secretary, she was asked by Andrew Marr if she regretted her comments on the IRA. Abbott replied that "[i]t was 34 years ago and I've moved on".[104]

Charging fees for speeches to studentsEdit

In 2017, Abbott was criticised after it emerged that in 2011, she charged the University of Birmingham £1,750 for a 50-minute speech. An online petition called on Abbott to repay the money to be used for educational purposes.[105]

Illegal drinkingEdit

On 20 April 2019, Abbott was filmed consuming alcohol on a London Overground train, which is illegal. Abbott later apologised for the incident.[106]

Online abuseEdit

In a Guardian article in February 2017, Abbott wrote about receiving racist and sexist abuse online every day, such as threats of rape.[107] A few days later, in an interview with Sophy Ridge on Sky News, Abbott proposed a parliamentary inquiry into the sexist and racist abuse of MPs in social media and the way Twitter and Facebook investigate cases which arise.[108] An Amnesty International report found that in the 2017 election campaign, Abbott was the subject of almost half of all abusive tweets about female MPs on Twitter, receiving ten times more abuse than any other MP.[109]

Personal lifeEdit

Abbott had a brief relationship with current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he was a councillor in north London in the late 1970s,[110][111] before marrying David P Ayensu-Thompson,[112] a Ghanaian architect, in 1991. They had one son together (James, born in 1992) before divorcing in 1993.[10][3][113] Abbott chose her Conservative MP voting pair, Jonathan Aitken, as her son's godfather.[114]

In 2007, Abbott began learning the piano under the tutelage of Paul Roberts, Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for the TV programme Play It Again.[115] She performed Frédéric Chopin's Prelude No. 4 in E minor before an audience.[115]

In 2015, Abbott was diagnosed as suffering from type 2 diabetes.[49][50]

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