Diane Abbott: Future London Mayor?
Britain’s first black female Member of Parliament, Dianne Abbott has been a leading advocate for racial equality for more than 30 years.
Samuel Johnson (the inventor of the modern English Dictionary) once said that when you are “tired of London then you are tired of life.” Nothing could be more true of London today. A diverse cultural, economic and political hub which accounts for over 30% of the United Kingdom’s GDP. The combined value of property in London’s 10 most expensive districts is now worth more than all property in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales put together and median wages are fifty percent higher than the rest of the UK. It is a virtual city-state within the United Kingdom with over three hundred languages spoken. It is globalization incarnate.
The Rise of the London Mayoralty
It is no surprise therefore that the London mayoralty is the crown jewel of British political life outside of Parliament. The United Kingdom is one of the most politically centralized democracies in the world and the position was only created in 2000 as part of growing devolution away from Westminster to cities. The position has been held by Ken Livingstone (Labour) and by Boris Johnson (Conservative) since its inception, both big personalities in their own right, who court praise and controversy equally. Mayor Johnson, who is also a sitting Member of Parliament, is scheduled to finish his term in 2016 and the race to fill his position has begun with candidates across the political spectrum declaring their intention to stand (full list here).
A Vision for London
“I got into politics because I wanted to campaign for progressive change.”
Diane Abbott was born in London in 1953. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, her father was a welder and her mother was a nurse. She attended a local school in London and went on to Cambridge where she graduated with a History degree. She worked in TV, in the Home Office then as a civil liberties activist:
“I was originally an activist around issues to do with race and social justice.”
She was elected to Parliament for a North London seat in 1987 as the first female black MP. Throughout her political career she has often taken positions on the left of her party and has been called a “maverick” and a “rebel against the party machine” which has won her both praise and controversy. She opposed her party on a wide range of issues including the the Iraq war, ID cards, university fees and the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system. In 2010, she stood for the Labour leadership and with the election of Ed Miliband as the Labour leader she was given the public health portfolio. She has consistently opposed austerity and is a regular face on British television as both a pundit and a commentator.
More recently she came out as a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the current left-wing front-runner for the Labour leadership. A man who, once a 100-1 outsider to win, is now looking to win on an anti-austerity, pro-nationalization, anti-NATO, anti-nuclear weapons platform. A position on the very left of the Labour party. In May 2015 she launched her campaign to run for London Mayor saying:
“I will be a genuinely independent-minded Mayor that London needs.”
There is no doubt that Diane is a well-known figure in British political life and has done much to champion the causes the matter most to her. She told us how coming from a first-generation Jamaican immigrant family she felt compelled towards activism:
“I wanted to campaign for change…around issues to do with race and social justice and the Labour party has traditionally been the most progressive on these issues.”
Issues of race galvanized her to political action and it was these issues, especially “police harassment of young black people” which drove her towards Parliament. She was elected in 1987:
“I faced misogyny and racism which are still both major issues in the US and the UK.”
It was from here that she began her long-term career in British politics as London MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and she hasn’t looked back since.
Diane Abbott is campaigning on a progressive platform but what is a key issue which differentiates her from other candidates?
“I am the only candidate currently talking about rent controls, housing would be my number one issue.”
Like many global urban centers, rent and house prices have skyrocketed in the last decade, but unlike New York, London does not have rent controls. This issue is likely to be at the heart of the Mayoral debate as prices are predicted to continue rising putting more and more pressure on affordability. She talks with conviction about London saying that “I reflect the diversity of modern London” and that “I am the only progressive candidate.” London is a diverse city with nearly forty percent of its population foreign-born and she sees herself as a modern candidate for a modern city.
She says blames the recession for a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“In the economic downturn people look for scapegoats and right-wing politicians scapegoat immigrants. That’s why I want to be Mayor. I want to be in the forefront of countering extreme messages.”
She believes in London being a hub for global talent and says that a future Mayor Abbott would argue strongly that “immigrants benefit the whole economy in London”.
On Jeremy Corbyn:
Moving on from her Mayoral bid, she has been in the headlines for her open and forthright support for Jeremy Corbyn, a position few Labour MPs have taken.
“The establishment is frozen with fear about him because he is a transformational candidate and is encouraging so many young people to register for the party.”
She believes that a victory for Corbyn, a man who compares himself to the far-left Greek Syriza party, will “help rebuild the party after the electoral defeat this year.” The leadership contest is controversial with the Conservatives secretly delighted that a man they think is unelectable will be put at the head of the Labour Party. Diane doesn’t think so:
“I think he will be a great leader who gets young people involved and has seen Labour Party membership double.”
These words are consistent with a political career where she has taken positions away from the mainstream to both her benefit and her cost.
The Mayoral campaign continues in London with each party selecting their candidate in September 2015 and the final result being announced in April 2016. Is she going to win? She faces a wide Labour field and is behind other strong contenders in the polls. Irrespective of the outcome one thing is certain, whatever you think of Diane Abbott’s politics, she will continue to be a well-known voice in British political life many years to come.
If you are interested in learning more we suggest the following links: – The British Political System Explained – Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition by Andrew Gimson, a profile of the current Mayor. – You Can’t Say That – Ken Livingstone Memoirs – Weird and Wonderful facts about London
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