Oral History Interview - Diane Abbott MP

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Oral History Interview - Diane Abbott MP

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Filmed recording of an oral history interview with Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Born in London to Jamaican parents, Abbott was the first black woman to become an MP when she was elected to represent Hackney North & Stoke Newington in 1987. Abbott’s career in politics began in 1982 when she was elected to Westminster City Council. She was active in the Black Sections movement within the Labour Party, campaigning for greater ethnic minority political representation.

In this interview, she talks about her background in community based activism, how she got into politics, and why it is so important to be involved today.

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Photograph released under an Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license - https://beta.parliament.uk/media/S3bGSTqn


Q. This is Sarah Jackson interviewing Diane Abbott for Hackney Museum and East End Women’s Museum. The date is 27th October 2017. Please could you start by telling me you name, when you were born and where you were born? [00.19]

DA. My name is Diane Abbott. I was born in 1953, which was a great year. Hunt climbed Everest, the Queen was crowned and I was born. I was born in St Mary’s Hospital, Harrow Road in West London.

Q. How did you come to Hackney and what were you initial impressions? [00.38]

DA. I was involved in a lot of community-based activism as a very young woman, and Hackney has always been a hub of progressive politics. So I found myself coming to Hackney for all sorts of campaigns and meetings. And then in the end, in 1986, I was selected as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Q. So how did you become interested and involved in community based activism? What sort of things are you involved in? [01.16]

DA. Well, as a schoolgirl I read a lot of Black writers, people like James Baldwin. I was very engaged with what was happening in politics in America, Martin Luther King…

I remember very vividly, I think it was 1963 Olympics, but there were three Black runners who won bronze gold and silver. And I saw them on the podium [making] a Black power salute. I remember that image very vividly. So, you know, I came of an age in an era of a civil rights movement, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King.

And then here in Britain I got involved in Black politics. I was involved in Black women's movements, I was involved in a campaign on stop and search, scrap SUS campaign. I also volunteered in a youth centre so I was involved in activism from… as a school girl.

Q. How did you move from there into parliamentary politics? [02.28]

DA. Well, I was campaigning on a range of issues, but in particular issues to do with policing and stop and search. So I would find myself going to lobby MPs, and of course all the MPS we lobbied were both white and male.

And it started to occur to me that it was odd that MPs often represented very diverse communities and were not in themselves diverse. And then there were a number of us who were in the Labour party at that time, and we came together to form the Black Sections campaign. The Labour Party had also had youth section, and women section, and we felt it should have Black sections. So we campaigned around Black Sections and Black representation but also around the issues which concerned us as people of colour.

Q. Why is it important for people to engage in the political process? [03.22]

DA. Because if ordinary people don’t engage in the political process, politics gets dominated by the powerful, and issues that concern the type of people that live in Hackney gets marginalised. I have always argued that politics is too important to be left to middle aged white men. We, all of us, have to get engaged to see the transformative politics you want to see.

And I have to say, after 30 years in parliament, I have seen a change. For one thing there are many more women MPs. When I came in there were just 21 out of 650, there are now well over a hundred. And there are many more MPs of colour. And the issues in which we have definitely seen advancement is same sex marriage.

It is difficult now, in an era of austerity as a lot of organisations have had their funds cut. And there are still some problems that remain, like the communities relationship with the police. I was very concerned with the death of Rashan Charles, which is still being investigated as we speak. So there are issues that remain, but there has been progress. But we only have progress if ordinary people become involved.

Q. What are your proudest achievements as an MP for Hackney and Stoke Newington? [04.46]

DA. Well as the MP you have to work with other Labour movement representatives like the mayor and like a Labour government. But it was with the Labour mayor, Ken Livingstone, that we saw huge improvements in Hackney, notably the over ground rail line, notably new bus services, and improvements in the bus service. And it was a Labour government that we had the investment in Hackney, and the wonderful new academies and the wonderful new buildings at schools like Mossbourne and Our Lady’s now have. But also a big improvement in results in London. But sadly with the Tory cuts the danger is it will go backwards.

Q. How do you feel about being a historic figure as the first Black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons? [05.42]

DA. I don’t think about being a historic figure, I am always looking forward, always into what I can do. There will be time enough to worry about being a historic figure when I’m dead I think.

Q. What challenges have you faced? [06.01]

DA. The basic challenge I have faced is being a Black woman in a society where Black women are marginalised and at the bottom of the totem pole. And I think the thing about being Black and a woman in any sort of professional role is that every day you wake up and you have to prove all over again that you’re good enough to do the job.

Q. So you went into the activism you were involved with, for example stop and search and police relations…we would love to know a little bit about what was happening locally at that time and your involvement. [06.53]

DA. Well, Hackney had at that time a very dynamic race equality council and they were involved in a lot of London wide campaigns, including the scrap SUS campaign which was a campaign against stop and search. But there was also campaigning around death in custody, because when I first came to Hackney as an MP, deaths in custody was a big issue. There was series of deaths in custody related to Stoke Newington police station, which is what makes the Rashan Charles case so tragic, because it is almost as if 30 years later nothing has moved on.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add? [07.35]

DA. No, I think you... If you’re comfortable you’ve got enough?

Q. Maybe something about if you feel it’s important for women, young women particularly, to take part in politics and why that is? Just because I think we’re hoping to have a lot of young women come to the exhibition, and when I speak to them at events it’s always your name that comes up as an MP that they respect. And I think a lot of people are quite disengaged with the political process. Perhaps you can re-engage them if you gave them a message? [08.13]

DA. I think it is important for everybody, particularly young people, to realise that the changes we have and the progress we’ve made, you can’t take for granted.

Some young women will be shocked to know that there were all sorts of jobs, particularly in the civil service, that once you got married, you had to resign. Some young women will be shocked to know, that it used to be if you wanted a mortgage you had to either get your father or husband to sign. Some young women would be shocked to know that in a whole range of professions the female role was normally being a secretary rather than being the lawyer or the manager or the senior person. And we have to bear in mind that those changes have happened over a lifetime and can be clawed back.

If you look at the United States we had Barack Obama as president of the United States, and people thought you’ve got a Black man as president that’s a huge advance. Now things have gone right back with Donald Trump. So if we want to keep the gains we’ve made and if we want to go even further, people have to be involved.

And being involved doesn’t necessarily mean going to a meeting, but it might mean supporting someone that does go to a meeting. It might mean doing stuff online, it might mean turning up for a march or demonstration. But without ordinary people getting involved, none of the political changes I’ve seen in my lifetime, both here in the UK and internationally, would have happened.

Without ordinary people getting involved we wouldn’t have had a civil rights movement. Without ordinary people getting involved Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected as president. Without ordinary people getting involved Nelson Mandela wouldn’t have been released from prison and become the first Black leader in South Africa, so it’s really important to be involved.

[End of Interview]

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