Diane Abbott became the first Black woman elected to Parliament in 1987. Now, she’s one of the most well-known Labour politicians in the UK. Abbott has achieved amazing things, but it’s not all been plain sailing. And being elected to Parliament didn’t put an end to the gender and racial discrimination she faces.
Abbott’s career shows how far the UK has come over the last few decades in
equality and diversity in politics. But we can also see how much further we have left to go.
Diane Abbott’s Path to Becoming an MP
Abbott’s parents were Jamaican immigrants, part of the Windrush generation, and she was the only Black student at Harrow County School for Girls. She was an ambitious, bright child.
When Abbott decided she wanted to apply to Cambridge, she approached her history teacher and told her she wanted to do the entrance exam. She was met with scorn. Abbott remembers her teacher ‘looked at me, she paused, and she said, “I don’t think you’re up for it”.’
Abbott was not remotely put off. She simply replied, ‘But I do, and that’s what matters.’ And that was that. She applied to Cambridge and, beating all the odds, got in. For anyone, that’s a huge achievement, but for a Black working-class girl in the 70s, it was practically unheard of. In her three years at Cambridge, Abbott only met one other Black student.
Abbott explains, ‘It was the first in a series of British establishment institutions that I had to deal with and ever afterwards I have always felt that I’m as good as anybody else, and if you’re Black and female, that’s an important sense to have. I mean, the odds against me going in were impossible odds. … But it left me, ever afterwards, not afraid to take on impossible odds.’
After graduating, Abbott immediately entered the world of politics. She became a civil servant. She also got properly involved in Black politics and activism. She describes this time as a ‘twin-track existence. By day, a respectable civil servant. By night, a Black activist.’
Abbott has held positions in journalism, working as a TV reporter and researcher, and in various government roles.
A landmark moment in her career came in 1987, with the general election.
1987 Election: The First Black MPs
The 1987 election saw the first elected Black MPs, all from Labour:
- Diane Abbott
- Paul Boateng
- Bernie Grant
Keith Vaz was also elected, becoming the first British Asian MP to be elected in over 50 years.
Britain was an actively hostile environment for Black people in the 80s. As well as racial discrimination in employment, education and housing, Black people had to face violence and aggression. The National Front garnered public support for explicitly racist campaigns, and research has shown the police force was institutionally racist.
In 1981, decades of anger at this racism came to a head, and riots broke out across cities in the UK. They were sparked by police using ‘sus laws’ to stop and search predominantly Black men for no discernable reason other than that they were Black.
Diane Abbott argues the 1981 riots made her election in 1981 possible. ‘Those uprisings made politics pay attention to Black representation, particularly on the left where people tended to focus on class and thought talking about race was a distraction.’
So the 1981 riots had put race on the political agenda. But the possibility of Black MPs was far from certain by the time of the election. The far right was violent – the windows of Abbott’s campaign headquarters were smashed, and the National Front marched in protest of her candidacy. On top of this, the left weren’t particularly welcoming either. Abbott remembers that ‘it was a tricky campaign, because some of the white activists wouldn’t work for me’.
All the way from her candidacy up to and during her time in government, she was treated by New Labour as ‘a complete non-person.’ But she didn’t let it stop her.
Despite all these barriers and difficulties to overcome, in 1987, Abbott and her three Black and Asian colleagues were elected to Parliament. And during her time as an MP, she’s made some incredible achievements.
Diane Abbott’s Achievements as an MP
Being elected to Parliament is a great achievement in itself, especially for a working-class Black woman. But Abbott hasn’t stopped there. She’s always been involved in Black activism, and she’s stood up for human rights throughout her career.
Abbott’s initiative London Schools and the Black Child has worked to close the racial gap in academic achievement in schools. And her Black Women Mean Business non-profit has provided a space to ‘support, encourage and celebrate Black women’ entrepreneurs.
Human rights has always had a strong advocate in Abbott. This was recognised with the Human Rights prize in 2008, which was awarded jointly by JUSTICE, Liberty, and the Law Society to Abbott for her 42-days speech against detaining terrorist suspects for 42 days.
Abbott’s achievements are reflected in her election results. Every time she’s been re-elected, it’s been a landslide win – in the last election, she won 70.3% of the votes. Constituent Chloe Laws describes ‘how well regarded she is in my community and the positive influence her relentless campaigning has had on the lives of ethnic minorities and immigrants locally.’
Diane Abbott Still Faces Discrimination
All politicians get criticism – it’s part of the job. But the level and nature of this criticism isn’t all equal. A study by Amnesty International found that in the run-up to the 2017 snap election, Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets directed towards MPs. And even excluding Abbott, Black and Asian women MPs still received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs.
This isn’t a coincidence. Abbott explains how the letters, tweets and emails she receives are ‘highly racialised, and it’s also gendered, because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I’m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a Black politician.’
Getting this level of abuse and hatred is not only upsetting, it also drains you of your ability to actually do your job. Labour MP Emily Thornberry, who also received sexist abuse in the run-up to the election, explains:
‘On a practical level, the violent stuff and the death threats are just very time-consuming. There’s a big process to go through on each occasion with the police and the House authorities, there’s obviously extra security measures you have to put in place each time, and also if your kids see the tweets or it’s the first time for new members of staff, you have to do a lot of reassurance with them that they shouldn’t worry.’
In addition to this extreme kind of abuse, Abbott feels she is also disproportionately criticised when she makes a mistake. She was heavily condemned for the infamous interview in which she massively messed up her numbers when questioned about the cost of police funding.
The interview was a wreck – there’s no getting away from that. But the national campaign against her that followed was arguably disproportionate. She feels she was ‘singled out’ by the Tories, who started ‘name-dropping me for no reason’. The implication is that white male politicians aren’t punished as much as Abbott when they give poor interviews, or state figures that don’t make any sense (the £500 million to the NHS bus comes to mind).
I think this country has a problem with failing to humanise politicians. We criticise them so much, in such thoughtless ways, because we literally forget that they’re human too. And I’d argue it’s a problem for many MPs. But the stats around online abuse show that it’s worse for Black female MPs like Abbott than it is for the white men.
Diversity and Inclusion in UK Politics
The diversity of our government has improved since 1987. After the 2019 general election, 10% of MPs are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and more than half of these are women (partly thanks to positive discrimination for women). That’s still too low to be representative of the ethnic makeup of the UK population – but it’s better than it was a few decades ago.
Abbott thinks ‘it’s important that parliament looks like Britain.’ In fact, it was a major reason why she stood for election back in 1987. Representation is power. So we’ve got to keep working to make politics and government more inclusive and accessible.