“Socialists Can Lead and Change Opinions”

Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott on her life on the Left, the debate over migration, and her hopes for the future of the Corbyn project.

Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott addresses delegates in the main hall on the first day of the Labour Party conference on September 24, 2017 in Brighton, England. Leon Neal / Getty

Interview by
Lewis Bassett

Diane Abbott is one of the most prominent left-wing politicians in Britain. A lifelong socialist campaigner, she became the first black woman elected to the House of Commons when she won a seat in Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1983. She would go on to be a left-wing critic of various Labour leaders as the party drifted rightward through the 1990s and early 2000s, most notably as a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq under Tony Blair.

In 2010 she stood unsuccessfully for leadership of the Labour Party before joining the Shadow Cabinet for the first time under Ed Miliband, in a Public Health brief which saw her make impassioned defenses of abortion rights during attempts by the Tory government to curtail them. But it was in 2015 that Diane Abbott really ascended to power in the Labour Party, as one of Jeremy Corbyn’s earliest supporters she was instrumental in his front bench team, first taking the position of Shadow Secretary of State for International Development before moving on to Health and then, in 2016, to Shadow Home Secretary, the third-ranking position in the Shadow Cabinet.

In her role as Home Secretary, Diane Abbott has been one of Labour’s most prominent spokespeople on migration. She recently made a series of speeches intended to chart the party’s vision for progressive migration policy after Brexit. For some British leftists wedded to the freedom of movement provided by membership of the EU, positive talk on the issue of migration after Brexit is seen as a paradox. But Abbott is more hopeful. A life spent engaging in political struggle has helped shape her conviction that Labour can win the progressive case on migration. She spoke to Lewis Bassett about her life on the Left, the migration debate in Britain, and her hopes for the Corbyn project.


Can I start by asking how you would describe your politics and to what extent your views align with those of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party?

DA

I first met Jeremy over thirty years ago. He was a councilor in Haringey and I was a councilor in Westminster and we were both part of what you would call the London Labour Party left. So we’re very much in the same place as far as politics is concerned. Jeremy has always been interested in foreign policy issues and issues around social justice, as I have been. The politics of the London left were not just left-wing politics in a trade union sense, but left-wing politics in relation to issues like race, gender, and LGBT rights.

There’s obviously a tradition in the left of the Labour Party that’s tied to trade unionism, and then there’s this Greater London Council tradition as well, this tradition of social movements and identity politics…

DA

I don’t like the phrase identity politics. I don’t see myself as adopting identity politics, I think it’s a disparaging phrase. What I’ve seen myself doing for over thirty years is fighting racism and social injustice.

The Left in the Labour Party has its roots in trade union organization. Trade union politics is about justice, it’s about standing up for the working man and woman, it’s about fighting for communities and that’s a long-standing strand in the Labour movement which goes all the way back to Keir Hardie. But there’s also been a smaller strand on the Left, both inside and outside the party, which has been concerned with racism and international issues and Jeremy draws on both those strands.

Historically though, to some extent there’s been a contradiction where you have Labour politicians who have been interested in class politics and the politics of trade unions while being advocates of imperialism. I’m interested in your thoughts on that and whether you see there being any similar kind of tension now?

DA

There isn’t necessarily a contradiction. There were people like Stafford Cripps who was a very well-known left-wing shadow chancellor under Attlee. He was very concerned about class politics but also broader issues. Harold Wilson was very concerned about class politics but made Barbra Castle a protege of his and she was interested in broader social movements and was the person who brought in the Equal Pay Act. Michael Foot was rooted in the politics of class and organized labor, and yet he was also concerned about broader social issues as well. There isn’t necessarily a contradiction although there can sometimes be.

I followed your speech on immigration policy which is really pushing the envelope. You spoke about the system being broken because it lacks humanity, the need to stop splitting up families and ditch meaningless number targets. Do you feel everyone in the Labour Party is with you on that?

DA

I think it’s important to help shape the debate. I really do. I think that as a party we shouldn’t be frightened of immigration and that it’s possible to locate progressive immigration policy firmly in our values as a socialist party. Actually it’s not and has never been in the interests of organized labor to be at odds with the politics of race and gender. Karl Marx made this point to socialists in Britain in the Victorian era, in 1870, writing of working-class anti-Irish racism. What he said was true then and it is true now.

There are still people in the Labour Party who don’t take this view, certainly MPs who right after the general election said that Labour should be “tougher” on immigration and that it has a problem with the “white working class.”

DA

They were saying that in 2010. I ran for the leadership in 2010 alongside Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Andy Burham, and David Miliband. And the two Eds and Andy Burham very much thought this was the issue of the day. David Miliband is actually a neoliberal and believes in the free movement of capital, goods and labor — full stop. So apart from him they argued this case very strongly, all of them, including the nice Ed Miliband. But we did fifty-two rallies together and what became clear is that party members where quite hostile to that analysis. Because if you actually take the trouble to join the party, whether you live in London or whether you live in the industrial north, you don’t really want to hear people telling you that immigrants are the cause of all your problems. You have a different sort of moral compass.

These guys were standing on platforms saying this stuff and they could feel the audience moving away from them and I would get up and say I’m a child of an immigrant, and so on, and I could see the audience moving towards me. And so they dropped the argument.

It’s a long-standing thing but it’s particularly annoying coming not just from the Left but coming from people who are loyal supporters of New Labour who, when New Labour were doing a range of things which alienated the party from the white working class, had nothing to say about that. Do not lecture me on immigrants driving down wages if you were not fighting under Tony Blair for trade union rights and freedoms. I’m not interested in what you have to say because if you were so concerned about white working-class wages being driven down you should’ve raised these issues when Tony Blair failed to restore trade union rights and freedoms. That’s my position on that.

So yes, I think moving right on immigration is a theme, but I think it’s wrong and everything that I am saying as Shadow Home Secretary is based on that. Jeremy thinks it’s wrong but sometimes Jeremy and I find ourselves in a minority of two on these issues. We keep plugging away.

Often people who make the anti-immigrant case have absolutely no conviction in their ability to change people’s opinions. One of the strongest things about Chris Williamson’s general election campaign, which I was involved with, is that it was fought and won in an area in the Midlands where there are not great socialist traditions. But Chris announced from day one that he was standing on a pro-Corbyn ticket. He didn’t go knocking on the doors of the many white working-class voters in Derby and pander to racism, instead he showed that we can win on the doorstep from the left.

DA

Well I think that’s an important point. People talk about the Corbyn project as London-based, metropolitan, and so forth but one of the things that’s characteristic of people like me, Jeremy and John McDonnell is that we, in London, in the ‘80s, had to fight to change white working-class views on race and LGBT rights. The fact that London as a whole is more progressive on these issues than the rest of the country is not an accident, it’s because we had those fights in the ‘80s, within the party and out in the community. We had those fights and we won and so we can stand firm on that position now. We believe, John and Jeremy and myself, as an article of faith, that you can lead and you can change opinion, because we saw it happen. We’ve all lived to see a Tory prime minister take through same-sex marriage. Now these are mainstream politics, whether it’s gay rights, abortion rights, anti-racism — these are all mainstream things which no politician would query except in very guarded language. So we don’t believe that the views of the working class are a given, we believe that it’s our role to offer leadership.

At the same time it seems telling that you said it can be a minority of two in making the case inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. Do you think there have been compromises over Labour’s position on immigration?

DA

First of all I think anti-immigrant policies are a dead end for the Labour Party. You cannot seek to win the votes of immigrants or the children of immigrants in some parts of the country and have an anti-immigrant tone in other parts of the country. People can go online and see what you’re saying.

We’ve got to have a consistent line on immigration and it’s got to be a line which sits with Labour values and talks about what’s good for the economy and what’s good for society, not just pandering to myths about migration. It’s a deregulated labor market that’s driving down wages, it’s weakened trade unions, and it’s principally employers that drive down wages — not individual Poles, or Latvians.

The other thing that Labour is saying is that freedom of movement will end with Brexit because that’s just the institutional reality.

DA

Yeah. I’m honest that freedom of movement falls when you come out of the single market because it just does. We have freedom of movement because we’re in the single market, it’s one of the four pillars, but if we come out of the single market it falls. The challenge for us is to say what kind of immigration system we put in its place. Which is why I want to do a series of speeches which will set out what we’re saying about immigration post-Brexit but also what we’re saying about immigration as a party. Because all too often, not under Jeremy particularly, we end up trying to chase whatever it is that the tabloids are saying and that’s not the way forward for a socialist party.

You’ve made some policy announcements about family reunion and allowing families to come together, what’s the thinking behind that policy?

DA

It reflects Labour’s values. But also the practical thing to say is that people integrate better when their families are with them. If you’re concerned about integration you should be concerned about family reunion.

Integration is often a word used by right-wingers in immigration debates but you’re putting a progressive slant on it, saying “well if you want to integrate, keep families together.”

DA

It’s also about humanizing migrants. Too much of the debate almost dehumanizes immigrants and they’re people with families and feelings like us.

But how do we go a bit further? Because it’s still the case for example that Britain accepts a pitiful number of refugees. It seems that we’re still playing a defensive game to maintain the freedom of movement we currently have, which is already imbalanced. Do you have any sense of going beyond this?

DA

I think as the Brexit debate has worn on actually debating migration has started to work in favor of those of us who want a more progressive policy. Because people are being forced to accept how much the NHS is dependent on doctors and nurses from the EU and what you would do if they weren’t there. People are being made to face up to some of the consequences of a right-wing immigration policy. You know, fruit and vegetables left in the fields unpicked, nursing shortages, that sort of thing, so people are being forced to think through their ideas about immigration.

Finally, is there a role for social movements in all this and if so what is it?

DA

Yes, there is a role for social movements. When I first met Jeremy he was a trade union official and a councilor, that’s what he did until he became an MP. Jeremy is very much rooted in trade unionism and the notion of the organized working class but social movements have played a huge role in Jeremy’s victory for the leadership and I believe that they can again for a Corbyn-led government in terms of mobilizing people behind him, in terms of publicizing what he’s saying, particularly online. And you know I’m a hopeful person. I’m hopeful about the Corbyn project, and that’s why I’m here.