Black History Makers: Hackney MP on fighting injustice in Parliament

Diane Abbott. Picture: Stefan Rousseau

Diane Abbott. Picture: Stefan Rousseau - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Diane Abbott has, throughout her distinguished career, been a leading voice on issues of racial justice in Britain.

From 2015 to 2020, Ms Abbott was also a prominent member of the Labour Party’s front bench, serving in various roles including shadow home secretary. 

The parliamentarian, broadcaster and commentator has spoken to this newspaper about her life, work and achievements following an “extraordinary” year which saw the Black Lives Matter movement hit headlines all over the world.

READ MORE: Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott brands lockdown easing ‘muddled’

She told the Gazette: “I came of age in the 1980s. This was the era of the civil rights struggle in America and the continuing anti-colonial struggle worldwide.

“As a young activist, a Westminster councillor and then a member of parliament, I have always felt it important to speak out on issues of racial justice.

“People forget now, when I first became an MP in 1987, there were only four Black and minority ethnic MPs out of 650.

“So I felt a particular responsibility.”

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But the MP’s long record of activism and advocacy has seen her become a target of racist and sexist abuse, both online and in the form of letters to her office, threatening violence on a daily basis.

“Challenging racism has made my life more difficult and I have had endless abuse for speaking up, not just online, but in the mainstream media,” she said.

“At one point, I received more online abuse than all the other women MPs put together.

“But I have always felt strongly that I have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of people who would not otherwise have a voice.”

In 2017, the then Labour shadow home secretary received more abuse on Twitter than any other MP during the general election, and she was revealed to be the victim of almost half of all the abuse directed at women MPs, according to Amnesty International research.

Still, despite facing discrimination throughout her career, the MP believes younger generations are “more open to a narrative about racial equality”.

“The support for the Black Lives Matter movement has been extraordinary,” she said.

In order to enact meaningful and long-lasting change, however, she says “there is a lot more to be done”.

“Under a Labour government and under a Labour mayor, Ken Livingstone, there was a great deal of money invested in schools, housing and transport.

“Sadly, under the Tories, there were big cuts,” said the MP.

“But, that Labour investment transformed the lives of working people in Hackney and that included thousands of Black people.”

Ms Abbott grew up as part of a “tightly knit” West Indian community in Paddington and her family never discussed politics at home - but her parents and their friends “talked endlessly about Jamaica”. 

“When I visited for the first time in my late teens, it felt like coming home,” said the MP.

The Labour politician says the civil rights movement made a big impression on her, helping to form her political identity, and at 15 years old, she “vividly remembers” the politically charged 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. 

It saw two Black athletes take to the medals podium and perform Black power salutes.

The MP says her political career began by volunteering in a youth club.

Her advice to young people interested in politics is to begin in a similar way, by first getting involved in community activity and “never allowing other people” to put limits on what you can do.

Her most significant memory in politics was getting elected in 1987. 

She told the Gazette: “There had never been a Black woman elected to the British Parliament before. 

“Many people did not believe that I could win. Even I was not sure I would win. 

“It was a magical moment.”