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Diane Abbott – underdog with a strong message

On the morning of the 9th June the prospect of the leadership election did not fill me with any excitement. The idea of four New Labour ministers engaging in a turgid, managerial debate in public for a number of months, would not have offered the real debate the party needed, and filled me with dread. A few hours later and with Diane Abbott on the ballot paper, the race took on a new dimension, not only for party members – it also became much more relevant to the wider public.

Diane’s candidacy has been too easily dismissed or even ridiculed by supporters of her opponents. But in reality her views on many issues are much more in tune with the ordinary Labour member. Crucially, they are also much more in tune with the general public and those who identify with Labour but have not voted for us in recent years.

The party needs to assess its performance over our whole period in government and not just the failings of Brown and the past two years. It wasn’t just this year, or 2005 because of Iraq, that we lost votes, we started losing them soon after coming to power. New Labour’s method of triangulation to win over a decreasing number of marginal ‘Middle England’ seats was always a loser. We ignored for too long the millions of voters in working class seats who gradually drifted away, to give up on voting, and too easily discounted those outraged by our adherence to Bush’s neo-conservative foreign policy abroad and attacks on civil liberties at home.

That the Tories could not form a government themselves this year was because of the ongoing mistrust that they face but Labour’s loss is because it failed to clearly articulate an alternative agenda. Until September last year Labour’s narrative was to offer ‘investment not cuts’ but we capitulated to the Tory agenda and then offered ‘cuts worse than Thatcher’. Partly because we did not tackle the failings of Thatcherite economics we are now five million votes down since 1997.

My real concern was that by not having an inclusive leadership election, we would not face up to the harsh realities of why we lost this year and, indeed, why swathes of voters have been deserting us since 1997.

As we need a leader who can offer a vision of a fairer society and economy. Others, including Ed Miliband have hinted at it, but Diane has gone furthest in promising to address the failings of neo-liberal economics, left unchallenged since the 1980s. She has proposed major public investment in infrastructure, taking over failed and wasteful privatised industries and reforming the tax system. New council housing, rail renationalisation and more progressive taxation are realistic redistributive proposals that would reconnect with disillusioned voters, and only Diane has shown the commitment both now and over recent years to carry them through.

And she is the best candidate to win back those disgusted at Labour’s foreign policy record and the attacks on civil liberties at home. Whilst all of the other candidates backed 90 days and 42 days detention, Diane’s speech on the latter has been hailed as one of Parliament’s most impressive in recent years. And there is a mood of denial amongst some in Labour at the public anger over Iraq. I have heard David Miliband say Iraq is no longer an issue. But despite seeing the voters drift away or switch to the Lib Dems we have not dealt with the issue. At this election Labour’s vote continued to fall and the Liberal Democrats rose. Those voters have not returned. It would be criminal if we allowed the same issues to fester on until the next election. Electing Diane, as the only candidate to emphatically condemn the war at the time, would be the strongest call we can make to those lost voters.

I still find it remarkable to hear supporters of other candidates argue that Diane can only articulate traditional Labour policies that resonate with members but she cannot appeal more widely. When I speak to those outside the party it is those same policies that would win them over. Some criticise her performances on This Week but others I know, again outside the party, they think she displays a human side most politicians fail to show.

Now the nominations are in, she remains the underdog. She hasn’t had the business donors or electoral machine to win the CLP nominations. But she still has the strong message that reaches out to Labour members and Labour identifiers in the wider public. She is the candidate that offers a radical reforming zeal. Labour needs a leader who can inspire support – and Diane can do it.

3 Comments

  1. Mick Hall says:

    Aha,

    But did she mention the word socialism, talk of a fairer society for me reeks of cap in hand, still that’s how she got to be standing for the ‘leadership’ in the first place, so no surprise there.

    Ben, perhaps you are being a tad optimistic, for I doubt Ms Abbott will win much support within the LP, let alone win supporters from outside.

    As to the working class, I doubt she is even on the agenda of most workers, which just about says it all about her and the leadership poll, I really can see no point in touting her about, if she had a hope in hells chance of winning she would not have been placed on the leadership list in the first place. Believe it or not who pays the piper get to choose the tune.

  2. Matthew Stiles says:

    Good article from Ben. Also, saw a good article from Kelvin Hopkins at Labourlist backing Diane http://www.labourlist.org/kelvin-hopkins-why-im-backing-diane-abbott-for-leader

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