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Diane Abbott Self-Destructs

Martin Sullivan

CONVINCED AS I am that socialism in Britain will have been fully achieved only when the last Andrew Neil has been strangled in the guts of the last Michael Portillo, I’d long regarded Diane Abbott's jolly banter with her right-wing fellow presenters on BBC1’s This Week programme as highly dubious. It seemed to me that such public displays of mateyness with enemies of the labour movement sent a message to viewers that she didn’t take her own politics terribly seriously. But I was persuaded by the argument that her television performances did at least put across a favourable image of the left, by suggesting that contrary to rumour (and, some might say, reality) we are actually normal human beings not entirely devoid of a sense of humour.

As it turned out, in this case first impressions were not far wrong. The Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP’s decision to send her 12-year-old son to a £10,000-a-year private school has conclusively demonstrated her light-minded attitude towards the political principles she was supposed to uphold.

The arguments against private education scarcely need rehearsing here. There can be no possible excuse for such a prominent figure from the Labour left publicly spurning the local comprehensive schools to which the vast majority of her constituents, black and white, send their children, and taking advantage of her superior wealth to buy educational privilege for her own offspring. The objection that Abbott had no alternative but to put the interests of her child above ideology is little more than a liberal version of the Thatcherite view that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.

When the news of her decision leaked out, Abbott attempted to disarm her critics by frankly admitting that as a result of her "indefensible" and "hypocritical" action she had ruined her own political reputation. But this was simply a continuation of the self-centred attitude that got her into this mess in the first place. Abbott’s personal reputation is hardly the issue. By her irresponsible action she has severely undermined the standing of socialists in the eyes of Labour Party supporters, who could be forgiven for concluding that, far from representing an alternative to New Labour, the left itself in practice espouses the same individualism and contempt for collective provision that lie at the heart of Blairism.

Though some members of Abbott’s constituency party immediately called for her resignation as MP, the left in Hackney North CLP was correct to reject this. The right wing have for years been itching to replace the off-message Abbott with some Blairite clone, but have been thwarted by the broad support she has enjoyed within the local party. It would have been a serious mistake for the left to allow its understandable revulsion at Abbott’s selfishness and political stupidity to play into the hands of the Labour right. Instead, Hackney North CLP passed a very moderately-worded resolution that "deeply regretted" Abbott’s decision, on the grounds that it undermined state education. What is less comprehensible, however, is that a section of the left actually voted against this resolution. We can only assume that, in their narrow focus on political tactics, they too have lost sight of political principles.