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International Women's Day - The Portrait of Diane Abbott

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the inspiring women who have shaped history as we know it and help to advance women's rights. One of the women who has made brilliant contributions to the world of British politcs Diane Abbott a British politician who is the first black woman elected to Parliament, she is also the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons.

Women's History Month artwork

Women's History Month and International Women’s Day are an opportunity to celebrate the inspiring women who have shaped history as we know it and help to advance women's rights. One of the women who has made brilliant contributions to the world of British politcs is Diane Abbott, a British politician who is the first black woman elected to Parliament, she is also the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons. 

In this short portrait, we will explore the journey of Diane Abbott, hoping that it can inspire the future women leaders of this world who study at King’s College London. She was called an ‘extremist’ by opponents and treated as a liability by Labour. This exclusive extract from a biography explains how she defied them all to make history in 1987. 

 

Diane Abbott after her election in 1987.

Early life

She was born in London, 1953 to parents of Jamaican heritage. Diane Abbott studied History at the prestigious Newham College of the University of Cambridge. In 1982, she joined the Labour Party as well as the Black Section of the Labour Party. In 1987, Abbott was elected to the House of Commons, replacing the deselected serving Labour MP Ernie Roberts as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington. She was the first black woman to become an MP. 

 

The ‘little gang’ ... Abbott with (from left) Bernie Grant, Tony Banks and Jeremy Corbyn at the opening of parliament in 1987

1987 - The Fight Against Racism

 In 1987, the Labour Party brought together a large number of candidates from cultural diversity. Yet Diane Abbott got the impression that “the national party thought we were an embarrassment”. Certainly, “They offered no support of any kind” and Labour’s party political broadcasts featured practically no black people. 

During the election campaign, Abbott was not featured on the Labour posters. Abbott and her team decided to go for broke. Rather than hiding the fact that she was black – the preferred option of the party leadership – Abbott told her designers to put her face front and centre, “so no one could be in any doubt”. The design reflected Abbott’s determination to run as herself, not as an identical candidate. 

During her campaign in Hackney, Abbott ensured her electorate understood that they would be voting for a black woman. Although Hackney had been a safe Labor seat, politicians of all stripes assumed that white voters would not turn out for black candidates, and certainly not for black women. For her opponents, Abbott’s candidacy had put the seat into play. As a result, the fight for Hackney was fierce. After a chaotic campaign, notably due to the boycott by white working-class activists, Diane Abbott won the election. The arrival of a black woman in parliament revived the racist prejudices of several opponents “One of the things we found when we first entered parliament was that none of the attendants believed we were MPs,” said Abbott. 

 

Abbott in 1986, when she was an equality officer for the film technicians’ union ACTT.
 

Today 

Over the years, Diane Abbott has successfully combated the racism she suffered in her early days and has built a name in parliament making her a key figure in British politics. Abbott has a record of differing from some party policies, voting against the Iraq War, opposing ID cards and campaigning against the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons. To honour International Women's Day, it is timely to highlight Diane’s critical contribution to abortion rights in the UK, a right that is denied to many women around the world. She supported many pro-choice amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, a bold stance that actually went against the wishes of her party. In fact, it was a reporter that the Labour Government at the time asked MPs not to table these pro-choice amendments. 

 

As a black woman, Diane faced a double fight in her experience of being a MP, having to challenge both virulent racism and sexism in such a white, male dominated environment. For this International Women’s Day, we want to celebrate Diane Abbot’s incredible contributions to women’s rights in the UK and being an incredible role model we may all aspire to embody.