Wednesday, 9 June 2010

I'm backing Diane

I like Diane Abbott. She's funny, feisty and knows her own mind. She's an unfailingly entertaining interviewee. She never missed an opportunity to be needlessly (and hilariously) offensive about Tony Blair and the whole vapid New Labour crew. She can be tremendously politically incorrect - she wasn't afraid to betray her party's most deeply-held convictions by sending her son to a private school. As the first black woman to be elected an MP she was a trail-blazer - yet she has never been a token woman, or a token ethnic minority, or a remotely typical anything, except possibly Londoner. She knows how to wind up the establishment and rarely fails to do so. In an age, and especially a party, of stultifying political conformity - exemplified by the staggeringly tedious group of Blair/Brown retreads now vying to be leader of the Labour party she stands out a mile.

Yes, she went to Cambridge. But so did Germaine Greer.

She also deserves plaudits for being one of Labour's fiercest rebels on civil liberties. Her Commons speech denouncing the then government's 42-days detention proposal won the Spectator's speech of the year award in 2008. "It is a test of Parliament that we are willing to stand up for the civil liberties of the marginalised, the suspect and the unpopular" she declared. Eccellent stuff.

So it's great that she made it through to the next round, even if it was only by the grace and favour of David Miliband and Harriet Harman, even if her inclusion does look like a faintly patronising nod towards "diversity" and the Left wing, otherwise without a champion. No doubt they're banking on her losing - taking for granted the innate responsibility of Labour members who may be attracted to her personally but realise that her political views tend towards the bizarre and, anyway, she has no ministerial experience whatever. Her presence, Miliband and those of like mind no doubt calculated, would "send a message" to the public that Labour is a party where even black people and women can stand for the leadership, though not win it, and the only reason the other four candidates were all Oxbridge-educated 40 year old white guys was that Oxbridge-educated 40 year old white guys are where it's at, politically speaking, in the early 21st century. Just look at Dave and Nick.

Abbott is sure to get a big media profile. Perhaps, in the recesses of David Miliband's subtle and devious mind, that was another reason to nominate her so publicly. Without her, the leadership contest would have descended early into unendurable boredom for all but diehard Labour obsessives - as indeed it already had. Coverage would have dwindled, until the great day came when David or Ed's name was announced and the nation responded with a collective "So what?" Whereas the hope must be that some of Diane's stardust will fall on her dull rivals. The cameras will turn up to cover Diane, and the others will be included in the shot. That must be the hope. Perhaps John McCain thought the same way when he teamed up with Sarah Palin.

Hopefully this cunning plan will backfire. For one thing, nonconformist Labour women who make up for in personality what they lack in political nous and, frankly, ability, tend to be hugely popular with the public: Clare Short, Mo Mowlam, for those with long memories Jenny Lee. Much more popular than Labour women who are competent but conformist, anyway. (Only Barbara Castle was ever both popular and competent.) One opinion poll suggested that Diane Abbott was by far the most popular candidate - with the public. For another, many grassroots activists are well to the left of the national leadership, as are many union members. She may well get some actual votes.

Then again, perhaps that's David Miliband's evil idea: that as the token Lefty, Abbott will steal votes from Ed Balls.

Of course, with her far-left views and lack of team spirit, she would make a disastrous leader for the Labour party. But then so would Ed Balls. I doubt even she thinks she can win, or wants to. I'm rooting for her, though. If only for the exquisite self-lacerating pain her victory would cause David Miliband.