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Diane Abbott: A woman to be admired, not abused

WELL-LOVED: Diane Abbott MP proved her popularity was on the rise during this General Election

AN ONGOING battle with type two diabetes caused veteran Labour MP Diane Abbott to step down as Shadow Home Secretary a day before the election.

However, the catalyst for this decision was the unrelenting stream of abuse she received from the media, the Conservative party and the public alike.

During the election campaign, her poor performances in numerous 'car crash' interviews – uncharacteristic of the media-savvy MP who regularly appeared on politics show This Week – exposed her to torrents of ridicule despite Labour’s claims to her ill health.

In a Guardian interview Abbott spoke of being singled out as a target by the Tories in their campaign; feeling like she was in a “vortex” and how the Labour party had fleetingly considered taking legal action.

Yet her constituents in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, historically a Labour safe-seat, voted overwhelmingly in support of her on June 8, granting her a 75% share and a boost to her majority of 11,000 votes - this was unsurprising given that emerging triumphant in the face of opposition has been the defining feature of her career.

Abbott has defied the odds since 1970, when at 17 she was told she wasn’t good enough to study at Cambridge. She ended up becoming – at the time – the only state school-educated black British student at the whole university.

READY: Diane Abbott in 2010 just before taking part in a debate hosted by The New Statesman

In 1976 she began a graduate trainee scheme at the Home Office, becoming a civil servant while again being the only black face there.

And in 1987, aged 33, Abbott was the first black woman to become an MP. Last Sunday was the 30th anniversary of her election to her Hackney seat where, when first elected, a brick was thrown through her constituency office window. A harsh welcome.

Throughout her political career she has held a variety of shadow ministerial positions, including Shadow Health Secretary and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, and has served in various select committees.

She was in the running to become Labour leader in 2010 but lost out in the first round of votes.

And in 2008, Abbott’s renowned speech on civil liberties – labelled by Secretary of State for Brexit David Davies as “one of the finest speeches” he had heard – won the Spectator’s ‘Parliamentary Speech of the Year’ award.

Politics aside, she has also made a name for herself in journalism and PR as well as public speaking.

Labour colleague Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham, said this week:

“The commentary on Diane not just during the general election but over the years...will put young black women off getting involved in politics.”

Yet Abbott’s determination, persistence and continual victories, particularly in recent weeks while incessantly attacked on the national stage – plus the appointment of 18 new MPs from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds – is a testament that young black women shouldn’t shy away from the political sphere. They should grab it with both hands.

Timeline of her career:

1976-78: Home Office Civil Servant

1978-80: Race Relations Officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty

1980-83: Researcher and reporter at Thames Television

1982-86: Elected to Westminster City Council

1983-85: Reporter for TV-am

1985-86: Press officer at the Greater London Council

1986-87: Head of Press and Public Relations at Lambeth Council

1987-present: Elected to the House of Commons as Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

1990s: Served on Treasury Select Committee and Foreign Affairs Select Committee

1999: Founded the London Schools and the Black Child initiative to raise educational achievement levels among black children

2003-10: Regular on This Week alongside Michael Portillo

2010-13: Shadow Minister for Public Health

2015-16: Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

June-Oct 2016: Shadow Secretary of State for Health

2016-17: Shadow Home Secretary

To read Marc Wadsworth's personal account of Diane's impact, click here.

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