Diane Abbott - ‘Cambridge was the making of me’

Naomi O'Leary speaks to Diane Abbott, Cambridge graduate and -she hopes-Labour's next leader

Diane Abbott has made a historic bid to become Labour leader, the first time a black person has contested the leadership of a British political party.

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants studied history at Newnham College. We talk to her about lads' mag culture, civil liberties and the road from Cambridge to being Westminster's first black female MP.

You opposed the Iraq war. Are we stuck there now until we clean up the mess we made?

The Iraq War represents a time when trust was lost in our government.

I marched on the night before the vote with hundreds of people, who like me, did not want to see us go to war based on a dodgy dossier. They asked the government to listen and they ignored them, despite it being the biggest march ever held in London.

I am the only candidate who listened and voted against the Iraq War.

I think the ‘mess' can only be truly cleared up once our government acknowledges that this was a mistake and that we let our country down.

We need to make sure we don't repeat the same mistakes by continuing our presence in Afghanistan.

You have recently spoken out in parliament against ‘lads' mags' in a debate on media images of women. The trend here at Cambridge (where this year a student newspaper has debuted a ‘Page 3' feature, and the Cambridge Union society has begun to offer pole dancing classes for female students) is very much towards a normalisation of lads' mag culture. Specifically, what is your objection to such depictions of women, and what would you do about it as Labour leader?

My objection to the lad mags specifically was their accessibility in shops to young people. These magazines were often not placed high enough up on shelves as they should be, considering the content on their cover.

As a mother, I did not want to think that children going into the newsagents for a bag of sweets should be confronted with a half naked woman at eye level.

As a result, I helped one of my constituents become a porn free newsagent.

As a female MP, the depiction of me in the media is often harsher than that of my male colleagues. Focus on hair, clothes and family life is much more intense and that is unfair and sexist.

As Labour leader I would tackle this by encouraging more women into cabinet so it is no longer unusual to have a woman in a position of power. I hope that my involvement in this leadership contest will be the last time that only one woman is running to lead the Labour Party.

Of the other candidates for Labour leader, who do you support and why?

I am in this contest to win it so I am supporting myself. The other candidates are all good contenders. We've been getting on well, and we've had to because we'll be seeing a lot of each other over the summer!

Your speech in defence of civil liberties during the Counter Terrorism Bill in 2008 won wide acclaim. Do you think fighting terrorism is still top priority for the government, and what approach would you advocate?

In this post 9/11 society, many of our civil liberties have been compromised in a way they previously would not have. My government responded to a change in mood among people in the UK, and sometimes it misjudged this mood, for example with ID cards. This was something a Labour government should never have brought in and sadly it now falls to the coalition to get rid of them.

Fighting terrorism is a priority for government. But we need to be realistic. Threats will not be stopped by detaining people for 42 days without trial. We need to invest in greater intelligence rather than taking knee jerk reactions

You present yourself as "not just a man in a suit", the non-mainstream candidate who reflects the eclectic make up of modern British society. Has your status as a Cambridge University alumna helped or hindered this aspect to your campaign?

I will always be proud of having come from Newnham College, Cambridge. Cambridge was really the making of me.

At first, I felt like I did not belong there and that was a learning curve for me. But I soon flourished in the environment.

Since then, in every profession I've worked in from TV journalist to MP, I've never been afraid to be the only woman or ethnic minority. I've always worked in male dominated careers and politics is no different.

Cambridge helped immensely to instill this confidence to be different, but also to be proud of that difference.

Finally, what is your advice to those who look up to you as an inspiration and a model for what those from minority backgrounds can achieve in Britain?

Use that inspiration to follow your dreams and never let anyone tell you this isn't for you.

It is sad that 23 years after I was first elected as Britain's first black female MP, that there is still not the representation I would like to see from women or ethnic minorities in Westminster.

But if I had listened to those who said I couldn't do it, or that I wasn't good enough to do it, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Naomi O'Leary

Article first published June 2010

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