Once a firebrand, Diane Abbott has now paid the price for going off message

The Hackney MP criticised Ed Miliband for lacking courage

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Tuesday 08 October 2013 16:57

All of a sudden the Labour front-bench team looks less diverse, and less representative of modern Britain in all its heterogeneity. Chris Williamson, the only vegan bricklayer in Parliament, has stepped down as junior local government spokesman. Fortunately, Ed Miliband acted within minutes to restore balance to his shadow ministerial team by sacking Diane Abbott, thus reducing the over-representation of attention-seeking former TV personalities on the Labour benches.

Abbott is one of those Labour politicians who has travelled the familiar road from left-wing firebrand and threat to civil order to lovable eccentric much in demand on BBC Question Time as an instigator of whooping and whistles. John Prescott, once wrongly branded a communist by Harold Wilson, was still regarded as a dangerous mobile volcano of the Labour left when he was domesticated by Tony Blair. Clare Short was regarded as a borderline subversive before she became an irritatingly self-righteous, semi-detached member of Blair’s Cabinet. So harmless did she become that The Independent, under Andrew Marr’s editorship, ran a Save Our Short campaign to persuade Blair not to sack her. Which he cleverly failed to do, thus ensuring that she voted for the Iraq war before sacking herself shortly afterwards.

Abbott seems to have thought of herself in a similar role, as Labour’s conscience. Her open opposition to military action in Syria, before Miliband had decided Labour’s policy, was most Short-like. She nearly resigned when Jim Fitzpatrick, a junior transport spokesman, did, because Labour’s amendment on Syria allowed for the possibility that the party might support military strikes if conditions were met. She was saved from having to hawk her conscience around any further, however, when it became obvious that neither the Labour leadership nor large numbers of Government MPs would support military action under any circumstances.

But she had, as she admitted today when she told journalists she had been sacked, failed to show the “message discipline” which the leader expected of her. She had also gone off-message over the summer, saying that Miliband was too worried about opinion polls suggesting that Tory immigration policy was popular. I imagine that Miliband found this particularly hard to take, as he thinks he has conceded nothing of substance on immigration policy. All he has done is to apologise for “mistakes” Labour made on immigration in government.As these mistakes consist of one thing, namely the failure to impose transitional controls on the free movement of workers from new EU member states in 2004, you would have thought Abbott could have lived with them.

Unlike Prescott and Short, it was never clear what Abbott was for, after she had been the first black woman MP. She stuck with the Campaign Group of hard-left MPs long after they had anything useful to say, before undergoing a late-career conversion to the responsibility of leadership when she stood in the 2010 campaign to replace Gordon Brown. She adjusted surprisingly well to the different tone required, but recently found that she couldn’t keep it up. Still, I can never be completely opposed to someone who said - during the leadership campaign - that her most embarrassing moment was, “When my wig came off in a crowded Tube train.”

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