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The Little Engine That Could

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On Stoke Newington Church Street last night Diane Abbott formally launched her campaign for the Labour Party leadership. There were about 80 or 90 of us there: I’ve no idea whether that counts as a good turnout or not these days, though it was hard not to be impressed by the fact that a quarter of those present were middle-class black women, almost all young or youngish – there were probably only half a dozen people of Abbott’s own age (she’s 57) or older. A late-running Sikh with a steel-wool beard was the only indication of the Asian-British community.

Abbott gave her ever-popular account of her life as The Little Engine That Could. Really, of course, this is what her campaign platform is, but naturally she felt obliged to make a few political observations in deference to conventional behaviour on these occasions.

Who would quarrel with her assessment that nowadays everyone is a casual worker or that students are leaving universities and colleges with a mountain of debt and no job prospects? She told us that people see a world they don’t understand (this, of course, has been true for at least 200 years, and is caused by progress, but no matter) and that Labour politicians who blame sections of the working class are wrong to do so. Perhaps this was meant to be a reference to Gordon Brown’s complaint that we don’t eat up all the food on our plate – no one applauded at that point, so I can’t have been alone in being confused.

She contrasted contemporary housing and labour markets with those of the 1970s, which she painted as a golden age of Labour. Perhaps that’s what it was in the Abbott household, but the rest of us recall inflation, vicious infighting in the party, fascists on the streets and a disgusted electorate turning to another woman politician. Maybe it’s my age, but I would have been consoled by a reference to Nye Bevan (or even the National Health Service).  Instead, the only evidence of an intellectual hinterland was a nod (unacknowledged) to Franklin on liberty and security. For the rest, Abbott is content for Labour to become a party of values again: ‘Labour can win elections and be true to who it is.’ To my knowledge it has not done so in her lifetime – though it did in the decade before that, in circumstances not so much special as unique.

After she had finished, the manager of her online campaign told me that he was focusing on her website, and on social networking sites. What about getting her interviews on left-wing blogs?

‘Oh, nobody reads those,’ he assured me. The Abbott campaign is wholly 21st century in this regard at least, that she has no more interest in political education than her four pink wonk rivals. Another gaping hole is that she needs a good leftie economist on her team, and what worries me is not so much that this hole exists as that she seems blithely unaware of it. A belief that the aspirations of Labour’s core vote will resonate with the rest of the country is romantic enough: an attitude that ‘back to the future’ is an economic policy brings us back to the core of her charm – Diane Abbott is the first cuddly wannabe Labour leader since Michael Foot.

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