Diane Abbott is the second leadership candidate to respond to our questions crowd-sourced with Left Foot Forward readers after David Miliband spoke to us last week. Responding via email, the only woman in the race announced her support for “Yes” vote on the Alternative Vote, turned on Ed Balls over “light touch regulation”, and outlined her “alarm” at the tone of the immigration debate.
“I would want to see AV implemented. I think this will go some way into giving the electorate confidence in our system.”
But she went on to say that despite her own support for AV, “there was not much demand for PR on the doorstep in Hackney.”
In the interview, the MP for Hackney turned on her rival candidate Ed Balls, naming him explicitly in a critique of his time as City Minister: “The recession was a global problem, not something caused by the Labour Party. But it was aggravated in Britain by the “light touch” regulation championed by Ed Balls when he was at the Treasury.”
Since the opening week of her campaign, Ms Abbott has made clear her view that immigration had become a “proxy” issue but she told Left Foot Forward, “I was very alarmed at the beginning of this leadership campaign by the narrative that was emerging that immigration lost us the election”. She warned against “scapegoat[ing] Eastern European immigrants.”
Diane Abbott used the interview to outline that current levels of public spending was “about right” and called for a “wealth tax, higher banking taxes and an (internationally) agreed tax on financial transactions” to pay for the deficit. She set out that “ID cards, ninety days detention and the handling of the DNA database were a blot on the record” and the party “should never have left it the coalition government to end the holding of children in detention.” Abbott also said, “We let our country down [over Iraq] and that takes some forgiving.”
Read the full transcript below:
Do you believe that the Labour government was partly to blame for the financial crash?
The recession was a global problem, not something caused by the Labour Party. But it was aggravated in Britain by the “light touch” regulation championed by Ed Balls when he was at the Treasury. “Light touch” regulation left bankers free to gamble away their assets on derivatives and ignore common-sense in relation to capital adequacy. Weak regulation meant that financial institutions were also free to ignore the long term stability of their institutions in favour of short term profits and the size of their bonus. Now the public has to bail out those same banks. However, once the crisis erupted, Gordon was the best man to take us through the crisis and I think he served us well.
Do you still believe that pursuing growth is the ultimate economic goal of government? If so, how would you encourage growth and what structural changes to the economy would you want to see (eg away from financial services)?
Sustainable growth must be the aim of government. Recession does not only sacrifice jobs, it sacrifices lives and whole communities.
The government that I lead will encourage growth by investing in education, training and regional strategy. We can also encourage growth by investing in green industry like building wind turbines.
Over dependence on financial services has hollowed out our economy. We need to move away from that.
Within the economy, how large a component of GDP should public spending be? How should we pay for that? And what is the state’s role once that level has been set?
The level of public spending as a proportion of GDP is about right. The Tories are ideologically opposed to the big state. But only a strong state can protect the poor. Progressive taxation remains the fairest way to fund the services that we need. We could raise further money by introducing a wealth tax, higher banking taxes and an (internationally) agreed tax on financial transactions. If we need to make cuts, let’s scrap the Trident nuclear weapons system.
In the face of fierce lobbying by vested interests, and mounting public scepticism how do we inject a sense of urgency into addressing the problem of climate change?
It is difficult to push the urgency of climate change when cuts are being made to the everyday essentials. Labour pushed through some quite radical measures while we were in power thanks to the Climate Change Bill. The next step is to see how we can get such agreements to work in developing countries, many of whom are the biggest polluters. This is a problem which needs collective responsibility and we need to help others do their bit, as well as doing our own.
Do you accept the charge – made by Phillip Blond among others – that new Labour encouraged a culture of individualism?
It was the materialism of the Thatcher years and her idea that there was no such thing as society, which bred today’s rampant materialism.
Do you think Labour eroded civil liberties?
Sadly New Labour largely turned its back on the civil liberties agenda. Bringing in the Human Rights Act was to our credit. But ID cards, ninety days detention and the handling of the DNA database were a blot on the record. We should never have left it the coalition government to end the holding of children in detention.
How do you feel about the tone of the debate on immigration?
I was very alarmed at the beginning of this leadership campaign by the narrative that was emerging that immigration lost us the election. People do complain about immigration. But, noticeably, the fewer immigrants there are in an area the more likely people are to complain about immigration. It is a concern bred by fear. Complaints about immigration are a proxy for concern about housing, low waged and job insecurity. We need to deal with these underlying issues not scapegoat Eastern European immigrants.
Do you think Labour should explicitly pursue less income inequality?
New Labour thought that talking about equality turned off the aspirational middle classes. We need to talk about equality and the redistribution of wealth again.
Would you be in favour of a referendum that proposed a more proportional electoral system as well as AV? Which system will you advocate for?
Personally, I would want to see AV implemented. I think this will go some way into giving the electorate confidence in our system. But there are many other inequalities in Parliament that we should also address. I have long campaigned for the increased representation of ethnic minorities in parliament. And there is a call for women to make up 50% of the cabinet, which I support. In my opinion, what is imperative for a healthy democracy is that parliament looks like Britain. The Labour Party has a good reputation on constitutional change. But, whilst I support AV, there was not much demand for PR on the doorstep in Hackney.
Why did the party lose trust? How can it win it back?
To me the Iraq War represents a time when trust was lost in our government. I marched in the days 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 think many people felt let down by the government and we have never acknowledged that this was a mistake. We let our country down and that takes some forgiving.
The expenses scandal didn’t do MPs any favours either but that was not just a Labour problem.
Across parts of the country – particularly London, Birmingham, and the northwest – good local campaigns helped increase some majorities, hold ultra-marginal seats, and win back councils. How should the party reform to embrace this local action?
I myself doubled my majority in Hackney North, and there were similar success stories around the country.
A Labour vote at the last election was seen as an important vote and I think that many members felt that it really counted, and they needed to go out and make that vote.
We need to thank these loyal voters and win back those who couldn’t vote for us this time by showing that we have changed. A new leader who embodies that change would be a step in the right direction.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.