Diane Abbott (Newnham ’76)

Diane Julie Abbott is both the first black woman ever elected to the UK Parliament and the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons.

She was born on the 27th of September 1953 in Paddington, London to Jamaican parents.  She was the first in her family to remain in school past the age of 14 and would achieve her childhood dream of graduating from Cambridge. This dream, which had begun on a field trip in Primary school, when Abbott was only six years old, became a source of inspiration for Abbott. The journey to Cambridge was fraught with challenges, including accounts of teachers discouraging her from applying because they believed she was not good enough and would not make it. 

Through sheer determination, Abbott applied to Cambridge and was admitted into a bachelor’s degree in history at Newnham College. As she recalls:

In the novels I read, people tended to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Nobody told me that working class or black children didn’t go. So I thought, why not me? Going to Cambridge gave me the sense that obstacles were there to be overcome.

Diane Abbott

During her time in Cambridge, there were only two other women of colour at Newnham College (one South Asian and another mixed race). Abbott admitted in an interview that, even in Cambridge, she did not learn a significant amount of Black history and wished there was more focus on Black contributions to British history and politics. Even more jarring, in the History faculty, Abbott could not recall ever seeing other Black people. Coming from  a working-class, West Indian background, life at Cambridge presented an entirely new world. 

Abbott graduated in 1976. After Cambridge, she briefly worked in the civil service before she embarked on an illustrious career in politics, beginning in 1982 when she was elected to Westminster City Council. At this time, she was involved in the Labour Party Black Sections movement to push for greater political representation for African, Caribbean and Asian people, alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, candidates eventually elected as MPs with her in June 1987.

In 1987, she was elected MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, a position she holds to date. In this role, Abbott also held numerous shadow ministerial positions and served on several parliamentary committees, including the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and the Treasury Select Committee. Through these positions, Abbott fashioned herself as pro-poor, fighting against the privatisation of healthcare and private involvement in the NHS, denouncing UK unilateral military intervention in foreign countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and standing for the rights of marginalised communities. 

Abbott used her political clout to fight for the rights of marginalised communities, especially  Black communities in Britain. She founded the London Schools and the Black Child initiative which aimed to raise educational achievement levels among black boys children. 

These strongly held views and positions were not without consequence, in fact, Abbott experienced racialised and sexist abuse, as a consequence of her work. An Amnesty International Report found that Abbott was the subject of almost half of all abusive tweets about female MPs on Twitter during the 2017 election campaign, receiving ten times more abuse than any other MP. 

Abbott remains an advocate for breaking barriers, urging young Black-Britons to apply and attend institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, not only as necessary affirmations of self-belief but also as necessary actions for transforming spaces deemed not to have been built for black people.