By Isabelle Ardron
Roberta Blackman-Woods has represented the City of Durham since 2005. Prior to becoming an MP, she worked as an academic in social sciences. She attributes her transition into politics to a simple motivation: ‘I wanted to change things for the better.’
Blackman-Woods, a young mother when she first entered politics as a councillor, also cites the desire for a better future for her daughter as an early inspiration, driving her to campaign for better local education and services for families.
Blackman-Woods’ choice of the Labour Party was an inevitable one. She discusses the importance of her upbringing in a close family who often lacked opportunities in encouraging her to champion funding for accessible education for all members of society.
She is also a staunch supporter of having a state ‘safety net’ for ‘whenever people fell on hard times,’ and naturally identified with Labour as the party responsible for creating the Welfare State and the NHS. Blackman-Woods summarises her political ideology by stating ‘the world I wanted was one where the state would step in, where it needed to, to help people.’
Turning her attention to the present state of her constituency, Blackman-Woods reveals a number of concerns. She is closely monitoring the impact of Brexit on local businesses, and wants to ensure that any deal delivers for the local community. She is critical of the impact of austerity, which has ‘really pulled the heart out of some of our public services locally’, and opposes cuts to budgets for the local council and schools.
Her stance on the university is more optimistic. A supporter of the upcoming expansion plan, she is enthusiastic about the employment opportunities it will bring for the local community. She advocates working ‘to make sure local relationships are maintained’ between locals and students to ensure benefit for all sections of the community, encouraging students to be good neighbours and locals to be open to the student population.
The performance of her party nationally is also a source of satisfaction for Blackman-Woods. Discussing Labour’s recent General Election performance, she praises the party for ‘getting the message of hope through really really clearly’ and cites their manifesto as central in addressing ‘the issues that affected people’, such as social care and education.
Blackman-Woods suggests that Labour’s early realisation of the lack of opportunities offered to young people, and their moves to address this, were a crucial factor in their election success, noting Jeremy Corbyn’s personal role in instigating this. She celebrates Labour’s ability to overcome the obstacles presented by the media, whose coverage of the party she criticises for being ‘often terribly negative’, and get their message through to people.
Despite her praise for Labour’s election performance, Blackman-Woods offers a cautionary note in her reflections on their recent successes; ‘It was a great performance, but we didn’t win.’ Whilst feeling that Labour’s priorities and ideology was clearly communicated the challenge now, for Blackman-Woods, is to ‘really win on credibility as well’, by being clear on how their policies will be funded.
With the election over, Blackman-Woods is focused on the issues she sees as crucial to this current Parliament. The current chair of the All Party Parliamentary University Group, she decisively states ‘we have got to resolve the issues of university funding’, believing that the burden of cost falls too strongly on students. She supports the abolition of tuition fees, but also emphasises the need to provide funding to ensure that the British university sector remains internationally competitive.
On the issue of schools funding, Blackman-Woods is particularly emphatic. She criticises the decision to cut school spending, citing the figure of a 3% real-term decrease this parliament identified by the IFS during the election.
She is adamant in stating ‘I don’t think any society should be cutting the money that goes into education – that seems a really backwards step to me.’ She is also concerned that climate change is not high enough on the agenda, due to the threat it poses both to the UK but also to countries overseas.
Brexit is also of major concern to Blackman-Woods. She recognises that ‘we all have to accept the result of the referendum’, but states ‘I was a Remainer, I’m still a Remainer’. She describes the result as ‘unfortunate’, and reflects that her ‘own view is that it was a referendum on immigration and not on our European membership’. Her priorities now are to promote post-Brexit tariff-free access to European markets, and ensure a continuing close relationship with Europe.
Reflecting on the Remain campaign, she voices her regret at the failure to tackle the central issue of immigration. She concedes that Leave’s ‘message of taking back control was a really strong message, and we didn’t do enough to engage with that.’
Over a year on from the campaign, she avoids repeating her criticism of Jeremy Corbyn in her resignation letter from the Shadow Cabinet in the wake of the election result, in which, whilst not holding him ‘wholly responsible’, she argued he ‘could, and should, have shown more decisive and visionary leadership.’
Instead, Blackman-Woods criticises ‘the failure of the whole campaign’, and believes that ‘the referendum itself’ was responsible for dividing people, and leaving no space to explore the possibility of a reformed Europe. She also feels the ‘denigration of Europe’ over forty years, particularly by the right-wing press, was impossible to overturn in the space of a few months of campaigning.
The recent Conservative Party conference also attracts criticism from Blackman-Woods. A former Shadow Local Government and Housing Minister, she describes Theresa May’s plan to allocate £2bn to housing as ‘quite frankly a drop in the ocean’, and echoes Corbyn’s criticism of May’s speech as ‘a very lukewarm version of Labour’s policies.’
In her new role as a Shadow International Development Minister, she feels the government is wrongly focusing international aid towards security rather than poverty, and hopes also to promote enabling countries to trade with Britain through aid.
Looking back on her career, Blackman-Woods advises anyone considering a career in politics to ‘make sure you’ve got loads of stamina.’ She concludes by emphasising the importance of ‘a really strong value base’ for any aspiring politician looking to make a positive change in society.
Photograph: Isabelle Ardron