Where are they now? Roberta Blackman-Woods
When Roberta Blackman-Woods ran as the City of Durham’s Labour candidate on an all-women shortlist in 2005, she felt the pressure of potentially becoming the first woman to hold the post. “I did not want people to turn round and say, ‘it was something to do with the fact that with a woman we lost’. So, we ran a really strong campaign and, happily, I was selected,” she says.
Blackman-Woods was proud to represent the constituency she still calls home, having moved from Northern Ireland to pursue a career in academia in 1982. After serving as professor of social policy and an associate dean at Northumbria University, she became a councillor for Newcastle and Oxford councils. When the City of Durham’s sitting MP Gerry Steinberg announced he was standing down, Blackman-Woods was urged to run.
“It maybe sounds a bit old fashioned, but I had a very strong interest in public service. I saw being an MP as an extension of that public service and being able to do things locally. I always say that being the MP for Durham City is still the biggest privilege of my life.”
Blackman-Woods remembers fondly when a cabinet meeting was held in a Durham school during her first few years as an MP. “It was just a fantastic thing – to be able to meet the whole cabinet in Durham and talk through what areas like ours needed from the next manifesto,” she says.
In Westminster, Blackman-Woods became a parliamentary private secretary to Hilary Armstrong, the first chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and subsequently to then-defence secretary Des Browne. Having “never lost [her] love for higher education”, she most enjoyed serving as PPS to David Lammy, then-higher education minister.
After 2010 she took on a variety of shadow ministerial roles, but found being in constant opposition “very, very difficult”. “I would have preferred to have been in government,” she says. “We would put a lot of time into manifestos and policy development and then never get an opportunity to implement them. I found it incredibly frustrating.”
Blackman-Woods, a “strong remainer”, was also irritated at the management of the 2016 Brexit referendum under then-leader Jeremy Corbyn. “I found the lack of debates applied to what Brexit was really going to mean in practice incredibly frustrating. One of the real sadnesses for me was the outcome – how we ended up with a very hard Brexit. I felt that had Labour been in government, we would never have been there.”
I always say that being the MP for Durham city is still the biggest privilege of my life
Blackman-Woods resigned as shadow housing minister in 2016, and supported Owen Smith when he challenged Corbyn for the leadership. “I didn’t think Corbyn would have the sort of appeal that was necessary for Labour to get into government,” she says. “I thought we needed something that was more centrist, maybe something more analytical.”
In 2019 Blackman-Woods announced she would not stand at the next election. Though she did not say at the time, she had been suffering for many years from a chronic illness, a subject she still finds painful to discuss.
She also wanted to spend more time with her family – “politicians always say that they are going to spend more time with family, but for me, it was really true!”
Now 65, Blackman-Woods is chair of governors at Northumbria University, where she “love[s] being back interacting with students and academics”. She also works in a new cross-party think tank called Palace Yard, led by fellow former Labour MP Natascha Engel.
In her rare moments of spare time, Blackman-Woods enjoys gardening, reading and walking. Although she sometimes misses the camaraderie of the Labour Party, she says she feels lucky to have the opportunity to spend more time with her grandchildren. “I drop my grandson to school some days and pick him up. I take my granddaughter to nursery. I just think I am so fortunate to be able to do that.”
By Sophie Church
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