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Where Are They Now? Helen Goodman

Helen Goodman

4 min read

Helen Goodman is amused by the fact that during her 14 years in Parliament she never snagged a House profile but has now finally got one three years after she left.

“As long as I can remember, I can remember being interested in politics,” Goodman says. How could she not have been? She was born into an activist family – one grandfather was a unionist while the other, who was Danish, ran an “underground newspaper in occupied Europe and was involved in fighting the Nazis”.

It was only natural, then, that she would study politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford. Although, in her second year, she did drop the politics strand after realising that “the other subjects were more intellectually demanding”.

Determined to make it in the capital after graduating, Goodman lived for some time in a “hostel for homeless women behind Victoria Station”. Then it dawned on her. Her secondary school, Lady Manners, in Bakewell, Derbyshire, had also been the alma mater of Phillip Whitehead, then Labour MP for Derby North.

“I went to see him. He said, ‘How can I help you?’. I said, ‘you can give me a job’,” Goodman says.

He agreed, and while employed by Whitehead she did “a mixture of work… like doing bits of research for parliamentary questions.”

She loved working in politics, but felt in the early 1980s “the idea of being a woman MP was like being an astronaut”. So, after a few months working for Whitehead, she did the next best thing and became a civil servant. She was assigned to the Treasury and while her work was stimulating “it was not a good place to be a woman.” Sexual harassment was rife: “I was told by somebody that if I didn’t go to bed with him, I wouldn’t get a decent job. I wouldn’t go to bed with him and was given the worst job in the office.”

After 16 years, she pivoted again and started working in the charity sector while simultaneously running for selection in different constituencies to keep her toe in politics.

In 2005, she was finally successful and became the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, County Durham, with a majority of more than 10,000.

After winning, she moved to Durham which felt not dissimilar to her hometown in rural Derbyshire, “Durham was a bit like going home.” She still lives in Durham today.

Labour was in power for the first five years of her tenure, and Goodman is particularly proud of her work as a minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where she led work to get the Child Poverty Act onto the statute book. After Labour lost the 2010 general election, Goodman pushed government to introduce so-called “Magnitsky” sanctions against regimes which perpetrate human rights abuses.

"One of the unpleasant things, if you lose, is that you have to sack your staff. And that’s not very nice."

Goodman lost her seat at the 2019 general election. While she expected defeat – “it was a mixture of voters not trusting Jeremy Corbyn and being worried that Labour would undo Brexit” – that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

“One of the unpleasant things, if you lose, is that you have to sack your staff. And that’s not very nice. Then we went into lockdown. And then my dad died in the first lockdown. I hadn’t seen him for five weeks. So, I would say that the beginning of 2020 was a pretty bad time all round.”

Two years on, Goodman now spends her time working as an academic at Durham University, a trustee at the anti-poverty charities Church Action on Poverty and Zacchaeus 2000, and as a host to a Ukrainian mother and her two daughters.

However, she is still politically active and would consider standing again, in another constituency, at the next general election.

“I’m not going to become a completely different kind of person and devote my life to yoga and macramé,” she says.

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