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Winning formula of a woman on the up

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date online: 17 January 2012

LUNCH with an MP, even at a trattoria in Oldham, means I have finally made the big time — my name will be in the Register of Members’ Interests at the House of Commons.

How’s about that then, as the late and lamented Sir Jimmy Savile would have proclaimed.

Not bad for a lad whose mum and dad had a chippy in Huddersfield Road . . . and all because I bought the lady lunch. Well, technically the Chronicle did, but my guest will have to make a declaration.

Quite how Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, the first woman to represent the borough at the Palace of Westminster, feels about the encounter I have no idea, but she smiled a lot.

In fact, Debbie smiled all the time. Her smile is, without doubt, one of the most charming, disarming, irresistible and infectious smiles I have ever encountered and, trust me, I have been smiled at quite a lot during a lifetime as an honest scribe.

Yet I never felt patronised. This was the smile of a woman in total control of her senses and, one senses, her destiny. Put simply, I sensed I was in the company of a woman going places. Oldham had better hang on for the ride.

We lunched at Valentino’s on the first anniversary of Debbie’s election to the House of Commons in the acrimonious by-election caused by the historic ousting of Phil Woolas.

A mother-of-two from near-by Newhey, Debbie was the surprise choice from the shortlist of three presented by the national executive of the Labour Party to the Oldham selection committee. Well, it was a surprise to me and I reckon I am as good a litmus test as anyone else in my home town.

The selection interview took place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday, December 12, 2010, when Debbie was pitted against two former Oldham mayors, Riaz Ahmed and Abdul Jabbar. Both had huge local credentials and connections and close links to the ruling Labour Party in Oldham.

Yet Debbie emerged, with that incandescent smile, to win the nomination and, almost inevitably, the seat — with a 3,500 majority over her nearest rival, Liberal-Democrat Elwyn Watkins.

Innocently, as I chewed on cheesy garlic bread, I asked if Debbie had been surprised to win the nomination?

The response was instant: “I was delighted to win, of course I was.”

That’s not what I asked, I persisted, but without breaking stride or that captivating smile so much as flinching she flat-batted the question a second time conceding it was “a close-run thing.”

She’s really taken to this political malarkey I mused over my only Peroni of the day. Curiosity had me by the throat at this juncture and I had to ask about her political credentials, her experience.

“By-elections are organised at national level, not by the local parties and I was on the approved list of candidates. Once the vacancy was declared, I submitted my CV to head office. I was interviewed in London and my name was put forward on a shortlist of three to the local party.”

It was a surprise, I suggested, that she had come out ahead of two such local luminaries but my second attempt to tease a response was blocked with all the authority of her cricketing husband John Abrahams, a former Lancashire captain and now coach of the England under-19s.

He came to England to escape the tyranny of what Debbie called the “appalling apartheid policy” in Cape Town, South Africa, so Debbie clearly has a social conscience, too. Social justice was a recurring theme of her’s over lunch.

But questions about her nomination? They shall not pass . . . well, not this journo anyway.

My next question did illicit a response, though. Did you expect to win the seat so handsomely, given the circumstances surrounding the election and the buoyancy of the Liberal-Democrat campaign?

“Well, I had a wonderful team, a great team of volunteers, who came from Oldham and all across the country. We all heard the same thing on the doorsteps, the utter, total, absolute dismay of the voters at the broken promises of the coalition.

“I spoke to one nurse who was on the verge of losing her job after giving many years to the NHS. There was genuine outrage at the rise in VAT, the cuts to the police service and the health service and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance.”

If I ever doubted Debbie’s political credentials, not that I did for until this day we had never met, the intensity was as clear as her dazzling smile.

Had that smile wooed the selection panel, I wondered? Thought not aloud, I wasn’t that brave, not at this juncture.

So what were your first impressions of the mother of all parliaments, I ventured, were you nervous?

“Nervous? No . . . I was more nervous contemplating this interview with the Chronicle, to be honest. I was awed by the sheer size of Westminster Palace, the history which seeps from the walls and the history in the portraits and paintings. The Chamber is itself is relatively small, but the whole complex is simply vast.

“My office is about a quarter of a mile from the House of Commons. One of the first lessons that was drummed into me by the whips was that I must never, ever, miss a vote.

“When the bell rings I have six minutes to make the division lobby and I can remember, in the early days, sprinting through the corridors, getting lost and arriving at the lobby only to find it utterly empty.

“I looked around and saw an official and asked where everyone was?

“He replied ‘that was the Lord’s bell’. That was the first lesson learned, the division bells are totally different.”

The anecdote was related without a hint of embarrassment for here before me was a lady with a core of steel, a woman born in Sheffield whose dentist father relocated to Surrey and later Sussex but never forgot his northern, socialist roots.

Debbie left school with only three O-levels and her first job was in the kitchen at Haslingden Golf Club. Through her cricket-mad brother she had met and fallen in love with John, whom she met at a match in the south, and the pair set up home in Lancashire.

Debbie returned to her studies, won a place at Salford University reading biochemistry and physiology and then gained her Masters in public health at Liverpool University.

And all the while raising two daughters, Victoria, now a trainee solicitor in London, and Dawn, who has finished her university studies and is preparing for a little travel.

So the Abrahams’ family is scattered. In addition to the family home in Newhey, Debbie has a London residence in Lambeth while John travels the world with England’s next batch of cricketing prodigies. But their love has certainly endured.

Debbie worked in public health for 20 years before entering parliament, initially on a scheme funded by Knowlsley and St Helens, helping frame policies that ensured the UK has as healthy a population as possible.

For 10 years up to her election to the House of Commons, Debbie travelled the world as head of the Health Impact Assessment Unit at Liverpool University. This research took her to places like Brazil, Thailand, many European countries and virtually the whole of Scandinavia.

In South America she was advising the Brazilian government on health impact assessments, piloting a methodology that saw politicians striving to frame policies that improve the health of the population.

“This wasn’t just about illness, but about well-being, too.”

Again, the intensity of belief was evident as was her unstinting commitment to the belief that the research undertaken by her team at Liverpool University had a positive impact on the policies framed by the European Commission in Brussels on legislation that affects every worker in Britain.

Little wonder then that, just 12 months into career in the Commons, Oldham’s newest MP is already Private Parliamentary Secretary to Andy Burnham, the charismatic Shadow Secretary of State for Health, chairs the Labour Bank Bench Committee on Health and sits on the Select Committee overseeing the Department of Work and Pensions.

This is clearly a woman whose star is in the ascendancy, yet she remains true to her roots.

In her 12 months in office Debbie and her constituency team have handled 4,500 pieces of case work, including tracing the long-lost brother of an Oldham woman whose brother went missing in Holland and turned up in Norwich.

“It is incredibly satisfying to be able to help people,” she admitted in a rare moment of emotional release.

Having fought the Colne Valley constituency at the General Election in May, 2010, a seat won by Conservative Jason McCartney, it would appear their loss was Oldham’s gain.

“How did you do in that election?” I ventured, somewhat tentatively given the non-answers I had received to other blunt questions.

“I didn’t do that well, to be honest.”

Something tells me this time Debbie Abrahams MP will do rather better.


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