Interview: Roberta Blackman-Woods
John Plummer, Third Sector
The new civil society spokeswoman for the Labour Party says the government wants self-reliance for the sector while she wants partnership
While the coalition government has talked regularly about charities and the big society since the general election, Labour has been relatively quiet.
The void left by third sector minister Angela Smith’s election defeat was, however, finally filled this month when Ed Miliband named Roberta Blackman-Woods, 53, as the shadow minister for civil society.
A former professor in social policy at Durham University, Blackman-Woods has spent most of her life in academia. Her background remains evident: she talks quietly in measured, long sentences rather than soundbites, and about policies rather than personalities.
She has already met academics at the Third Sector Research Centre and says visiting voluntary sector faculties at universities will be one of her first priorities so that she can "get familiar with the arguments" before she writes a paper on the way ahead for civil society.
Although she has never worked for a charity, Blackman-Woods has solid grass-roots sector credentials as well as a highbrow hinterland. Besides having a PhD in community development, she helped to set up Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland, established a residents group in Durham and has volunteered for Save the Children and the Child Poverty Action Group. "If you are an active MP, you should be engaging with the third sector all the time," she says.
Labour has been portrayed as the supporter of ‘big charity’ – a phrase coined by the government’s big society adviser, Lord Nat Wei. But Blackman-Woods seems to come from a different tradition.
Born in Belfast, she moved to England in 1982 to become a welfare rights officer at Newcastle City Council. She served as a local councillor and moved into academia at Durham University, where her husband is employed, but didn’t become an MP until her late 40s.
"I was a young mother," she says. "I started to take an interest in schools and wanted to try to make things a bit better."
She was elected in 2005 and defended her slim majority at this year’s election. Afterwards she stood unsuccessfully for the shadow cabinet, receiving 63 votes, and backed former third sector minister Ed Miliband’s successful leadership bid.
"He knew I had some understanding of the third sector," she says. "We talked about the big society and the way in which that was a continuation in some respects of what Labour had been trying to do."
But the parties differ, she says, in how to achieve that big society. Again she draws on her background, saying her PhD was about whether the state in Northern Ireland assisted or impeded the development of local communities.
"One of the things I concluded is that communities, particularly if they are disadvantaged, do need support," she says. "I think it requires much more of a partnership approach than perhaps we are starting to see come out of this government, which sees communities as being essentially self-reliant.
"So I’m going to be looking for where there can be really strong partnerships between the state and the voluntary sector."
Blackman-Woods says two of her priorities will be mutuals and social enterprise. She says Britain could learn from the US, where "they have gone down the social enterprise route in terms of delivering a whole range of advice and services".
But don’t expect her to rock the party boat too much – she rarely votes against the whip. "Generally speaking, I’m loyal to the Labour Party," she says. "I’m not quite sure why you would want to be in the party if you’re not."
CV: ROBERTA BLACKMAN-WOODS
2010: Shadow minister for civil society
2005: MP for City of Durham, with various roles including parliamentary
private secretary to the defence secretary and the Cabinet Office
2000: Professor of social policy and associate dean, Northumbria
1995: Dean of labour and social studies, Ruskin College, Oxford
1990: Lecturer in social policy, Newcastle University
1985: Lecturer in social policy, Ulster University
1982: Welfare rights officer, Newcastle City Council
FIVE MORE THINGS
1. Her surname was Woods, her maiden name, until she was selected to stand against Liberal Democrat Carol Woods in 2005 and added her husband’s name to hers.
2. Her husband, Tim, is a professor of sociology and social policy in the school of applied social sciences at Durham University. They have one daughter.
3. She was at the heart of the recent successful campaign for tighter regulation of the UK’s lap dancing clubs.
4. She says she "reads as much as she can" and also enjoys gardening.
5. Although she enjoys classical music, the last concert she attended was by the ageing rock band Fleetwood Mac.