Debbie Abrahams: healthy development for Labour?
What does Debbie Abrahams' by-election win signal for the Labour party?
Labour hopes to put the Phil Woolas affair behind it with Debbie Abrahams' victory in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.
Labour's ruling hierarchy will have breathed a sign of relief last night when Debbie Abrahams won the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election with an increased majority.
Regional issues and the regular swing of the political pendulum mean by-elections are never a clear indication of the national mood. But the vote on 13 January was called after Phil Woolas, the constituency's previous incumbent and a shadow Home Office minister until as recently as last November, had been forced to stand down as MP under a cloud of scandal.
A court found that Woolas made false statements about Liberal Democrat rival Elwyn Watkins ahead of the 2010 general election. The New Statesman called the Woolas campaign "one of the most disgraceful… in recent history".
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the candidate chosen to replace Woolas, Debbie Abrahams, a 50-year-old public health consultant, should be conspicuous for her almost unimpeachable hinterland.
It was only in 2006 that Ms Adams, whose husband is former Lancashire cricket captain John Abrahams, gave unequivocal public voice to her political beliefs, resigning from the Rochdale Primary Care Trust she had chaired since 2002 (before that she had spent four years as non-executive director of Bury and Rochdale Health Authority).
Explaining her decision, Ms Abrahams said the then Labour government's new health policies threatened "the future of an NHS that is equitable and free at the point of need". Shortly after her resignation, she joined the Labour party.
In the same year she became a director of the International Health Impact Assessment Consortium at Liverpool University, whose website says it aims "to improve health and reduce health inequalities locally, nationally and internationally". As such, she penned an article for The Guardian in 2007 in which she again takes up the cudgels on behalf of an NHS that offers "health for all" and attacks the then health secretary, Andy Burnham, for reforms that undermine an "equitable NHS".
In March 2008 Debbie Abrahams' expertise in the field of health was recognised by Simon Danczuk, Rochdale's Labour parliamentary candidate, who appointed her his health adviser (politicos will remember it was Danczuk who looked on aghast as Gordon Brown engaged with Rochdale constituent Gillian Duffy during the last election). Two months on, Ms Abrahams stood – unsuccessfully - to become a local councillor in Rochdale Council’s Milnrow and Newhey ward.
One year later, following the decision by Colne Valley incumbent Kali Mountford to stand down at the next general, Debbie Abrahams was chosen from an all-woman Labour shortlist to contest the marginal constituency. But Labour was pushed into third on 6 May 2010, behind the Tories' Jason McCartney and, in second place, Nicola Turner for the Lib Dems.
Richard Jones, editor of the Saddleworth News website, told Channel 4 News that "the Tories threw the kitchen sink at Labour during that campaign in terms of leaflets, posters and visits". He also recalls that the campaign was marred by bad-tempered exchanges between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, while relations between the Tories and Labour remained cordial. Indeed, Jason McCartney said after the vote: "Debbie Abrahams ran a good, positive campaign and I'm not surprised that she almost came second."
One small skeleton in the Abrahams cupboard concerns her claim during the 2010 campaign that she lived Longwood, within the Colne Valley constituency, and had previously lived in Newhey. In fact, she has lived - and still lives - in Newhey for many years, as her election leaflets for this week's by-election attest. She was only renting a property in Longwood. One Liberal Democrat Kirklees councillor accused her of "playing fast and loose".
It did not stop Ms Abrahams winning the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. She was, by all accounts, a surprise selection, edging out the favourite for the Labour nomination, Afzal Khan. Labour leader Ed Miliband and former health secretary Andy Burnham were among those who endorsed her campaign with their presence. The campaign was managed by Hartlepool MP Ian Wright.
The fact is, though, that the Labour party has won the Oldham East and Saddelworth seat at each of the last four elections. Defeat for Labour would have been a real shock. Richard Jones observes that none of the major parties' campaigners performed particularly well at the hustings and that Debbie Abrahams' campaign strategy appears to have been "Keep your head down and don't make a mistake".
With her experience as a health professional, Debbie Abrahams may be called on to raise her head above the parapet in parliament in the coming months as political battle lines are drawn in the contest for the future direction of the NHS.
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Who are we talking about?
Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth
Debbie Abrahams was elected to represent the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency on 13 January 2011.Connections: 9 (See map)
South Africa-born cricketer John Abrahams captained Lancashire County Cricket Club in 1984 and 1985. Currently team manager of the England under-19 cricket team, he is married to Labour MP Debbie…Connections: 1 (See map)
Leader, Labour Party
Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour Party on 25 September 2010.Connections: 24 (See map)
Labour MP for Leigh
Shadow education secretary and Labour election coordinator, Andy Burnham lost the Labour leadership contest to Ed Miliband.Connections: 9 (See map)
labour MP for Rochdale
Simon Danczuk was elected to represent the constituency of Rochdale on 6 May 2010.Connections: 1 (See map)