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28 November 2016

A kebab with Debbie Abrahams: “My constituent was sanctioned for having a heart attack“

The shadow Work and Pensions secretary explains how she wants to change the language around benefits. 

By Julia Rampen

Debbie Abrahams walk into the restaurant in an imperious black coat, as befits a shadow work and pensions secretary on a cold day. I suddenly feel nervous and scruffy. But Abrahams turns out to be lovely. The coat is soon folded away, and she is telling me in a gentle voice about the film I, Daniel Blake, where the benefits system drives an ill man to despair. 

Abrahams has been a Labour MP since 2011, and before that spent many years as a senior public health wonk. But it wasn’t always a straight path. “I have come up a different route,” she says.  

She hated school: “I left at 15, with three O-levels, got my A-levels while I worked, got my first degree.” Nevertheless, she considers herself very fortunate. “Driven by inequality, and trying to do something about it,” she says. “That really permeates into everything I do.”

On this steely autumn day, we are certainly among the fortunate as we sit in the warm Turkish restaurant Troia, a Thames-side restaurant favoured by Labour MPs. It’s the second in my series of conversations with MPs about politics, and food, and I’m keen to learn more about Abrahams, a quiet constituency-focused MP who has landed one of the top jobs in opposition. 

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Her career in politics has certainly been marked by unexpected events. Abrahams won her seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2011, after the sitting MP Phil Woolas was found to have lied about his opponent and ejected. The by-election could have been a referendum on his behaviour – instead Abrahams, as the replacement Labour candidate, vastly increased the majority. 

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In Parliament, she found a seat on the work and pensions select committee, but it was another four years before the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appointed her as a shadow minister in that field. 

Then, once again, an opportunity came at a time of turmoil. After voters opted for Brexit in June, the shadow work and pensions secretary, Owen Smith, joined the mass resignation from the shadow cabinet. While Smith went on to lead the challenge to Corbyn, Abrahams was left to pick up the pieces. (In her view, Corbyn is a “sweet guy”, who “does his bit”.)

Despite her loyalty to the leadership, Abrahams comes across less as an ideologue, and more like a woman who wants to get the job done. Her opposition to welfare cuts is heartfelt. We haven’t ordered yet, but she’s already talking about the real-life Daniel Blakes in her constituency

“A guy actually had a heart attack in the middle of the Work Capability Assessment,” she says. “The woman who was doing it said, ‘You need to go to hospital.’ A week later he got a letter saying he had been sanctioned. It’s just nonsense, isn’t it?”

A waiter summons us back to the comfortable world of the restaurant.  Abrahams orders the seasonal vegetables – she’s vegetarian, for reasons of animal welfare. I’m vegetarian too, but I ask whether there was a vegetarian kebab option. The waiter looks doubtful. I end up ordering halloumi and potatoes.

I ask Abrahams where she likes to eat and drink in Parliament. “Have you been to the Pugin Room?” she asks. (This is a gilded room that looks over the Thames). “They serve high tea. My dad came to see me at Parliament when I was elected in the first year – I took him there. I thought he’d like that.” Like other MPs, she visits the tearoom, and also the old smoking room on occasion, a hangout for select committee members. She’ll cross over to the Tory side of the canteen if she needs to – “you’ve got to do business” – and is open to a cross-party coalition against hard welfare cuts. 

“We are saying many of the same things,” she says of the SNP. “It may not be a formal coalition, but in the debates on Concentrix and Waspi they have supported us.”

Our food arrives, and the waiter has managed to magic up a vegetarian kebab – a rainbow array of vegetables, grilled, and smothered in sauce. I tuck in, but Abrahams is busy talking. She is particularly focused on changing the language around benefits. She recalls how the former Chancellor, George Osborne, used his 2012 Autumn Statement to compare the working voter with the “neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits”, a comparison that made her fume. It is also, she contends, a modern trend, recalling research which found the media’s use of word “scrounger” had tripled between 2009 and 2010

So how should Labour position itself to win back power? Many lesser politicians think they know the answer, but Abrahams is circumspect. “My opinion is one thing, but I would like to see the evidence,” she says. “People have their own views about why we didn’t win the general election. I will go to the data.”

She is hardly getting a chance to eat, and I’m beginning to be worried she will leave the lunch sustained on policy ideas alone. It doesn’t help that I keep asking her questions. I ask her about the best eats in her constituency.

“There is a community project that’s been put together by First Choice Homes [a housing association]”, Abrahams says. “They call themselves the Jim Jam Girls and they make their own jam. It’s absolutely delicious.”

She recalls how, when the women came to visit Ed Miliband in Parliament, one was surprised to discover trains had toilets: “She had never been on a train before.”

A waiter comes to take our plates. It is clear that, despite reaching the executive suite of two careers, Abrahams is emotionally rooted in her constituency. So what does politics mean to her?

“I’m not so good at the politics side, I have to say, but I’m learning that,” she says. “It is about making a difference really and you try your best in opposition to do that too. 

“You can’t just be waiting to get into power. You’ve got to try to make that difference now.”