In praise of Harriet Harman

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November 2, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

She probably won’t like the comparison, but for me Harriet Harman is a bit like George Galloway. I don’t agree with a lot of things she says, but our democracy has been greatly strengthened by her presence in it, and continues to be. The work she has done to get more equality for women in politics, in eyes workplace, and in life in general has gone a long way to helping this country thrive not just for the benefit of women, but for all. At PMQs last Wednesday she sat opposite David Cameron in a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt. In the summer she made a speech about how sexism is still rife even at the top level of British politics that some have attacked, but a look at what has been achieved since she entered Parliament in 1982 shows that if anyone deserves to have their say on this issue, it is Harriet Harman.

In 1982 the proportion of female MPs in Parliament was a derisory 3%. Harman entered Parliament whilst heavily pregnant, then insisted on her right to breastfeed in the chamber, which at the time caused quite an outrage to female sensitivities. There were barely any ladies loos and the bars were full of people who said, or at least thought, that whilst a lady may have been elected, she shouldn’t think she belonged. Harman ignored all this, fighting for more sensible hours so she could care for her young children. She was advised to stay away from women’s issues as it wouldn’t win her friends or promotion. But she didn’t care. She wanted affordable childcare and maternity pay to be legislated for. At the time, the government barely had these in their sights, now Nick Clegg and David Cameron fight to be the most family-friendly. But whilst they want the female vote, Harman just did what she thought was right.

Having got legislation in favour of females on the table, Harman turned her sights to how 50% of the UK population were represented. She championed all female shortlists in the face of considerable opposition from male careerists in the Labour Party, who used the concept of meritocracy to hide the fact that they realised that more female MPs meant less male ones. The truth is that all-woman shortlists are the step from mouthing platitudes about equality to actually ceding power. The result of all this was the election of 101 female Labour MPs in 1997. For the Tories, who still have a woman problem, it may be the only way to increase their representation, given what has just happened in Suffolk South. Trying to replace Tim Yeo, the local party have managed to reduce a long list of 7 women and 4 men down to 1 woman and 3 men. Now, it is true that a problem with our election system of FPTP can be that it mitigates against parties taking a ‘risk’ with their candidates, but the question has to be asked, why is the prospect of a woman MP deemed a risk?

And so we turn to that speech, the most reported part of which was Harman’s criticisms of Gordon Brown. Brown, considered an egalitarian, had surrounded himself with male, Oxbridge-educated special advisers and political allies, and that became a self-replicating elite when it came to the apportioning of real power in Brown’s government. When Harman was elected to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (in a properly contested election rather than the unchallenged coronation that Brown had bullied his way to), replacing John Prescott, she was not made a Deputy Prime Minister, even though Prescott had been that. Furthermore, at the G20 conference in 2009, discussing major world issues, Harman wasn’t invited, instead being asked to attend the a Leaders’ wives’ dinner. Is it any surprise that issues such as maternal mortality and rape in war zones were just being discussed over tea instead of being debated at the main table?

There is now a new boldness among women in public life. This is partly fuelled by the deep female outrage at what the men-only clubs seem to have been hiding and permitting (Saville, Harris, Hall, secret dossiers, the church etc). It is also because people like Harriet Harman have just had enough of being passed over, underestimated, made a form a loyal female donut around their leader at PMQs. She may have missed out on the benefits of what she fought for, but Harriet Harman won’t shut up until the UK, and the a World, are as equal as they should be. We are not there yet.

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