Harriet Harman: we must rekindle the spirit of sisterhood across the UK

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 December 2017 in Inside Politics

Interview: as the longest-serving woman MP, Harriet Harman gives a pioneer perspective of a macho political culture

Harriet Harman - credit Scottish Parliament

Following her brush with defeat at the general election, Theresa May welcomed Harriet Harman back to the House of Commons by giving her the new title of ‘Mother of the House’. 

That the female equivalent of the ‘Father of the House’ moniker should be first coined by a woman Prime Minister seemed apt in what had become the most diverse UK Parliament yet, with a record number of women MPs returned.

However, for Harman, the longest serving of those, it is a journey which has not yet reached its final destination, with women still only a third of all MPs.

And hers is a valuable perspective on the male dominance that remains in politics and which has been illuminated in the wake of the revelations around alleged behaviours of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Holyrood catches up with the Labour grandee during a visit to the Scottish Parliament where she is hosting a discussion on her book, A Woman’s Work as part of the Festival of Politics. 
In the few short weeks since, a number of revelations have rocked all the main political parties surrounding inappropriate sexual language and harassment from senior figures, from the clumsy come-on to pure abuses of power.

But an experience Harman had while serving as a health spokesperson in Tony Blair’s government gives a glimpse of how the macho culture pervading politics is nothing new. 

It was half term, and Harman had promised her son a visit to the cinema. She decided to avoid the increasingly desperate and aggressive calls from the whips calling her to the Commons to deputise for the shadow minister, Robin Cook, and fulfil the promise to her son.

Cook called her into his office for a dressing down, but when Harman said she had been missing on a personal matter, Cook assumed she had been having an affair, smiled, and said “in that case, we’ll say no more about it”.

Harman tells Holyrood the anecdote reveals the “cultural norm” which existed at Westminster, of men accommodating each other but not understanding women.

“Being caught out taking your children to the cinema would have been a sacking offence, but actually being caught out having an affair was thoroughly approved of,” she remembers.

Harman says her overwhelming response at the time was relief; that she had “used up one of her political nine lives”, but in hindsight, it proved a revelatory episode. 

There was no time to get angry about it, she adds, because she had “to be getting on with the work”, but there was a sense it was “endemic, absolutely daily”.

“By the way, now, there is kind of a male phenomenon of men talking about taking their children to the cinema or picking them up from school, which is basically virtue signalling,” she says.
“Whereas for women, that was something you had to keep swept under the carpet or you were regarded as flaky and not committed. For a man to mention it, he’s a hero. What an irony.”

Harman says the “critical mass” of women in politics is now starting to make a difference, backed up by a “strong ideological framework”.

However, next year marks the centenary of the first women getting the vote in the UK, Harman points out, and they are still in a minority in terms of representation. Time, she says, for women to be “more muscular” about their involvement in politics.

“We have spent a lot of time getting into the room, being part of the decision-making, part of the team alongside men, but our demands are still quite muted, still quite timid. 

“I think as we tip over from that centenary of 2018, it’s time for us really to make our demands match the needs, and not to have a self-censoring effect where we’re always trying to work out what would be acceptable.”

Small steps of progress have been difficult, she concedes, when making demands can “trigger a backlash”.

“It wasn’t just in women’s minds that if you make a demand [that is] deemed unreasonable you get absolutely vilified. That was a daily experience. But I think we can move beyond that.”

Harman is often asked why she didn’t stand as leader of the Labour Party, especially as she took the position on an interim basis twice, preceding both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn’s elections.
Perhaps she harbours some regrets around her own self-censorship?

“Well, I tend to have sort of closed down the part of me which might have entertained regrets, on the basis it would just distract me from what I’m going to do next. 

“I think regret is quite a weakening feeling and I just think wringing my hands is not where I want to be. I reflect on it, and looking back, I can see I probably would have won the leadership, but I didn’t go for it, so I didn’t. And that’s it. So no, I don’t.”

How about the moment Gordon Brown made Harman deputy leader of the Labour Party but unlike John Prescott before her, she was not made deputy prime minister? 

Harman describes it as “ridiculous” and does ask herself why she didn’t kick up more of a fuss.

“The context was Gordon was the new Prime Minister, there was a lot of Tony Blair’s strong supporters within government who were not at all happy about this, and I wanted to make sure there was a smooth transition from one prime minister to another. 

“The last thing I wanted, having been such huge rows between Tony and Gordon, was to then start having rows between Gordon and Harriet, so basically, there’s always a context and a reason.”

There was also a wider context than that. Amid the global financial crisis, Harman was fighting to get her Equality Act through, which was enacted in 2010. 

“Women are still pioneers. They are still making their own pathway and that is hard, because it is always about the judgements,” she says.

Nevertheless, it must be easier to be vocal about such things from the backbenches? Harman has thrown down the gauntlet to Jeremy Corbyn over the representation of women in his top team.

“Although I’m still very much part of Team Labour, but if something terrible was to befall me politically, the Labour Party would just carry on. That does give you a sense of liberation.”

But apart from Harman’s brief stints at the helm, Labour is yet to be led by a woman at a UK level. Throughout the trade unions the most prominent voices are male ones, even if trade union membership is now more female than male. Is there a problem in the labour movement?

Harman points to the introduction of quotas to unions’ national executives, but recognises all of the general secretaries are men.

“It’s really about modernising and the trouble is the line-up of the general secretaries make the unions look like it’s about yesterday’s workforce. 

“That is not appealing then to people who are today’s workforce or the future workforce. It doesn’t present an appealing prospect if it looks like the politburo of the 1950s.”

Haven’t women always been involved, though?

“There has always been a tradition of activism. Often if the men were going down the pits the women would be doing the organising of the Labour Party. 

“It was all just taking the trade union minutes, but actually, they were not where the decisions were being taken. The power was held by men.”

Scottish Labour, of course, has had three women leaders.

However, Wendy Alexander ran out of allies when her campaign donations were investigated, Johann Lamont resigned with a claim that the party treated Scotland “like a branch office”, while Kezia Dugdale has hinted at plots against her.

“Wait a minute,” says Harman, pointing out all three led in opposition “in extremely difficult circumstances” when Labour was declining in the polls. 

“When we’re in power, it is like thickets of men blotting out the light. 

“Once the party looks like it won’t be wielding any power because it’s having, you know, political problems, women then get a look in just when it’s really hard. They then get judged differently. 

“It’s much easier to lead a party that’s hugely powerful and on its way up. Then everyone goes, ‘oh god, isn’t he marvellous’, or ‘she’s not up for it’, but actually, she’s got a much harder task. 

“We’re on our way up again now. So we’re going to have a man.”

As Scottish Labour has got more autonomous, she suggests, “it became no longer first instinct to work across the border”.

“We need to be working together. For example, Labour women MPs now probably don’t know the women in the women’s movement in Scotland, because they don’t, like I did, come up for every by-election, every council election, for women’s conferences and so on. You get to know people and we need that.”

Harman suggests the spirit of solidarity should be extended to the SNP, whom she asks for support at Westminster over changes to the rape laws in England to stop victims being interrogated in court on their sexual history. 

The SNP, of course, tends not to vote on issues that relate to England and Wales only, but Harman insists it is a “shared problem”.

“I want them not to be saying, ‘sorry, this is to do with south of the border so we’re not going to help you’. We need the solidarity. Also, the fact of the matter is you have the same problem here, and Scottish Women’s Aid are backing my amendment,” she says.

She adds: “We’ve got to rekindle the spirit of sisterhood across the border, because we need each other’s strength, and not let constitutional sensitivities get in the way of progressive advance.”
Does she extend the spirit of solidarity to the woman who named her ‘Mother of the House’, a prime minister isolated at the top?

“I said ‘progressive advance’. I mean, Theresa May does not represent progressive advance in any way, shape or form. So absolutely not.”

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