Harriet Harman: Britain’s longest continuously-serving female MP; ex-Labour Deputy Leader; lawyer; and lifelong feminist activist.
She describes herself as “born into feminism – with three sisters,” and entered politics in 1982, after a Politics degree from York university and a job at the National Council for Civil Liberties. She tells me that being an MP “should be a vocation, not a career,” and while it’s clear that politics is her calling, it’s equally hard not to credit her for her success.
She won the Labour constituency of Peckham, and has continued to serve as a representative in the Commons as a cabinet minister, and an energetic champion of women’s causes in Parliament ever since.
But despite a comprehensive list of achievements, Harman insists that she has no advice for younger female MPs following in her footsteps: “I think that they are absolutely blazing a trail and they don’t need any advice from me! And what I’m happy to do is just support them. It’s really important for each wave of women coming into politics to take things forward.”
She adds that “so much has changed… politics has completely changed,” from when she began her career. In fact, this lack of a record of the “enormous change in women’s lives and in politics,” was one of the inspirations behind her latest book, A Woman’s Work. A major part of Harman’s work has been the huge growth in the number of women in Parliament: rising from ten female Labour MPs in 1982, to over 100 in 1997. She describes these women as “a formidable group,” and explains that this number meant that “we could get going on making sure there was childcare for the children of working parents, that domestic violence could be taken more seriously, that we could do another push on women’s pay and deal with issues like the poverty of elderly women in retirement.”
Harman’s book also details her experience of being offered a 2:1 in exchange for having sex with one of her university tutors, and she voices her outrage that the situation is still occurring today, saying: “it’s very important that this isn’t swept under the carpet, that women know that they’re entitled to complain, that male lecturers and tutors know that it would be regarded as gross misconduct and result in their dismissal.” Facing situations like this mean she’s no stranger to fighting “injustice and unfairness.” She describes the prejudices faced by her generation, saying: “we weren’t holding with those attitudes at all and we wanted change.” She doesn’t seem like someone who worries much, preferring to get on with working to improve things. In fact, the only thing she admits that keeps her up at night – apart from “the prospects of the Labour Party” – is “my cats. Treading on me!”
But Harman also recognises that young women – and young feminists – today face a very different world, and often a different set of issues. I ask her to respond to Jenny Murray’s recent comments regarding transgender women, and she states: “I think that people who are transgender face a very high level of difficulty and discrimination and that should never be underestimated.”
However, she adds: “I also think we have to recognise that there are some men who would want to falsely claim to be transgender to infiltrate women only spaces.”
“We just need to be clear that we protect those who are transgender from discrimination, but we make sure that women only spaces are not encroached upon by men who are simply using the transgender label when they’re not transgender at all.”
She also stresses the “issue of misogyny and abuse on social media and the internet,” characterising it as “a very new and threatening development.” She describes “passive resistance” to progress, saying that: “some men, who would have openly argued against women’s equality in the past, would now say that they do believe women should be equal, but they actually conspire to ensure that nothing changes and that’s quite a challenge to deal with.”
It’s a step forwards, perhaps, from the “open hostility” Harman faced when trying to introduce all-women shortlists in the Labour Party, in the 1990s. Male colleagues “thought it was a terrible attack on democracy and civilisation as we know it!” Nonetheless, with female MPs now constituting 43 percent of Labour’s MP’s, she still believes they are a necessary tactic. “Although we are a critical mass of women, things can slip back. We saw that when we went from a woman and a man in the leadership team – me and Ed Miliband – to Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.”
Harman would love to see a female Labour leader, stating: “it is a problem that our leadership is male dominated. It sends out the message that women can be the foot soldiers but men have to be the boss”. However, she does think it’s more difficult for a woman to lead the Labour Party than the Conservatives, because “Labour women are subversive and a force for change, whereas Tory women really support the status quo in terms of gender.”
Harman never stood for the leadership herself, and she cites the lack of enthusiasm for a rebellious female candidate as a factor. Being “on the front bench continuously – with one break of three years – since 1984,” also meant she felt she’d “done her bit.”
Her impressions of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership qualities, however, appear to be less than favourable.
“Right now we appear to be going in the wrong direction… It is clear that even though the Tories are doing terrible things and a lot of people are suffering, it’s not resulting in people looking to us to form the next government. Jeremy ought to be reflecting on that.”