Harriet Harman: “I am in my prime”

Posted On: 
22nd March 2018

Harriet Harman entered Westminster as an outsider on the ‘margin of the margins’. Nearly 36 graft-filled years later, the Mother of the House still finds herself at the epicentre of the women’s movement, respected across the House. Though she insists her frontbench days are over, does she have one more big job in politics left? Sebastian Whale speaks to the Labour grandee, and those who know her, to find out

Labour grandee Harriet Harman photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Credit: 
Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Harriet Harman could not believe the weight of the doors that led through to the House of Commons. She had visited parliament before in a previous capacity, but never entered the Chamber. Elected MP for Peckham at a by-election in October 1982, she was now waiting to be sworn in. If only she could find a way through.

“It was almost like the physical embodiment of the kind of force that we’d had to exercise. The irresistible force of the women’s movement meets the immovable object of parliament,” she recalls.

The Chamber was packed after question time. Harman, wearing a dark red velvet maternity dress, was accompanied by two minders as she approached the Speaker’s chair.

Four steps, bow. Four steps, bow.

With journalists in the press gallery watching on from above, Harman surveyed the adversarial layout of the House of Commons. “There they all were, the decision makers, sitting there in their grey suits and their black suits,” she says.

Harman was by no means an unknown quantity. She had appeared on shows including BBC Question Time while an official for the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty. She used her platform to criticise the composition and modus operandi of the very institution she had been elected to join. And as a seven months-pregnant 32-year-old, she was not your likely MP-in-waiting.

“I was walking into a completely different situation where our quest was not to do well within that system but to change the system. It was not just ‘phew, I’ve got here’ but ‘this is when the work starts’, because – look at it. Everything needs to change from top to bottom,” she says, pretending to give the Commons a disdainful once over.

“I was on the margin of the margins but with a purpose to get to the centre, to get to the heart of things and be part of making them change.”

---

Nearly thirty-six years later and the thirst for change is far from quenched. Harman is typing away on her iPad as I arrive in her audaciously spacious Westminster office, with panoramic views of Parliament Square. A collection of spreadsheets, comprised of FoI data on domestic violence stats from local authorities across England, are placed across her desk, while Sky News hums in the background. Harman’s glasses sit perched on the end of her nose as she catches my eye, looking up with a welcome smile.

There is a sense of a resurgence about Harman. A century after the first women gained the right to vote, she speaks with unbridled excitement at the current composition of the House of Commons, with 208 female MPs taking their seats. And it’s not just the numbers, but the calibre and mindset that Harman believes has changed. Having previously felt that the only way to make change happen for women was through a Labour government, Harman now spies a new avenue to explore.

“This is the first time that we’ve had men supporting [the women’s movement], we’ve had a new generation of women on the Tory side, which makes them more numerous, which helps them radicalise and change the attitudes of the more longstanding women, plus we’ve got loads of women on our side. So, the question is, is that profound demographic and attitudinal change sufficient to enable us to identify a common agenda? If we can, we will be the most powerful force. There are 200 of us. We can really do things,” she says.

Tory former ministers Justine Greening, Maria Miller, Nicky Morgan and Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson are among the MPs mentioned by Harman that she is excited to collaborate with.

“They are the new generation of women on all sides in all parties,” she says. “I’m not sure any woman would particularly see herself as a big beast, but they are in political terms. And they are on the backbenches, and we’ve got plenty of beasts.”

The last six months or so has shown the prevalence of issues relating to abuse and sexual harassment that the women’s movement has been highlighting for years. “What has changed, which is gratifying, is the idea that we can do something about it,” Harman says.

The argument in favour of the equal treatment of women has been won, she adds. Now comes the not inconsiderable battle of changing the reality for women and seizing on the moment of political alignment.

But to reach this point has been a struggle, a hard grind. And it has been an endeavour that has come to define Harriet Harman as a person and a politician.

---

Harriet Ruth Harman was born on 30 July 1950 to Anna Harman, a solicitor, and John Harman, a physician. She grew up in St John’s Wood, north west London and is the third of four daughters. Her parents instilled in their offspring the importance of education and self-reliance. “Men were not to be depended on,” Harman recalls in her book, A Woman’s Work.

She attended St Paul’s, a fee-paying public all girls’ school, before going on to study politics at York University. Though she protested over the Bloody Sunday massacre while a student in 1972, it would be her time working at the Fulham Legal Advice Centre and latterly the Brent Law Centre that she became political after qualifying as a solicitor. It was also here that she met Jack Dromey, an officer of the Brent Trades Council and now the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington, her husband and father of her three children.

In 1976 a group of south Asian women took to the streets in protest at poor working conditions at the Grunwick film-processing factory, near to the Brent Law Centre. The ‘strikers in saris’, as the story became known, bought together leading figures from the left and the union movement. Among those to attend the picket was a Labour backbencher named Neil Kinnock. Speaking to The House, Kinnock says Harman, who was working as a legal adviser to the Grunwick strike committee, made quite the first impression. “Bright, brisk, purposeful, very pleasant young woman with a strong sense of commitment.”

Margaret Prosser, now Baroness Prosser who served as deputy general secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union, among other accolades, was one of those to persuade Harman to stand for parliament.

“I was chairing Peckham Labour party and she came over to stand in the by-election after the death of [former Labour MP] Harry Lamborn,” Baroness Prosser tells me as we sit down for tea in the House of Lords. “I lived in the area and she used to drive over from north London and come up to my flat early evening and change her clothes, have a bit of scrambled egg on toast, tidy herself up and go out canvassing and leave her car parked down the stairs.”

Why did she encourage Harman to stand? “She was very capable, she had good politics, and she’s been very good for the constituency,” she says.

Harman was re-elected at the 1983 election to find her own benches depleted and women representing just 3.5 per cent of the Commons. The electoral drubbing precipitated the election of a new leader, one Neil Kinnock.

To her surprise, Harman was appointed to the frontbench in 1984 as shadow minister for social services. Harman had proven to be a divisive figure in parliament, often railing against its functions and quirks and posing a direct challenge to the orthodoxy of late hours and boozy nights that had prevailed. Some quarters of the media branded her Harriet Harperson for her position on women’s rights. 

Far from sticking his neck out, Kinnock says appointing Harman to his front bench was a no brainer. “She was a woman of quality and those things didn’t bother me,” he says. “She obviously had enormous potential. And she’s a very, very hard worker. So, you put those qualities of high intelligence and motivation and willingness to graft hard together and you get someone who’s got a real future.”

Harman says warmly of Kinnock: “Neil was an absolute champion of me and women’s advancement, without a shadow of a doubt. He forced through rules that put women in the Shadow Cabinet, which were highly controversial, it meant that the PLP had to elect some women as well as some men, which was really bitterly opposed. But Neil put his whole weight behind it to get that to happen.”

By 1987, Harman had moved to the shadow health team under Robin Cook. Though Harman was making inroads up the shadow ministerial ladder, at times the balance of having three young children along with the demands of the anti-social working hours meant it could be all too much.

“I was desperate to give up. But I couldn’t find a way to square the fact that I had found myself to be a sort of symbol from the political wing of the women’s movement. I was the part of the women’s movement that was saying ‘we can do politics, we are entitled to have a say and we don’t have to choose between that and children. We can be mothers as well as politicians’,” she says.

“If I threw in the towel and said I couldn’t do it, then all the enemies of that argument would say, ‘that’s what happens when you have a woman, they can’t hack it’. My exit was blocked by our ideology, and I didn’t want to be a setback for women.”

Kinnock’s decision to change the rules requiring women in the Shadow Cabinet was the precursor to all-women shortlists (AWS) being implemented under John Smith and Tony Blair. The measure was introduced at the party’s 1993 annual conference. Figures in the trade union movement, alongside Labour MPs with Harman at the forefront, were the brains and brawn behind the move.

One person who worked with Harman on implementing the measure says of her efforts: “She would argue her corner until everyone else was really fed up with listening to her and still she’d argue.” They add with some understatement: “She is indefatigable, she just goes for it.”

They are words that spring up continuously in my conversations about Harman: tenacious, ruthless, determined, hardworking, a hard taskmaster, stubborn. “The problems have been stubborn, not me,” says Harman. “I remember when I was Solicitor General… I said to a friend of mine, who always gave me sage and good advice, ‘do you think I’m doing too much on domestic violence, I’m just doing it morning, noon and night’. She said, ‘is the problem solved?’, and I said, ‘god of course it’s not solved’. She said, ‘well, you’ll just have to go on with it’.”

She adds: “One of the things that I’ve surprised myself by when I look backwards is how I’m still standing and how resilient I was in the earlier days. Now things are much more advanced, but it was really hard.”

The implementation of AWS saw 101 Labour women enter the House of Commons after Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 election. Soon after, Harman was appointed Secretary of State for Social Security, before being sacked the following year. “For years, I was toiling around voting, treading green carpet and never winning a vote. We finally get into government – a landslide – and after 13 months, I’m out!” she laughs.

Harman’s ministerial career was far from over however, despite efforts from some on her own side to turn her into an “angry victim” against the government. She returned to the front bench in 2001 as Solicitor General for four years, before being appointed Constitutional Affairs minister. And in 2007, after the resignation of Tony Blair, she stood successfully to become deputy Labour leader, a position she held until departing front line politics in September 2015. During that eight-year period, in which she introduced the Equality Bill (now the Equality Act 2010) to parliament, she served twice as acting leader of the Labour party.

All told, bar brief dalliances with the backbenches, Harman spent more than 30 years on the Labour front bench. Her steadfastness contrasts with some of her male contemporaries across the House who are conspicuous by their absence.

“'If I’m not in government, I’m not in Cabinet, I don’t want to play the game’ – I really disapprove of that,” she says. “I kind of admire Kenneth Clarke, who’s there, he’s not in the Cabinet – although he’s done every flipping job in the Cabinet it turns out – there’s nothing left for him to be doing. But he’s still got a commitment to what he believes in and he thinks he’s got a role to play on Europe and he’s playing it.

“I find it admirable when people are committed to what they are committed to, not just their career position. The point about Nicky [Morgan] and Maria [Miller] and Justine [Greening], is they’re not ‘well we’re not in the Cabinet so we’re going to mess things up for everybody, and we’re going to cause trouble and just be negative’. They’ve still got a gleam in their eyes for making progress for things that they think matter.”

Harman seems almost surprised to be finding herself speaking positively about her Tory counterparts. It stems from her political awakening in the 1970s and 80s, and vehement dislike for Margaret Thatcher and her government. No more visceral demonstration of this exists than when she hid in a nearby room in the Commons as the former PM spotted her firstborn child. “I was in a heightened emotional state because of having a baby and also in a very divided Britain. That meant I couldn’t even let her eyes fall on my baby,” she says.

While not universally liked – Harman’s view that Theresa May is “no sister” of the women’s movement has come under fire in Tory circles – the admiration for Harman from opposing quarters has grown over the years. Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, is effusive about the “trailblazer” MP. “Harriet Harman has got to be absolutely up there in terms of people who’ve changed the terms of being a Member of Parliament and made it possible for women to talk about issues that are relevant to us,” she tells me. “I’ve watched her stand in for Labour leaders at PMQs and everything else, and there are a couple of times when she definitely got the better of David Cameron and that was not easy. I suspect she’s probably the person who should have been the first female leader of the Labour party and for whatever reason it didn’t happen.”

Seema Kennedy, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Theresa May and one of the 2015 intake of Conservative MPs, describes the Mother of the House as “very inspiring” and a “fantastic role model to women in politics”.

Harman’s career is a source of motivation to MPs on her own side. One of those is Jess Phillips, the Birmingham Yardley MP, who can trace Harman’s influence at various stages of her own life; from the Sure Start she attended with her children, the tax credits and free childcare she received, to the AWS “that delivered me to parliament”.

“Working with her you realise how she achieved it all and that is with steely unforgiving hard work. This can make her seem a taskmaster to some. She has a sort of certainty about her actions that I find fascinating, I’m not sure if it’s class or experience or both but she seems so sure and she has a belonging in parliament that means she just cracks on,” Phillips says.

Jeremy Corbyn, the seventh Labour leader of Harman’s time in parliament, says: “For decades, Harriet has been a towering figure for civil liberties, human rights and feminism, fighting for causes when many people argued they were fringe issues. Her work to introduce the Equality Act, and her strength and determination in overcoming prejudice and injustice are an inspiration to us all.”

Harman had two opportunities to run for the leadership, in the 2010 and 2015 contests, and has spoken with regret at not standing in the former. While she stresses that there will not be a leadership contest any time soon, Harman is determined that the next Labour leader is a woman. And she is going about it in a typically assertive way, urging would-be male leadership hopefuls to go for deputy instead and rally behind a female candidate so the party can get the monkey off its back.

“The next generation of men need to be those remarkable men who actually support women leaders,” she says. With a grin, she adds: “The men can jostle amongst themselves to be deputy… They’ve got to be holding themselves and each other back in support of the Labour party getting a woman leader because the Tories have had not one but two women leaders. So, it’s becoming a bit of a thing.”

How has she rated the performance of current leader Jeremy Corbyn on women? Harman says that although Corbyn’s political identity was “formed at a time when a lot on the left saw equality for women as a distraction from the class struggle and therefore fought against it… he characterises himself as being responsive”.

“Therefore, the important thing is for him to just listen to what the women in the Shadow Cabinet and in the PLP and in the wider country are saying about what they want and just do it. He doesn’t need to overthink it, we can all think it. He just has to do it,” she says.

Harman says women in the Labour party must respond to the “new political order” being shaped under Corbyn. “If the members are going to be deciding policy and there’s a stronger role for members, we’ve got to make sure that the women’s conference has big demands. I don’t want to see that we’ve spent all the money in our manifesto on renationalising water but we don’t appear to have universal free childcare,” she says.

Though her frontbench days are over, rumours have emerged that Harman is lining up a bid for another leading political job in the shape of Speaker. With John Bercow facing allegations of bullying, the speculation has only grown. Is it something Harman is considering?

“People have been asking me whether I would be prepared to stand. But I think that that’s something that I would have to consider when there’s a vacancy, and there isn’t one at the moment. Actually, I do think when you have a Speaker, you’ve got to support the Speaker and therefore as I say, people have said it to me, but there isn’t a vacancy. And so, I would consider it at the time,” she says.

Should she choose to stand, Harman would have the backing of Neil Kinnock, who says a woman Speaker is the “kind of refreshment that parliament always needs”. “I’d be delighted if she went for it, and wish her all the best,” he adds.

To be elected Speaker would require gathering cross-party support. Tory backbencher Nicky Morgan says: “We’ll see what happens when the vacancy arises. All I would say is in the same way that politics was ready for a second female prime minister, I think that the House of Commons is probably ready for a second female Speaker.”

Harman, for the meantime, will continue to chair the Joint Committee on Human Rights and be an effective backbencher. Though she scoffs at the notion of a surprise return to the Labour party’s top team, she says she is far from finished with politics.

“There’s also this thing about age and women. When you’re young, you’re distractingly pretty, you can’t be taken seriously. When you’re having your family, you’ve just got too much on your plate. And when you’re past 60 you’re past it. I think that somehow women have got to assert that at whatever age they’re at, they’re in their prime.

“And therefore, I am in my prime.”

If that is the case, why not have a crack at the Labour leadership? That laugh returns.

“Definitely not.”

---

Through perseverance, Harman and other leading politicians pushed through changes to parliament’s working patterns to make it more fit for modern times. But, as you might expect, there is still more to be done.

Harman is a vocal backer of proxy voting, which she says would be good for democracy. And she supports calls to end gendered terms in the Chamber. “All of these changes are big and little but together they amount to progress. Somebody might say ‘well, what does it matter to a woman working in a call centre in the north east whether we’re called honourable lady or honourable member or whatever’. But actually, it’s part and parcel of reflecting and pushing forward on the change,” she says.

Gone are the days of drunk MPs sitting through the night, swaying as they spoke in the Commons. Today there is greater understanding across the House for those members balancing family life with being a member of parliament, though the challenge of long distances still exists for many MPs.

But a new and serious challenge faced by the modern-day crop is the abuse women face online, which Harman says is a “major issue”.

“You look at the number of women on all sides where there is serious criminal activity levelled at them, we have to take that absolutely seriously, because that is a risk to them. That is a physical risk to them. It’s less than two years since Jo Cox was killed,” she says.

“The thing about it is it’s not just our obligation to protect those individual women, and I absolutely think that it shouldn’t be for them to be asking for support and protection, they should get it. But it’s a bigger thing, it’s about silencing women. That is very anti-democratic. The voters are paramount in this system. If the voters have chosen this person, whether they’re a man or a woman, they must be allowed to speak.”

Harman still remembers the weight of the doors when she entered the floor of the House of Commons for the first time. They’ve come to symbolise the struggle she and others faced in changing the institution itself and the lives of women outside the grandiose surroundings of the Palace of Westminster.

Has all the exertion been worth it? “Oh, totally, but you have got to have a lot of hindsight to see that. In the olden days, they used to talk about the struggle. And actually, it is a struggle,” Harman says.

“If you’re getting on a train and you want to be in two places at once – you want to be at home and you want to be at the National Labour Women’s conference in Blackpool – those are not the same place. You know everybody’s waiting to see you, and you know you’ve got little kids at home. It’s like being torn the whole time.

“But that’s what women all around the country are doing in trying to level that up. That’s why the role of men is so important, that’s why it’s so gratifying to me to see those voices in the House of Commons, men actually stepping forward into the family zone, as well as women stepping forward into men’s zone.”

Though the ink is not yet dry on Harriet Harman’s political history, and her story is not yet fully told, what does she see as her legacy?

She pauses. “I think that I was part of the winning the argument and getting to a position where we can now start to make that change. But there’s still a lot of argument ahead, so there’s no resting on laurels to be done. Yet.”