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Generation Game: Harriet Harman and Kim Leadbeater

7 min read

Elected almost four decades apart, Harriet Harman and Kim Leadbeater discuss what has changed and what has stayed the same for new female Labour MPs entering Parliament. Chaired by John Johnston.

Harriet Harman (HH): We were both [elected] in by-elections and it’s very different coming in as just one than coming in with 200 people. It’s a plus and it’s a minus. How did you feel when you swung open those doors and walked in with everybody watching on both sides?

Kim Leadbeater (KL): I think there are not many good things about by-elections but one of the good things when you come in on your own is that I felt very well looked after. Both within the Labour Party and I’ve actually felt very well looked after within the House, I had a very warm welcome. But it’s hard not to be intimidated by this place... I’ve been here on numerous occasions with the Jo Cox Foundation and I’ve been here when [her sister] Jo was an MP so I wasn’t too intimidated. When you enter the chamber and it’s full, the noise, the atmosphere, it is an intense place to be. But I’ve got a job to do, and I’m really clear that I need to crack on and get stuff done.

HH: I’m glad you felt supported when you arrived, because when I arrived it was sort of expected that you stand on your own two feet and learn by being knocked down. There was a bit of, “What’s she doing here as a woman anyways?” Especially somebody who is having children, she should be home looking after the children. I think to that extent it has changed but I still remember that moment where those doors swung open and I went in. It is the weirdest experience because it is so packed and so loud.

I was regarded as setting a bad example, especially to other women

KL: So you had a very different experience?

HH: Yes, and [when she was elected in 1982] it was an overwhelmingly Conservative-dominated chamber, which unfortunately, we are back to the future with. Most of the men in the chamber felt that their wives were at home to support them, and that I [was] setting a bad example, because actually they didn’t want their wives to be thinking that they could be going out and doing things. I was regarded as setting a bad example, especially to other women. What was it like giving your maiden speech?”

KL: It was really emotional. I was very nervous.

HH: But you held it together completely. Not a waver in your voice.

KL: Some people don’t think I get nervous, but I get really nervous. But I think because of everything that has happened in the last five years [the murder of her sister], I always tend to think, what’s the worst that could happen? And the worst thing did happen to us. If I stand up and say it wrong or get it wrong it really doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things, and I think that must give you an inner subconscious confidence to do stuff. My life has been changed forever, so the other stuff doesn’t matter in the same way.

HH: But you always sound like what you’re saying is the absolute opposite of reading out some script that someone else has given you. You know why you’re saying it and that’s another thing that gives you confidence, doesn’t it?

KL: That’s true and that confidence comes from saying things that you believe in, and everything I said in my maiden speech and all the occasions I’ve spoken has come from my heart.

HH: I think there is much more recognition now, that, actually – and it’s an overused word – but what matters is authenticity. When I first came in you had to be an expert in rhetoric. From the Tory side it was the rhetoric of the public school debating society, and from Labour it was the platforms of trade union conferences, but there was an expectation you’d conform to a certain sort of rhetoric. I didn’t conform to that rhetoric and I think the House loses out when everybody’s behind this mask and veil of formulation. I think it’s more authentic now.

KL: One of the main things that people have said to me, and continue to say to me, friends, family, constituents, is don’t change, whatever you do just don’t change. There is an advantage of coming in at 45 rather than 25 because there would be very different pressures to fit in and change. And even then I feel maybe shouldn’t speak with such a broad Yorkshire accent. I used to say to Jo when she was asking a question, why are you speaking like that? Where did that voice come from? [laughs] But equally you do have to be understood. But I’m sort of pushing back against that pressure to conform because I don’t want to conform.

John Johnston (JJ): Harriet, what is the one bit of advice you’d give to Kim that you wish you’d been told when you first arrived?

HH: I think my advice is not to take advice from people who were first elected in [the 1980s]! Everything is different, and you’ve got to make your own way. Sometimes I come across people, and I hear one who’s been here a bit longer than someone else telling them “do this, do that”, and I always intervene and say “don’t tell them what to do”. Just let them get on with it. If you are thinking all the time about what rules you might be breaking, it cramps your style. My advice would be to do what you came here to do.

KL: Oh no, I definitely want as much advice as I can get!

HH: I don’t agree with mentoring. I don’t want anyone to try and do what I’ve done because that was relevant to me then and it’s not relevant to you now. So I would be your own mentor and let your mum and your constituents be your mentors – they are the experts.

KL: That’s really lovely advice and really good advice. I probably slightly disagree on the last point as there are lots of people down here who I hugely admire and I am really open to learning from people who’ve done this job.

JJ: And what about the one thing you did when you first arrived that you’d absolutely not advise Kim to do?

HH: “Not speaking to Conservatives. I had such a hatred of everything Margaret Thatcher was doing, people were literally dying on hospital waiting lists as they cut the money to the NHS – and that will start happening again, without a doubt – that I just didn’t think my constituents would want me talking to Conservatives. But actually there are things you can work on cross-party and make a difference. But I don’t need to advise you on that because it’s already part of your USP to work out where you can make a difference and just reach out.

KL: There are some issues that transcend party politics. The example of Jo’s work on loneliness was one of those issues. Same with women’s equality. The female Conservative MPs feel as strongly as we do about it. So there are issues you can cut through the differences and still make an impact. What annoys me is people don’t see the stuff behind the scenes... where there is cross party work. It doesn’t get covered because it’s not juicy or exciting. All they see if the divisions and the conflict... People don’t want to see us fighting all the time and not listening to what each other is saying. People hate it. Maybe a few like it, or it might be a bit of entertainment, but actually what does it achieve? It doesn’t achieve anything in terms of changing people’s lives.

JJ: That was really interesting. Thanks so much.

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