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The Harriet Harman interview: "There are some things only women MPs can do"

The Harriet Harman interview: 'There are some things only women MPs can do'

(Image | Baldo Sciacca)

10 min read

As a feminist, minister, leader and Mother of the House, Harriet Harman’s 40 years in Parliament have seen her fight relentlessly for change for women. In her first print interview since the sudden death of her husband Jack Dromey, the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham outlines her plans to take her work global, and tells Kate Proctor how she is adjusting to a ‘new reality’ without her partner of five decades. Photography by Baldo Sciacca.

"There are some things only women MPs can do, and without women, they will not be done,” Harriet Harman says serenely from behind her round office table overlooking Parliament Square. Reaching for a photograph of Filipina senator Risa Hontiveros, she shows off an image of the politician touching the baby-bump of a female campaigner fighting for better maternity rights.

“Look at those women – smiles all around,” she says, intimating that a male politician in the Philippines, or indeed any country, may not have been able to have the same interaction.

Harman believes that globally women must take the lead on tackling issues that affect them as a gender, such as violence against women – because otherwise who will?

“They have to lead the drive for maternity rights,” she continues. “They have to lead the drive for economic equality for women.

“A lot of them face massive difficulties from their own families, from their community, from the establishment, but they’re absolutely determined… But they don’t have the global networks that men do”.

Sounding as passionate as ever about her life’s work - the championing of women in Parliament politics and society - Harman, 71, is about to start focusing on feminism from an international perspective. She will be taking testimony from 50 female politicians from around the world – Australia, Nepal, Ireland, Jamaica to name a few – in order to delve into their experiences in their own parliaments. She wants to hear their struggles, battles, tactics for female representation, and hopes the resulting research will form the basis of a book. This is a sizeable project to undertake as she prepares to stand down as an MP at the next general election, but she sounds fired up to get it completed. Already, she says she can see incredible similarities, between countries thousands of miles apart. Whether it’s a 25-year-old politician from Jamaica or a woman with 30 years’ experience in the Maldives, she says it is clear there is a “universality of our agenda”.

“If women left to their own devices, in every country in the world, come up with the same issues, we can’t all be wrong,” she adds triumphantly. “Actually we’re all right.”

Harman is focused and thoughtful when we meet in her office in Portcullis House, a wonderful, light space with impressive views over Parliament. Close by is the office of former prime minister Theresa May; the pair sparred for years as leader and shadow leader of the Commons, gaining a grudging respect for each other. Over Harman’s chair lies a green sash emblazoned with the slogan “100 years of women voting,” and in the corner is a wooden plaque from female politicians from Cameroon who attended her pre-pandemic Women MPs of The World Conference held in Parliament. She is also wearing green today, saying she wanted to wear something a little brighter than she has recently...

A few weeks ago, Harman suffered a catastrophic personal tragedy with the sudden death of her husband and partner of 47 years, Jack Dromey, a celebrated trade unionist and latterly the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington. His passing on 7 January from heart failure sent shockwaves through Westminster; warm tributes were paid from across the House. Harman says it was heart-warming to see the sheer volume of tributes, which came as a comfort to their three grown-up children. We will return to this later in the interview.

Looking through the window, and across to Parliament, I ask what still frustrates her about how women’s rights are dealt with generally, and the working conditions for women MPs in this country.

Bluntly, everything takes too long, and women are still told to “watch their tone”, she responds.

The introduction of proxy voting in 2020, for example, came after a decades-long campaign. She hits out at the “passive resistance” of male politicians who need to go further than merely saying they agree with a policy change. Their inaction can be a barrier, she believes.

Mainly, though, it’s a question of speed. “I want the time to be concertinaed between when you make the argument, win the argument, nobody will disagree with the argument and you end up with change,” she says.

She is angry at how former health secretary Matt Hancock told shadow minister Rosena Allin-Khan to consider her tone in the Commons in 2020. New Health Secretary Sajid Javid has also told Allin-Khan she has misjudged the “tone of the House”.

It’s illuminating, because underneath, that is really [saying] ‘you shouldn’t be speaking at all, please speak only with our permission.

“This is men telling women how women should speak. It’s illuminating, because underneath, that is really [saying] ‘you shouldn’t be speaking at all, please speak only with our permission,’” she says.

Harman is thankful however that in 2022 violence against women and girls is now an absolute priority. And that male MPs can utter words like “menopause” and “periods” in the Chamber without embarrassment, making it easier to discuss women’s health. 

The current debate about trans rights was foreseen, she claims, when as women and equalities minister she co-authored the landmark Equalities Act back in 2010, alongside then-solicitor general, Vera Baird.

“All those discussions about discrimination against trans women and men and the interaction with single-sex services were all envisaged,” she said.

Equalities is about achieving a balance, she says, and this can be hugely challenging. “For example because of the idea of protection of freedom of religion, religions are allowed to discriminate on grounds of sex. You’re not forced to have a woman in all religions, with equal access [as] men.”

She regrets that the row around women and trans rights has taken a “toxic” turn.  A current flash point is concern over discrimination against trans women on the grounds of sex in specific settings such as a domestic violence refuges or rape crisis centres.

Harman says the Equality Act ensures there is no blanket ban on trans women accessing services, but there are circumstances in which single sex-services may exclude some individuals, and she thinks this is right.

“The fundamentals of the Gender Recognition Act (2004), and the Equality Act (2010), remain sound – that you should protect trans people from discrimination, and transphobia, but you should also have exceptions, which are able to be used but on a narrow basis, not on a blanket basis.”

Harman says Scotland, which is moving faster than England over what the exact process for gender recognition should be, will provide helpful context to some of the debate, and she also anticipates court cases over access to single-sex services.

Turning to the departure of first female Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who resigned in February after a perceived inability to reform the culture of the force, Harman says she simply wasn’t the right person to lead change.

Dick had “shown herself to be someone who was defending the organisation, even including defending the indefensible”, Harman adds.

“Given the circumstances, it would be very disappointing if the new appointment doesn’t mark a major step forward.”

 Harman talks about her late husband with affection. The many mourners at his funeral included former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, with the latter giving a Bible reading. Particularly striking was the outpouring of sorrow and respect from Conservatives. Pensions minister Guy Opperman said he was bereft at Dromey’s death, writing: “It was an honour to know him, and we are poorer for his loss.”

Harman says: “I knew what good relations he had with everybody because it was sometimes quite hard to get home after a vote, because we were walking along a corridor, and Jack would have to have about 20 conversations with people!

“It was really heart-warming to see how incredibly supportive and nice people were, and very comforting for the children to see that.”

As well as a huge number of successful trade union campaigns, Dromey was a champion of women in the workplace throughout his life – and this started at home, she says. When Harman was elected at the 1982 Peckham by-election, she was pregnant with her first child, Harry, and the pair went on to have another son, Joe, and a daughter, Amy, within her first five years in office. With his constant support and encouragement, she became a secretary of state and deputy leader of the Labour Party, later serving as acting leader between the departure of Ed Miliband and election of Jeremy Corbyn.

It was really heart-warming to see how incredibly supportive and nice people were, and very comforting for the children to see that.

She says Dromey used to give a “two-fold strong message” to the children. It was “what a great mother you’ve got” and “what marvellous things she’s doing at work”.

“Even when there wasn’t much evidence of either to reinforce that – there was always an upbeat message!” she says.

“It must be very difficult to be a woman MP if you feel you’ve not got the support of your own children. If your children don’t feel it’s a good thing then you are bound to have doubts as to whether to carry on doing it, but the propaganda at home was full on. All the time,” she says smiling.

“It helped them think it was as things should be.” 

Harman says she regrets that she cannot discuss with Dromey the political events of the last few weeks, and misses the constant political conversations they had, dating back to the 1970s.

“You know, Jack and I politically had kind of grown up together. So, I want to be discussing Ukraine with him. There’s a whole load of things which have happened since he’s died that I can’t discuss with him anymore.

“Everything else that happened until the day he died… I know what he thought about, and we discussed them over the years, but there will be new things where he’s not around to be discussing them with me.”

As we leave her office to head to Parliament’s terrace she points out that the office next door to hers was Dromey’s. The lights are off and his name plate has been removed. It’s incredibly sad and must be difficult to walk past every day.

On life now without her partner, Harman says she still doesn’t recognise her “new reality”. She says several times during our discussion that she is now a woman without a man, but that she is not alone. With three children and five grandchildren, and a lifetime in the Labour Party, she is surrounded by people.

“My mum lived til she was 100, so I might have another 30 years. So I’ve got to be advancing into this new scenario.

“The other thing is that when I first got together with Jack, it was in a context of society’s view that you had to have a man and if you didn’t… that was a disaster.

“And if you were a widow, that was terrible, because you didn’t have a man and your life was over.

“I’m now emerging as a woman without a man into a very different context. We don’t buy that argument anymore that women’s lives are worthless because they’re not with a man. It’s not easy but I shall try and walk the talk.”

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