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Tribute to Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson: 9 May 1936 – 15 June 2023 | Alamy

4 min read

Both an extraordinary talent of stage and screen, and an outstanding and independent MP, Glenda Jackson was fearless and beholden to no-one

Long before I met Glenda Jackson, when she was a Labour activist and then a parliamentary candidate, I was – along with most women of my generation – in awe of her. We’d all seen Women in Love. She was the icon as a woman in the public eye and as a stunningly talented actress. She was completely different from the stereotypical actress star at the time. She radiated a sense of independence and spoke out fearlessly. She was her own woman, beholden to no-one and certainly not there at the behest of men. And that was as thrilling as it was unusual in those days.

That was at the time when, in Labour politics, women were demanding their place in Parliament and Labour was establishing itself as the party of the arts and culture. At that time New Labour, under Tony Blair’s leadership, was rapidly gaining ground and one of our pledges (inherited from when Neil Kinnock was leader) was a massive boost for the arts with tax credits for films and significant funding for the Arts Council. Glenda, who was highly political and firmly on the left, exemplified the new strand of feminism in the party, Labour’s strong identification with the artistic community and our big ambition for the future of the arts. 

She was also part of New Labour’s reach beyond our traditional heartlands and our appeal to the progressive “cultural intelligentsia”. So she was the perfect candidate to fight the North London constituency of Hampstead and Highgate. It had areas of great wealth but also real poverty and had been held by the Tories for many years. It was a huge and symbolic moment for us when, in 1992, she took the seat for Labour from the Tories, narrowly beating their candidate Oliver Letwin.

Her constituents were thrilled with her: both those whose struggle she spoke up for, and those in the better off areas.

She was tough and outspoken but her absolute soft spot was for her beloved son Dan

As one of only a small number of female MPs – women made up only 13 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party at that time – and with London still dominated by the Tories she never was, nor sought to be, an “insider” in Parliament. She was an outstanding and independent figure.

She brought every bit as much passion to her politics as she did to her acting and was a star in the PLP as we grew in strength and then swept into government in 1997. And she later became a transport minister.

Having seen her sensational acting in the role of Bernarda in the TV broadcast of The House of Bernarda Alba I once asked her why, with such a unique talent, she wanted to give it all up and come into Parliament. She said she felt that there were too few acting roles for older women (she was 55 when she was first elected to Parliament) so she felt her work would soon dry up.

But when, in 2015, she retired from Parliament at the age of 78, she confounded her own prediction and blazed a new trail for older actresses starring as King Lear at The Old Vic and winning a Tony Award in 2018 for her performance in Three Tall Women. She showed that despite the ageism and sexism prevalent in the theatre and film industries, her extraordinary talent meant she would once again be a star of stage and screen.

She was tough and outspoken but her absolute soft spot was for her beloved son Dan Hodges of whom she was so proud. No doubt he was hugely proud of her – as we all were.

Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Mother of the House

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