A Woman’s Work- Harriet Harman

You don’t have to be a fan of political memoirs to enjoy this very readable account of img_0952Harriet Harman’s life in politics. The book takes us from her early engagement as a radical lawyer working for the National Council for Civil Liberties, to her arrival in Westminster as Labour member for Peckham in 1982 and her subsequent career in parliament during a period of over 30 years. She comes across as a dogged and hardworking politician, very focused on improving the lives of working women, while at the same time bringing up her own family of 3 children.  We are left in no doubt as to the struggle involved in her achievements: Harriet Harman is refreshingly open and straightforward about her own steep learning curve, but also points out that in 1982 with only 17 women MPs parliament was very much a male preserve. In tracing her career path the book charts the progress made in terms of greater equality for women in the last 40 years- as well as, inevitably, the changing fortunes of the Labour Party.

The chapters on the years before 1982 are a great reminder for the reader of the heady radical days of the 70s. Qualifying as a solicitor, Harriet Harman worked at Brent Law Centre and then as legal officer for the NCCL. The Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act came into force in 1976 and there were several key industrial disputes arising from this legislation- Trico, Grunwick, the Kynoch munitions factory- where she represented women workers now determined to claim their rights. At the same time Harman became involved in the Women’s Movement and she outlines the different strands of this movement, conveying as she does so the excitement and energy engendered by new thinking about relationships between women and between women and men.

As a Labour party activist, Harman was aware of the lack of women in parliament and with the support of her husband Jack Dromey and women friends like Patricia Hewitt put herself forward as the Labour party’s candidate for Peckham. She was selected  to take over from Harry Lamborn when he retired, but due to his sudden death became the candidate sooner than expected, and then, winning the by election, was elected to parliament in 1982. She had several immediate challenges: the small number of women in parliament and the struggle to be taken seriously by parliament and the press, the urgent need to redress the effects of swingeing Tory cuts in her constituency, particularly in relation to women, and the damaging effects of the far left within the Labour Party generally but specifically within her own constituency Labour Party. The first challenge she addressed immediately by forming the Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Committee to provide a forum where women MPs could work collectively on women’s issues.  In the face of criticism and belittling from the press in response to the issues she was campaigning on -the  ‘women’s issues’ of childcare, maternity rights,domestic violence- she turned to the local press and radio, never missing an opportunity for an interview, and began to get her message across and win support from the electorate. And having her own 3 children during the 80s she challenged the old boys’ club ethos at Westminster by providing a very visible image of a new kind of woman, that of the working mother.

Harman was given her first job in the Shadow Cabinet by John Smith in 1992 when she became Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and deputy to the new Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Her account of these years in the Shadow Cabinet leading up to Labour’s election win in 1997 give us a fascinating insight into the development of New Labour away from the destructive internal party strife of the 80s into the new dawn of a modernising party embracing economic growth. Harman worked on the development of Labour’s policy on low pay during these years, negotiating between the needs of small businesses on the one hand and the resistance of the unions on the other, eventually leading to the Low Pay Commission. And of course, as women were amongst the lowest paid workers in most sectors, her own agenda, improving the lives of working women, was also being tackled in this role. This section is also interesting for her account of the personalities of the time: she acknowledges the importance of Blair’s support for her on equal pay by saying ‘there was no  one better to have on your side than Tony, and not just because he was Leader, but because he was clear in his arguments and not afraid to stand up to people when necessary.’  She also recounts the incredibly close, productive and creative relationship between Blair and Brown at the time: they were on the phone to one another several times a day, even interrupting family Sunday lunch to take a phone call from the other.

At the same time as campaigning to improve the lives of working women in her constituency and in the country, Harman fought to get more women into parliament throughout her political career. She persuaded Neil Kinnock to agree to having 3 women in his Shadow Cabinet and  campaigned tirelessly, against fierce opposition, for the introduction of All Women Shortlists in the selection of parliamentary candidates. This meant that when Labour came to power in 1997,  101 women Labour MPs took their seats in the House of Commons, some considerable advance on the 11 Labour MPs in 1982. For Harman, the aftermath of Labour’s victory was something of a poisoned chalice. She was given the role of Secretary of State for Social Security in Blair’s first government and is refreshingly honest about how different and difficult it was to be in government rather than opposition- to be in charge of a huge department and to be competing for resources with your fellow MPs with whom you’d previously felt solidarity. On top of this, she was forced to continue with cuts to lone parent benefits decided by the Tories, had difficulties working with MP Frank Field and was eventually sacked by Tony Blair after just 15 months.

One of the many admirable qualities about our protagonist is the way she’s able to pick herself up after setbacks and carry on, aware that the fight for women’s equality needs to be fought regardless of any damage to her own ego. So after this demotion Harman embarked on a project I found one of the most interesting: to investigate the struggles of women trying to combine work and motherhood  in some of the lowest paying industries. Keen to extend her own profile beyond the Metropolitan South East, she travelled around the country interviewing women about their situation and found the inadequacy of affordable childcare a major hindrance to women returning to work. In many cases, grandparents were willing to care for grandchildren but could not afford to go part time and lose wages to do so. In her report ‘Mothers in Manufacturing’ Harman recommended that maternity leave should be extended to one year, maternity pay increased, that women should have the right to go back to work part time after maternity leave and that tax credits should be available to help pay relatives looking after children.Some of these demands were realised- in 2001 maternity leave was extended to 26 weeks and maternity pay increased to £100 per week.

After the Labour win in 2001, Harman was asked by Tony Blair to take on the job of Solicitor General and in this role she focused on improving the law to protect victims of domestic abuse as well as making the experience of the judicial process less daunting for women. She introduced training for judges and increased sentencing powers in criminal cases as well as changing the law to allow women to give evidence by video link. She challenged the existing law which allowed provocation as a defence to domestic homicide with the result that the victim’s infidelity can no longer be considered provocation sufficient for a perpetrator to avoid a murder charge.

After Blair stood down in 2007 and Gordon Brown took over as Leader of the Labour Party, it was suggested to Harman that she should run for Deputy Leader. At first reluctant to do so, still smarting from being sacked from Blair’s cabinet, she eventually agreed and was duly elected. However Gordon Brown did not appoint her Deputy Prime Minister, later creating a new post for Peter Mandelson instead as First Secretary of State. Was he giving Harman a mixed message about his assessment of her capabilities or was it a more general reluctance to have a woman in the role of Deputy Prime Minister? In her reflections she regrets not having challenged him on it, not least for the sake of setting a precedent for future generations. Harman comes over nevertheless as fair in her account of Gordon Brown, describing him as a brilliant and hardworking politician with a great mind and fantastic overview of the economy, not just on a national but on a global level. However he was not easy to work with on a day to day practical level, cancelling meetings and being unavailable. Like many commentators she regretted his decision not to call a general election in 2007 which would have given him a proper mandate.

After Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election, Harriet Harman became Leader of the Opposition. She takes great pains to acknowledge the huge support of her advisers Anna Healy and Ayesha Hazarika and all the team which Anna Healy assembled for her to work in this role. Again, Harman is frank about the ‘vertical learning curve’ she felt she was on but also the general state of demoralisation throughout the party at their defeat. She is interesting on the election of the new party leader in September 2010, not hiding her shock at Ed Miliband entering the leadership contest and challenging his brother, David: I was amused to read she had the same reaction as I did at the time: ‘which one was their mother going to support?’. She also acknowledges with gratitude that many people afterwards regretted that she had not stood herself, but reflects that the ‘decades of denigration at the hands of the press had taken their toll’- she thought she’d done a good job as acting Leader but was not up to being party Leader.

Back in her role as Deputy Leader, Harman carried on her work for women, setting up Labour’s Commission for Older Women and more recently taking part in a British Council exchange between MPs internationally. In her exchange with Tanzanian MP Monica Mbega she learned that however tough her work was as a constituency MP in Peckham, this was as nothing compared with the demands made on Monica Mbega in representing her constituents.

Written in an open and personal style, Harriet Harman comes over at times in this book as an ordinary woman just like you and me. She hits the right note in how much she refers to her family life, talking about the stress of constantly juggling responsibilities, the sheer exhaustion and the real longing to be able to spend more time with your children, familiar to every working mother. She is open about her feelings on defeat and generous in her gratitude to women friends and family for their support in getting her back on her feet. I was interested in her discomfort with the term ‘role model’ at the end of the book, for its connotations of individualism and conservatism. Personally I have no issue with the idea of role models, especially in these present worrying times when we could all do with some inspiration. Whether we call her a role model or not, Harriet Harman has certainly changed women’s lives for the better and this book is a great testimony to her achievements.


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