It was quite an entrance that Harriet Harman made, wine glass in hand, at The Politics Festival 2017: “Jo Brand once told me that you should always be more drunk than your audience”, she teased us.
‘Mother of the House’ – i.e. the longest-serving female MP in Parliament – Harriet was at the Festival to promote her new book, ‘A Woman’s Work’. However, as her interviewer, the brilliant Radio 4 journalist Kirsty Lang, pointed out, we are living in such interesting times politically it was impossible to begin the interview without discussing the recent General Election result. What on earth, she asked Harriet, went wrong for Teresa May, whose star was in the ascendancy when she called the election? “To be frank, I over-estimated Theresa May and underestimated Jeremy Corbyn”, Harriet replied, going on to admit that when the election was called Labour was in a “crumpled heap” and that she and all of her colleagues were despondent about their chances. She believes that Theresa May “took the voters for granted” and in doing so made a huge political mistake – ultimately divesting herself of her own power.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, had “listened to his critics” pre-election and changed some of his behaviour – and the general public saw a different side to him. He was also helped by the Conservatives running such a bad election campaign; it was “incredibly bad judgement” on Theresa May’s part not to engage in any debates leading up to the Election, or to speak to journalists.
Can Theresa May survive this, politically, asked a curious Kirsty Lang? Harriet was uncertain, commenting that the country’s beleaguered PM is now a political hostage who remains in office purely because her party cannot agree on an alternative leader. Apparently, a number of Tory MPs are complaining bitterly (sometimes to their Labour counterparts!) that there has been no leadership contest – instead, what they got was a “coronation.” It puts Harriet in mind of that brief spell when Gordon Brown was PM – and as we all know, that did not end well.
Harriet described the election result for Labour as “progress”. She believes that the received wisdom that Labour cannot manage the economy is changing – and that it is entirely possible that Jeremy Corbyn will become Prime Minister; the Labour Party now believes that he is the right man to take them forward (“To the victor the spoils”). I should mention that at this point a number of incredulous sounds were emitted by various audience members – interesting, given that the audience predominantly comprised Labour supporters, union and student union representatives and journalists from The Guardian and The Observer, whose offices are located right next door to where this interview was taking place, in King’s Cross (itself a Labour heartland).
Harriet did admit, however, that when the results of that now-infamous 10pm opinion poll filtered through on the eve of the General Election, she could hardly believe them. At the time, she was at her 98 year-old mother’s home (“She’s a life-long Liberal Democrat supporter, would you believe?”), getting ready to drive over to her polling station. As we all now know, the opinion poll proved to be roughly accurate – and Harriet herself saw her majority increase to a whopping 36,000.
Moving away from the election result, and on to the subject of women in the House of Commons, Harriet had plenty to say – as you would expect, given that when she first entered the House of Commons there were more MPs with the name John than there were female MPs. Today, there are 208 female MPs, and the House feels like a very different place – although Harriet commented that the biggest sea change she experienced personally was when Tony Blair was elected PM in 1997 – alongside 100 female Labour MPs.
Whenever she feels herself getting frustrated about how slow women’s progress has been – not just in the House of Commons, but everywhere – she reminds herself how many more opportunities she’s been able to avail herself of than could her mother, Anna. This pioneering lady, who I would very much like to meet, actually gained a place at Oxford to read law, where she found herself one of just three female law graduates – who the criminal law tutor actually refused to teach, because he “couldn’t see the point”. Nonetheless, Anna went on to qualify as a barrister – a phenomenal achievement for a woman in the 1930s. Then, she got married – and, as was the way of the world back then, had to give up her career when she had children. Poignantly, Harriet remembers her and her sisters playing with their mother’s wig and gown – which were kept in their dressing up box.
Harriet describes herself as “demoralised” by the prospect of Brexit, having campaigned vigorously against it, even joining David Cameron on his “Remain” bus during the Referendum campaign. She does not, though, believe that a second referendum is a good idea, saying that she has reluctantly come to terms with the result of the first one and that we need to make the best of it. Slightly annoyingly, she refused to criticise Jeremy Corbyn’s “role” in the Referendum campaign (I’ve used speech marks around the word “role”, given that he more or less went AWOL while Labour was supposed to be campaigning for the ‘Remain’ vote). “That’s in the past, now”, Harriet cheerily informed us, to a few more incredulous noises from the audience.
How do you think historians will judge Brexit in 200 years’ time, asked Kirsty Lang? “David Cameron being reckless and lazy”, came the swift retort, with Harriet stating that it was a failed response at dealing with the Euro sceptics in his own party and the way in which UKIP was nibbling at his majority.
So, when will we have a female Labour prime minister? This is a subject about which Harriet feels very strongly, given that at one point in her career she was acting leader of the Labour Party. She says it is “downright embarrassing” that the Conservative Party has managed to produce two female prime ministers while Labour, the supposed party of equality”, has not managed to produce one. Harriet advocates positive action and believes that Labour needs to decide, now, that its next leader will – come what may – be a woman, supported by a male deputy: “It’s the only way forward.”
On the subject of “maternal guilt” (dreadful expression), Harriet was particularly eloquent – this is an issue which is close to her heart, given that she won her Peckham seat whilst expecting her first child. She admits to having spent a lot of time worrying that the naysayers were right and that she was “ruining her children’s lives”: this, despite a supportive husband who made a point, when Harriet was away from home, of telling their kids how their mother was “out making the world a better place.”
As for the other female MPs in the House of Commons, Harriet says that, in the past, she struggled to find any common ground with her Conservative counterparts, although she finds that the new generation are more inclined to share her feminist beliefs. She strongly objects to seeing female Tory MPs humiliated by the misogynists in their party or by social media trolls – freely admitting that plenty of the trolling comes from within the Labour Party. This is another issue very close to Harriet’s heart, and she has asked Jeremy Corbyn to implement a “one strike and you’re out” policy as regards the Labour trolls; free speech, Harriet says, should not be used to silence women.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s conversation between two women who have both been trailblazers in their professions. The world has moved on a great deal since they embarked upon their respective careers in the 1980s – and that is due in no small part to the roles that they have played. The world is still far from perfect, but great progress has been made – and for that we should all be thankful.