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24 March 2015

Harriet Harman hits out at the left’s “politically correct“ anti-feminist arguments

Harriet Harman on the pink bus, Labour's diversity problem, and whether or not feminism is too middle-class nowadays.

By Stephen Bush

At the close of her Speakers’ Lecture, Harriet Harman reflected on the furore over Beyoncé Knowles’ I Am Mrs Carter tour. “This is highly relevant to me because, like Beyoncé, I too am going on tour in the New Year – my general election tour 2015. Like Beyoncé I’ve been thinking about what to call my nationwide tour. If anyone here’s got suggestions, please do let me know. But I think it is unlikely to be ‘I am Mrs Dromey’.”

In the end, Labour’s deputy leader’s tour was called Women2Women, but it was the colour of the campaign’s battle bus – a patronising pink or a One Nation magenta, depending on your perspective – that made the headlines.

I assume that she’s tired of talking about it, but it’s one of the things she’s keenest to talk about.

She tells me of a stop the bus made in Cardiff, to a call centre where one woman and her husband “wanted another baby, but they just couldn’t work out the logistics to have another child and keep both their jobs, and there was another woman who couldn’t take a promotion because of the cost of childcare”.

And she recalls an encounter between the bus driver and a tollbooth operator, who leaned over and said, “by the way, I think the bus is a brilliant idea”. Harman smiles. “That is a connection between that woman and politics. The pink bus is a strong message and the magic of it is that women know when it comes to the pink bus they are not a marginal afterthought. They are central – it is about them.”

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More than any other current Labour politician, Harman’s political career has been “about women”. On the way, she’s transformed the Labour party and politics, more generally. One female MP reflects: “I don’t share much of Harriet’s politics, but if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here.” When she was elected – in a by-election in 1982 – she was just one of ten Labour MPs. If Labour win a majority, she will be one of 141, and she’s done more than any other single politician to make that happen. 

But not everyone is so sold on Labour’s deputy leader or the brand of feminism with which she has become identified. In an interview with the New Statesman yesterday, the Labour backbencher Simon Danczuk warned that the party’s obsession with gender diversity was coming at the expense of working-class representation. Another Labour MP, a female frontbencher, tells the New Statesman: “A lot of the feminist debate in the UK is middle-class, when actually we forget in Labour that there is strong a history in [working-class] women’s solidarity. They took punches for the blokes in the miners’ strikes. You don’t hear as much about that.” I wonder what she makes of it all.

“In the long distant past,” Harman responds, “Some men in the Labour party who didn’t agree with women’s rights criticised us saying we were all middle-class. It’s an accusation that originates with people who thought that it was a politically correct way to have a go at women, at feminism, and it’s a pity if any modern-day feminist goes along with an argument that is just anti-feminist.”

She tells me how, after she graduated, barristers’ chambers were allowed to say in job advertisements that “the right man would have gone to public school”. “The fact that this was a middle-class job,” she says, “didn’t make that all right.”

But, she says, that doesn’t mean that other types of diversity aren’t important, too. “Representation isn’t just territorial. When Bernie Grant came in [to Parliament] my constituents from an African background would look to him and think ‘Great. He’s speaking up for me.

So it’s important, she says, self-deprecatingly, “not just to have people who go to a great school, then go to university, then get a legal qualification, then go to work at a legal centre, then to the House of Commons – like me!”

She adds: “You want people like Ian Lavery in Wansbeck who used to work down a mine, you want people like Sharon Hodgson who use to work in a call centre, as well as people who used to work in the law and in business.”

But that doesn’t mean that she’ll be drawn into a fight over which type of representation is the biggest problem in modern life.

“One of the things that has always beset struggles for social justice,” she says, “is creating a hierarchy of inequalities, like: let’s decide whether it’s worse to be black or to be a woman. Actually there’s a range of ways you can have unequal life chances and we ought to be working to tackle all of those, not setting one against the other.”