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9 April 2015updated 16 Dec 2015 4:17pm

Harriet Harman: “You can’t have social mobility if the rungs of the ladder are too wide”

The deputy Labour leader on feminism, Westminster and her party's chances in the general election.

By Stephen Bush

At the close of her 2014 Speakers’ Lecture on parliament and equality, 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, the Labour deputy leader’s tour was called Women to Women, 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.

When we meet, I assume that she’s tired of talking about it, but in fact it’s one of the things she’s keenest to discuss.

She tells me of a stop the bus made at a call centre in Cardiff 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 driver of the bus 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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One Labour MP reflected recently that “Harriet has ‘leaned in’ to the pink bus, and that has shut up the detractors.” But then, Harman was leaning in long before Sheryl Sandberg made it cool; when she was elected in a 1982 by-election she was just one of ten female Labour MPs. If Labour win a majority, she will be one of 141. She is, potentially, 50 days away from being the first female deputy prime minister.

Or is she? That same Speaker’s Lecture also drew headlines for her criticism of Gordon Brown for denying her the title of deputy prime minister that her male predecessor, John Prescott, had had under Tony Blair, and I wonder: will she insist on being given the title by Ed Miliband? “I’m now shadow deputy prime minister,” she says, “so it’s two steps forward, one step back.  Obviously I’ve reflected on the situation … but it is the prime minister’s fiat.”

In the recent debates over party reform, Harman’s hopes of codifying the need for a balanced ticket in terms of gender at the top of the party never came to fruition but she believes that “the Labour party, and that includes the members, the councillors and MPs, are now of the settled view that you have to have a balanced team.” In Scotland, the leadership of Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar, a female leader and a male deputy, has given way to another duo, of Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale. “I think that is quite integral to the party’s thinking, including Ed’s. It’s more of an expectation now, instead of a huge fight.”

When we speak, Harman has ahead one last “huge fight” with Nick Clegg at Deputy Prime Ministers’ Questions. She is one of the party’s happy warriors, who certainly doesn’t have any time for trying to cosy up to the coalition’s junior partners. One particularly bruising encounter – for Clegg, at least – saw the deputy prime minister embarrassed over his failure to promote a single woman to the Cabinet table. Harman assures me that she’ll be similarly hard on the Liberal Democrat leader this time. But I wonder: isn’t there a chance that this is the wrong note, that Labour looks dangerously tribal in a time of increasingly pluralistic politics; a BBC party in the age of Netflix? Harman’s not convinced: “[The question] of who is in Number 10 and who is leading the government, of who is the prime minister and what are their values … there’s nothing pluralistic about that.” 

As for the idea that Labour is out of touch, for Harman, who has been a candidate at every election since 1983, it doesn’t quite feel like that this time.

“I remember the elections in ‘83 and ’87,” she says, “where people were really hostile to Labour all around the country … And then in 92 there was that thing where people wouldn’t look at you,” she pauses, “and all the opinion polls were saying Labour’s going to win, and they just won’t look at you and you just think: oh, it doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to.”

The problem now, she tells me, is that “people feel they’ve sort of got a wider choice, but the gap between the choice they make and who is prime minister doesn’t feel straightforward. And the paradox, you know, is if some young person thinks that they’re more left-wing than right and hates the Tory government, is living in a Labour-Tory marginal but thinks they’re going to vote Green, well…”

One of the problems with the collapse in trust in politicians after the expenses scandal and the financial crisis, Harman argues, is that the “lack of connection” means people are being “more near-faced about their vote rather than who’s going to be prime minister and the impact that is going to have on their lives.”  Out in the pink bus, Harman has seen more of that than many of her colleagues. That might be one reason why she’s less invested than many others in further conversations about the party’s processes. “I think it’s the sort of thing where nobody goes like: ‘Yay! We’re going to embark on a consultation and have a special conference’. Nobody joined the party for that. However, it did make people feel uncomfortable at certain points that there was an election and some people had four votes and some people had only one vote, while some people from the trade unions could [vote] even though they were members of a different party. It’s like house-cleaning, in that it was important to get it right and was worth doing.”

But I wonder: if, as feels distinctly possible, Labour finish second either in votes, seats or both, wouldn’t a Labour-dominated government only make the public disconnect with the voters even worse? Could the party possibly take office in those circumstances? “This is a huge hobby horse for me,” Harman tells me. “You’re going to regret asking me this question. People glibly say the electoral system favours Labour. It absolutely doesn’t. It is against Labour, in an entrenched way.”

It comes down to the tricky question of electoral registration – made even more difficult by the coalition’s changes to voter registration. “The thing about the electoral register is twofold. It’s not just about who can vote, it’s about where the boundaries of constituencies are,” she explains. “At the moment, the Electoral Commission says that about three to four million people are not registered to vote, and the characteristics are absolutely clear … If you’re white, over fifty, own your own home and don’t live in a city, you will be registered to vote. And one of the things I’ve found in by-elections in Tory seats is that behind every single door there’s a person that’s registered.” However, in Labour strongholds, it’s quite the reverse: “Every fourth door, there’s someone who isn’t registered. Because the people who are least likely to be registered are young, renting, BAME and living in a city. And if the electoral register properly reflected that we would have eight more seats in London.”

“We should never take the voters for granted,” she adds, “but they’d more likely be Labour. There’s an assumption that there’s a higher turnout in marginal seats, but actually the correlation is class. If you have a rock-solid Tory seat you still have a high turnout because people are on the register and they still vote. But if you have a hard-pressed inner city constituency people are less likely to vote.” So, she concludes, “If we have the largest number of seats – if we don’t have an overall majority, that is – we will actually be representing millions of people who are not on the register, whose constituencies don’t even exist and who won’t have voted. So I don’t buy the argument that we would lack legitimacy.” The electoral system, Harman believes, is “undemocratic, but not in a random way.  It’s in an unequal way in terms of ethnicity, in terms of socio-economic class.”

It feels like an unconscious rebuke to the people who say that Labour’s deputy leader’s brand of feminism is too middle-class, something I put to her.

“One of the things that has always beset struggles for social justice,” she responds, “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.”

“In the distant past,” she recalls, “some men in the Labour party who didn’t agree with women’s rights criticized 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. You don’t want one bit of inequality set against the other. You need to work on all of them.” When Harman was a newly-qualified lawyer, “Chambers could advertise that ‘the right man’ would be from a public school”. “The fact that this was a middle-class job didn’t make that alright.”

“The agenda of using the power of public policy to make things more equal is not about telling people how to make people better,” Harman argues, but about changing people’s lives for the better. The Act, she says, is “fundamental to why people are in the Labour party, why people support the Labour party”. Culture is shifted by legislation, and representation too. “It’s not just territorial,” she argues, “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.’”

That’s why, she says, Labour must do more to get people from different backgrounds into parliament. “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.” She talks about Naz Shah, Labour’s candidate in Bradford West, who overcame a difficult childhood and the imprisonment of her mother to become Labour’s standard-bearer. “She will represent not just the people in her constituency but all the people who feel they’ve had an absolutely terrible time and want somebody to fight for them.” That’s why it’s important, she says, in a self-deprecating tone, “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!”

But sometimes a lawyer, and the big clunking fist of top-down legislation, is required. When Harman first entered politics, the divisions were larger and the disagreements more overt. “We’ve definitely moved from a situation where people would be outright discriminatory, you know?” She recalls explicit arguments, such as: “’We are not going to have a woman in this job because we’ve already got a woman in this company and if we had another one they’d only fight’”. These days, “you get verbal agreement but passive resistance to change, and generally speaking, it’s easier to agree to an ideology of equality than be prepared to make the changes that are necessary”. The Equality Act, Harman explains, was designed to break down that passive resistance. Harman describes how, under the last government, the arguments changed. “The gender pay gap’s a terrible thing, but it’s not like that in our company, we’re fair. In our hospital trust, we’re fair.”

“You have to see what is going on,” Harman argues, “to be able to say actually it is unfair in this company, in this housing association, or this hospital trust.” The Act did that, but, she says ruefully, “then we lost”. It meant that the requirements on pay transparency – which were meant to transition from voluntary to mandatory disclosure after a short period – have been largely forgotten, while the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has been “completely damped down”. “I mean, have you heard anything from them since we left [office]?”

Also mothballed was clause one of the Equality Act, which focused on narrowing the gap between the top and the bottom, the importance of which, Harman says, comes because “if the rungs of the ladder are hugely apart” – she sketches a ladder on a piece of paper – “and if you’re a child here” – she makes a mark, “the gap is too large. You can’t have social mobility if the rungs of the ladder are too wide”.

“I want us to get back in again and implement clause one and really implement the Act,” she says. It seems as a good a reason as any to climb aboard that pink bus. 

This interview originally appeared in the Fabian Review.

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