It does not make the job very appealing

Although my work focuses on education and technology, rather than party politics, the book I enjoyed reading the most last year was Harriet Harman’s biography [1], or more accurately her reflection on a career as a leading Labour politician in UK. The book is largely about being a woman in a man’s world. Harman was the first candidate to fight and win a by-election while pregnant and joined a House of Commons which was 97 per cent male. She went on to bring up three children while working all hours in Westminster and in her constituency.

Harman’s book is unusual in political memoirs as having a focus on women and the challenge of changing attitudes, not just by taking on the Conservative governments but also entrenched sexism in the Labour party. Although she achieved much in advancing women’s rights on a national stage, when just to be a committed constituency MP would have been an achievement in itself, what shines through is her vulnerability. In particular she was very firm in her feminist principles but acknowledged that she felt it much more difficult to stand up for herself than to stand up for others. She had to be persuaded to fight her constituency by-election in the first place and was worried in case her campaigns for more family friendly working hours in parliament might be seen as about her. Not surprisingly she needed encouragement to stand for leadership positions. The photo chosen for the book cover conveys this vulnerability well. It shows the young Labour candidate looking rather out of her depth, and this provides a sharp contrast to the conventional steely gaze on the dust jackets of most political biographies.

The book has been reviewed sympathetically. Interestingly these reviews have nearly always been written by women. McNicol [2] in particular provides a good description of the book and begins by saying that Harriet Harman ‘doesn’t make being a female MP sound very appealing’. In fact it does not make the job of an MP in general appealing and Harman was only ever able to go on and achieve what she did as she was part of a network of women who were determined to change the system. The surprise for me was that I had seen Harman as a rather inconsequential political figure, worthy but not very effective but I realized that I was reading this wrong. She was consistent and determined. She found the everyday sexism she encountered demoralising and at times it got through to her. She could have walked away. I had underestimated her leadership. She was offering a kind of servant leadership, though this is not a term she used herself. As a politician she put her ego backstage and tried to articulate the wishes of her network of women colleagues, it is a collective leadership though of course does not rule out standing up for your beliefs or making difficult decisions.

I was particularly interested in the early part of the book. She described her difficulties in fitting in at school (she went to a school which was academically very successful but was ‘carrying a smug sense of superiority’ quite out of tune with the changing times). She benefitted from the expansion of higher education in the 1960’s and went to York University where again she asked herself what she was doing there. In the reviews much is rightly made of a story she tells of a lecturer who, told her if she slept with him he’d make sure she got a 2.1. She turned him down and got a 2.1 anyway.

After university she found herself beginning legal training, encountering more sexism, and none of it making much sense. She started volunteering in her spare time in a legal rights centre in Brent, London. This was part of a network of centres offering legal advice and support for those who could not afford to pay for it. She found herself becoming involved with tenants associations, trade unions and radical lawyers. She felt at home and became committed to women’s rights and by extension to support for the Labour party. This led to working for the national Council for Civil Liberties, becoming deeply engaged with feminist politics.

Harman’s story of Labour in Parliament follows an arc that is well known to those following UK politics over the last 20 or 30 years. There was a right wing Prime Minister, Thatcher, opposed by a sectarian militancy that almost wrecked the Labour party. Next came the movement to make Labour more mainstream and electable. This was followed by three terms of successful labour government which only fell apart due to external events – the world financial crisis 2008 / 9. We now have had three conservative (led) governments and the unpicking of what Labour had achieved with the danger of left sectarianism re-emerging. There is a lot in this version of events but did Labour leaders like Harman end up losing the plot at least as far as their supporters were concerned? There are two events that stand out. The first was the Iraq war. Harman explains she supported the war on the grounds of there being weapons of mass destruction. She was wrong and the decision taken had tragic consequences for everybody concerned. Labour supporters and women became particularly critical of the decision, at least in its aftermath [3].

The second incident was local and purely symbolic. It was the decision she took as stand- in leader of the Labour party after the lost election of 2015 to have the party abstain on the conservative government’s welfare bill that included cuts to social security. To abstain on what was the first reading of a bill was not unusual and to vote against would have made no practical difference. However to Labour supporters it signalled that the party had lost focus in fighting the cause of the people they represented. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership contender that voted against the Bill and went on to win the Party leadership. It is difficult to comprehend why Harman had got this so wrong.

Harman’s book makes a timely contribution to the debate on gender and sexism, but I would recommend the book as much for its tone as for its content. She does that rare thing of showing modesty and humility at the same time as conviction and persistence. I would particularly recommend it to anyone not enjoying higher education or over committed to getting a ‘good degree’ as well. Looking at her account of volunteering in the Law Centre, she shows life will fall into place, you don’t need a first class degree to see it, just be alert enough to notice.

[1] Harman, H. (2017) A woman’s work London, Allen Lane.

[2] McNicol, J. (2017) The Angry Men, London Review of Books, 39, 24, 13-16

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n24/jean-mcnicol/the-angry-men

[3] Dahlgreen, W. (2015) Memories of Iraq: did we ever support the war?, You Gov   https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/06/03/remembering-iraq/

[4] Wintour, P. (2015) Anger after Harriet Harman says Labour will not vote against welfare bill, The Guardian, 12 July 2015

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/12/harman-labour-not-vote-against-welfare-bill-limit-child-tax-credits

 

 

One thought on “It does not make the job very appealing

  1. Thank you for prompting me to read the book, which is as much a manifesto as a memoir. She comes across as both vulnerable and determined and can certainly take justifiable pride in what she has achieved, despite her own admissions of a lack of assertiveness at key moments in her political career.

    Like

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