Wouldn’t politics be better if women were in charge?

16 May
Dan O'Brien and Harriet Harman

Dan O’Brien and Harriet Harman

Wouldn’t politics be better if women were in charge? I mean, not the present woman in charge – she’s awful. Or the one off of the eighties – not least because, in practical terms, that would involve a zombie leading a zombie party. But other women.

Think back to the 2015 general election, and the televised Leaders’ Debate.

David Cameron in an act of hubris didn’t even bother to turn up. (This hinted at the arrogance he’d display once he’d called an EU referendum rather than tackle disquiet in his own party which turned the country’s citizens against each other, and set the UK on a course for economic disaster, before announcing he didn’t want to clear up the giant can of racist worms in shit sauce he’d opened and strolled off to spent time in a £25,000 shed on wheels.)

Nigel Farage was there, because it was television and he’d been invited, and so was Ed Miliband, still in recovery from being hauled over the coals by political heavyweight and mansion tax opposer, Myleene Klass.

But it was the performance of the three female party leaders that gave me a warm glow. The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP managed to debate the NHS, the deficit, affordable housing, immigration, and Trident without going red in the face and getting spittle over each other.And when the 90 minute debate was over, they hugged. Remember that? They embraced each other. Then they all went over to say hi to Ed, who might have got a hug if he’d kept his This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt on, but he’d picked a sensible shirt and tie, so he had to settle for a businesslike handshake.

Now I don’t know whether that was stage managed. I like to think it happened spontaneously. But honestly, I welled up, because I could see a chance of a kinder, more respectful politics.

That whole moment was – arguably – made possible by Harriet Harman, and women like her. And Harriet has written a memoir called A Woman’s Work, which follows her own remarkable career from Women’s Movement agitator to almost-the-top-of-the-tree at the Labour Party.

In an hour long conversation with BBC Wiltshire political editor Dan O’Brien, Harriet talked about everyday sexism (her mum – who was training to be a solicitor – cooking both breakfast and an evening meal for her retired dad at the same time, because she’d be out later and it was the woman’s job to get tea on the table), finding the Labour Party through the Women’s Movement (“because the Labour Party is who you go to for change”) and becoming an MP while five months pregnant (it wasn’t supposed to be thus, but the incumbent died and a by-election was called. She and her husband hastily arranged a wedding because while an MP with a baby was controversial, an unmarried MP with baby would have been scandalous).

The interview was peppered with amusing anecdotes. I particularly liked the one where she’d taken her son to see a film at the cinema, choosing to keep a promise to him over an unscheduled debate about striking ambulance drivers. During the subsequent dressing down from her boss Robin Cook, she didn’t feel she could admit for being at the movies, so excused herself by insisting she had been “unavailable”. Reading this as a hint that she was having an affair, Cook relented. “Putting my kids first would be a sacking offence,” she said. “But having an affair? I was one of the club.”

During the 1980s and even into the 1990s, being an MP was still very much a male preserve. Despite having won the right to vote and stand for election in 1918 – an anniversary that has been rightly widely celebrated this year – by the early 80s women still only accounted for three percent of the membership of the House of Commons.

Of course, there was a women in charge. But Margaret Thatcher was “playing a man’s game by men’s rules – she wasn’t one of the Women’s Movement; she wasn’t about advancing women,” said Harriet.

Changes to Labour Party policy followed: a woman on every shortlist, shortlists of fifty percent women, and – just before the 1997 election – all-women shortlists in some constituencies. “Men (standing for selection) thought it was incredibly unfair,” she said.

Anyway, the policy led to the election of 100 female MPs, including Swindon South’s own Julia Drown. And how do we remember this “incredible group of women who fought their way in”? They’re called Blair’s Babes. “We looked like his backing group,” said Harriet, referring to the famous photograph with the victorious Cheshire Cat standing front and centre, “like we were there at the behest of men.”

Things are improving gradually: at the 2017 general election, 208 (or thirty-two percent) of MPs returned to Parliament were women, and Wiltshire has managed to return two women MPs: Claire Perry and Michelle Donelan. Even if they are in the ‘wrong party’.

“They are daughters of the Women’s Movement. It’s baffling to see these young women hanging out with me and they’re Conservatives. I do think they’re in the wrong party.”

Harriet was the first-ever minister for women, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and has twice served as the acting leader of the Labour Party and leader of the opposition: from May to September 2010, and from May to September 2015. As the longest continuously serving MP, she is known as the Mother of the House. Her name is mentioned whenever the subject of Speaker of the House of Commons crops up (which is with increasing regularity).

But it’s a source of shame to her that the Labour Party has not yet produced a woman leader, let alone a prime minster. The Tories have managed it twice. Even toxic-waste-dump-masquerading-as-a-political-party UKIP have blessed us with Diane James as leader – albeit for just 18 days (and this is, as I understand it, part of their egalitarian Every Party Member Gets a Go at Leadership policy).

So when will we see a woman leading Labour, a member of the audience asked? “Next time!” said Harriet, hastily adding that she didn’t think there would be a Labour Party leadership contest any time soon, and that the Conservatives would probably have one first.

“Forty three percent of Labour MPs are women, but it’s an embarrassment that the Tories have had two women leaders and we’ve had none,” she said.

“We need a mindset that we are going to have a woman next time. I do say to some of the men: ‘you’ve done fantastic speeches at the dispatch box, you’ve been on top of your brief, you’re really ambitious – you could be deputy.”

And she quoted Baroness Warsi (“also in the wrong party”): “It takes a remarkable man to be a leader, but it takes an even more remarkable man to support a woman leader.”

I was delighted by Harriet Harman. My only real disappointment was that I did not get to meet her, and get a book signed, and gush something daft like “I’m a big fan. I think you should be prime minister,” because she had to dash back to Parliament for a crucial vote on Brexit.

“Last night the House of Lords overturned the government so the government is springing back to the Commons today to put it right, and I have to get back to make sure they don’t put it right,” she said to applause and laughter. “I don’t want us to lose the vote by one because I was sitting on a train.”

Yes, she pulled no punches on Brexit. Responding to an audience member’s question about whether Brexit could be stopped, she said: “Sometimes I think it’s going to be so problematic in all aspects that I think surely we’re not going to do this to ourselves.

“I do think it’s a huge disaster, and what we are talking about is things that will make it less bad.”

And I must quickly mention the post-show Tweet from Sarah Church, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for South Swindon: “If I can be 1/10th the politician she is,” she wrote, “I’ll be happy. Parliamentary Pioneer!”

Words by Peter ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ Davison. Image © Fernando Bagué

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