The Angry Men
- A Woman’s Work by Harriet Harman
Allen Lane, 405 pp, £20.00, February, ISBN 978 0 241 27494 1
- The Women Who Shaped Politics by Sophy Ridge
Coronet, 295 pp, £20.00, March, ISBN 978 1 4736 3876 1
Harriet Harman doesn’t make being a female MP sound very appealing. She was first elected in 1982, long before that distant nirvana of ‘fifteen, ten years ago’ described by Michael Fallon, when trying to touch up young female researchers, lobby correspondents or political activists was ‘acceptable’, just harmless ‘flirtation’. Some male MPs believe they still live in that era; while one insisted that it ‘absolutely does not constitute harassment’ to call your female assistant ‘sugar tits’ or to send her out to buy sex toys (one vibrator for your wife; one for a constituency employee), another admitted that sending ‘sexual chatter’ to a 19-year-old who wants to work for you isn’t appropriate, even though, strangely, you’ve found yourself sending such messages to more than one young woman.
This sort of thing isn’t worth making a fuss about, it’s argued, it’s not sexual assault, but Harman’s book makes clear how wearing and dispiriting it is to spend decades in a male-dominated environment where male primacy is continually and aggressively reasserted. ‘The law,’ she writes, ‘is now there to protect women’ – sexual harassment in the workplace is classed as a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act of 2010, the last piece of legislation she guided through the Commons – but she concedes that women are still unwilling to report it. Although she doesn’t mention this, the legislation isn’t comprehensive: it’s only workplace harassment that’s covered and not all sorts of work at that. Ironically, the House of Commons is one place where the legislation is ineffective. The women Stephen Crabb sent his texts to didn’t work for him, and so wouldn’t be covered; researchers and secretaries, like the woman Mark Garnier sent to the sex shop, work for individual MPs, not for Parliament: if they have a complaint, the Equality Act stipulates that it has to be taken up first with their employer, who’s quite possibly the culprit, before they can appeal to an employment tribunal (which has to be done within three months of the offence).
So, if you’re a researcher in the Commons, or a lobby journalist, or indeed an actress, who would you complain to? If you tell a senior party figure or your agent it seems they’ll say that it’s best to keep quiet about what happened if you want to have a career. It’s clear enough what you should do in more serious cases: sexual assault is a criminal offence and should be reported to the police, but that’s still not an easy thing to do, and conviction rates remain so low as a proportion of reported attacks and the whole process so difficult that you can see why some women might persuade themselves against it. It’s been argued that the proliferation of #MeToo accounts of harassment or assault over the past few weeks demonstrates that young women are no longer willing to put up with such behaviour, but most of them are describing things that happened to them months or years ago, that they didn’t report at the time or reported and were told to drop. It’s unclear whether their immediate response would be different now. It’s probably true that in most workplaces women, especially younger, confident, middle-class women, are more likely to make a formal complaint, but a TUC report last year found that 79 per cent of women didn’t report workplace harassment and of those who did the vast majority found that nothing changed or their position worsened. Maybe recent events really have altered what women are willing to put up with and men able to get away with, but what Harman calls the ‘pattern of impunity and abuse’ has been disrupted before, to little long-term effect.
Harman and her three sisters were born into an upper-middle-class London family: her father (whose sister, Elizabeth, became Lady Longford; Antonia Fraser is Harman’s cousin) was a doctor and her mother had qualified as a barrister, though she gave up work when she had children. Their four daughters were to be educated but marriageable; not too submissive or too assertive; and to be sure to avoid the fate of the ‘unmarried mother, condemned to have neither a husband nor a career’. Harman went to York University, which she didn’t enjoy much, and where, just before she sat finals, one of her tutors, T.V. Sathyamurthy, 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, but one of her friends, a girl from a working-class background with ‘all her family’s hopes … riding on her’, was too nervous to risk refusing him. ‘There wasn’t anyone to complain to,’ Harman says, ‘he’d only deny it, and though it was vile, it seemed to be just the way things were.’ She decided to become a lawyer (all her sisters did too) and got a job as an articled clerk at a firm of solicitors called Knapp-Fishers, where one of the partners, Roger Maddison, groped her when she was talking on the phone to a client. When she finished the call, he told her off for shrieking. Again, she didn’t tell anyone: ‘it never crossed my mind that complaining would do anything other than make things worse for me.’
In both cases Harman names the man responsible. Even forty-odd years later, this decision is striking: many of the stories that have emerged recently had already been told, but with the man’s name redacted, which seemed to reinforce their invulnerability, though one might sympathise with Rose McGowan’s remark that she hadn’t publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her because ‘I didn’t want his name next to mine in my obituary.’ Harman says she has never been propositioned or groped by another MP. Female MPs are probably less likely than junior, and usually younger, researchers and secretaries to experience sexual harassment, except in the form of fake jocular, know-your-place remarks of the sort made by Michael Fallon to Andrea Leadsom, or by David Davis of Diane Abbott.
In the 1979 general election, which brought the Conservatives to power under Margaret Thatcher – something Harman describes as an ‘excruciating blow’ – 19 women were elected, the lowest postwar figure aside from the 17 elected in 1951. Harman became the Labour parliamentary candidate for Peckham in 1982 and that summer got pregnant and got married, in that order, to the trade-union organiser Jack Dromey. Afterwards, when they were on holiday (‘we certainly never called it a “honeymoon”’), the sitting MP, Harry Lambourn, died. ‘There had never been a pregnant candidate in a general election before, let alone in the heightened atmosphere of a by-election.’ She writes that she ‘wavered’, but Dromey was ‘adamant’: she had to fight the election. This is the first of many occasions when she wants to resign but is persuaded against it by her husband. Dick Taverne, the SDP candidate and her main challenger, got his canvassers to say she wasn’t up to the job because she was pregnant. In her victory speech she criticised him for that, but one reason it upset her was that it played into her own fears that ‘my career would make me an unfit mother.’
She had three children in her first four years as an MP. She admits ‘she made heavy weather’ of her guilt about working when they were still babies, but feels it was hard for her because there was no one in the Commons to confide in: ‘I was very much the odd one out.’ Later, she did the things working women do to convince themselves they’re proper mothers: she made a cake every Friday, picked her children up from school one day a week, tried to make friends with the stay-at-home mothers who networked in the playground (she always turned up, she says, in tracksuit and trainers, to show she was ‘focused’ on the children), and tried not to cancel outings. One half-term she’d promised to take her son and his friend to the cinema when she was called into the Commons to deputise for her boss, Robin Cook, who was stuck in Edinburgh. She says it would have been easy enough to change her plans, but ‘my maternal self-esteem, precarious at the best of times, would have collapsed altogether if I turned into one of those parents who let their children down because of sudden work demands.’ She ignored the calls from Cook and the whips and went to the cinema. The boys hated the film: it was a documentary about bears, which were shown mating and then the mummy bear was killed by a boulder. ‘Both children were crying loudly as we made our way back to the car.’ By now, Cook’s messages had ‘descended into icy fury’ and she was summoned to his office. The only thing she could think of to say was: ‘I was not available.’ He took this as an admission she was having an affair and ‘positively beamed’ at her. She’s sure he’d have sacked her if she’d told him the truth.
Afterwards, she felt the whips were looking at her ‘with new and comradely approval’. She wasn’t used to being approved of by other Labour MPs and writes repeatedly of feeling lonely, isolated, alienated, an outsider, disliked and resented; she ‘fitted in nowhere’. None of the 11 female Labour MPs in 1982 ‘was, like me, a young feminist’. Her priorities weren’t theirs. ‘I was there,’ she writes, ‘for women, for social justice and to fight the Tory government.’ She puts ‘women’ first on this list, but although many of the Labour women MPs who preceded her had fought for equal pay, for child benefit to be paid to the mother, for pension rights for women and so on, they were often reluctant to be ‘cast in the feminist role’, as Barbara Castle put it. Class had always been the primary determinant of Labour Party policy: you improved the position of women by helping their class, and you did that chiefly by helping their fathers and husbands earn a decent ‘family wage’. Labour women MPs like Jennie Lee, first elected in a by-election in 1929, saw married women’s interests as subsumed in their husbands’ and working women’s interests as ‘sectional demands’: ‘We cannot ask for equal pay,’ she told Castle, ‘when the miners’ wages are so low.’ ‘In that case, we will wait for ever,’ Castle replied. Castle got equal pay and child benefit through the Commons in the 1970s, but continued to speak dismissively of ‘women’s affairs’ as ‘single-issue politics’. Few women MPs even in the 1980s shared Harman’s priorities. Clare Short, for example, elected as one of only ten female Labour MPs in the disastrous election of 1983, was not, Harman writes, an ‘avowed feminist … I felt that, for her, the only true struggle was against injustice based on class.’
One of the first things Harman did after she was elected was set up a Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Committee. She didn’t tell any of the senior figures in the PLP: ‘I didn’t know them and, anyway, they were all men and I wasn’t going to ask men if it was all right for us to meet together as women.’ The men ‘were annoyed with me, and that set the pattern for many years to come’. She wasn’t very impressed by the mostly male members of the press lobby either. Since they were unwilling to ‘report sensibly’ on ‘the women’s movement agenda I was in Parliament to pursue – the issues of childcare, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay and women’s representation’ – she took stories instead to the local press and the women’s pages and went on TV whenever she was asked. This didn’t make her popular with the lobby correspondents, neither did her publication of a gender breakdown of political editors and lobby correspondents; her lack of interest in going out for long liquid lunches or evening drinks didn’t help either. Harman says elsewhere that she wasn’t good at cultivating support, and you can see that she made it too easy for male MPs and journalists to see her as a target, as ‘standoffish’, as she puts it, posh and Southern and uninterested in the struggles of the working man, or as an ‘arrogant, icy airhead’ as she quotes the Independent saying of her. When she told the whips she had mastitis, it appeared in the papers the next day; one MP, probably in her own party, complained to the serjeant at arms that she’d taken her baby through the division lobby (she hadn’t); her attempts to end late-night sittings were thought merely self-interested – she was just lazy, and while as a London MP shorter hours would enable her to see her family, other MPs wouldn’t be so lucky – and male MPs resented her implicit criticism of the drinking that went on (the title of the paper she published on this, ‘Time, Gentlemen, Please’, wouldn’t have made them like her any better); her speeches were greeted with jeers and she was called a ‘stupid cow’ by Tony Marlow, one of John Major’s Maastricht rebels (there’s a video of this on YouTube: Marlow looks very pleased with himself, especially when he manages to repeat the remark after the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, asks him whether he’d used ‘unparliamentary language’). When the Commons started to be televised Harman was dismayed to see the Labour MPs behind her looking embarrassed during her speeches, or laughing at her with the Tories. She describes walking through a deserted House of Commons in 1986 and hearing the roars and groans of other MPs watching the World Cup. ‘Whatever grapevine got them all to the committee room, I was not on it.’ She thought often of giving up, ‘but Jack and my friends in the women’s movement refused to countenance it.’
Of course, a lot of the behaviour she describes is merely petty and silly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to deal with, day after day. Some sorts of exclusionary behaviour, especially barracking during speeches, were also aimed at men, especially, Clare Short told Sophy Ridge, those who were less confident, ‘particularly former miners’. Short, like many of the female MPs who came into Parliament before the Labour landslide of 1997, talks up her own ability to cope with the hostile atmosphere in the Commons. In The Women Who Shaped Politics, Ridge says there’s a clear divide between the pre-1997 women MPs who think women should be tough enough to cope with Parliament as it was then, and the more recent intake who think Parliament itself needs to change. She says Harman is an exception to that rule. There’s no doubt that Harman attracted abuse from all sides because she persisted in raising subjects that male MPs, and some female ones, thought trivial, even ridiculous: maternity leave, childcare, part-time work, domestic violence and so on. The first question she asked in the Commons was about provision for school holiday care. Thatcher replied condescendingly that this wasn’t a matter for government. You can see why many female MPs just found it easier to accept the male version of what was worth discussing. Harman writes that behaviour in the Commons is better than it used to be – partly because there’s less drinking – but the 1950s schoolboy sexism continues. Lisa Nandy, elected in 2010, was baffled when an SNP MP told her not to sit on the steps in a full House of Commons. ‘They’ll shout “knickers” at you,’ he said. Women coming into the Commons now often seem quite perplexed that masses of sniggering Tory MPs still say things like this. As well as constituting sexual harassment, which the same men are responsible for legislating against, it’s just weird. Harman’s self-protective way of dealing with it was to keep her distance from male MPs. Other female MPs have adopted a different approach. Barbara Castle wrote that Margaret Thatcher had ‘a mastery of the arts of femininity’, which she used to subdue her own party. Castle was interested in Thatcher, in the way she played a room, did her hair, dealt with the men around her. She even felt a ‘sneaking feminine pleasure’ when Thatcher won the Tory leadership. Harman would hate the idea of using her femininity in the way Thatcher or Castle did. But she felt the power of Thatcher’s personality, even as a malign force. One night, she had her baby son with her when she spotted the prime minister at the other end of a long corridor. ‘I couldn’t bear her eyes to fall on my perfect baby,’ she writes. ‘I pulled his blanket over his face to shield him from her gaze’ and dived into a side room.
In the 1987 election 41 women were elected, 21 of them Labour. For most of the decade from 1983 until 1992, when Neil Kinnock was party leader, the only female member of the shadow cabinet was Jo Richardson – as minister for women, inevitably. In 1990 the rules were changed: MPs now had to vote for at least three women in shadow cabinet elections. Harman says male MPs called this the Assisted Places Scheme and tried to sabotage it by spreading their votes so no woman would get a respectable number, or by deliberately voting for someone supposedly so hopeless that the scheme would be discredited. One woman who had votes ‘dumped’ on her was Mildred Gordon, who, Harman says, ‘had not particularly made her mark’ in Parliament. She was ‘nearly elected’ (this isn’t true: she got 45 votes; the last person to be elected, John Prescott, got 85; Harman got 68) and was ‘amazed and happy … that at last her talents had been recognised, while hostile MPs sniggered behind her back’. Four women got into the shadow cabinet, but not the ones who’d argued for the new system. Harman was conscious of the hostility directed at her; she felt that any time she ‘tripped up’ her fellow Labour MPs would be on her ‘like a pack of wolves’.
She’d also campaigned to increase the number of women MPs. She did one of the league tables she was so fond of (she’d commissioned tables on numbers of home helps by constituency and on hospital waiting lists for each specialism), showing how many Labour women MPs there were region by region. The results made her even less popular among ‘Labour men in the North, in Wales and in Scotland’. She says she ‘began to dread going in to vote, where groups of my male colleagues would turn on me in the division lobby’. In the 1992 general election 60 women were elected, 37 of them Labour, 14 per cent of the party’s MPs. After the 1987 election a rule had been introduced stipulating that every shortlist had to have a woman on it, but it hadn’t had much effect; Harman claims that ‘the angry men in the Labour Party’ made sure they chose a woman who wouldn’t win selection. In 1993 the policy of women-only shortlists in half of the winnable constituencies was slipped through Labour Party Conference as part of the resolution in support of ‘one man, one vote’ for the election of the party leader: the attention surrounding the end of the union block vote meant that the measure went through ‘largely unnoticed’. But soon constituencies were scrabbling not to be made to choose a woman. We used to have a woman MP so we’ve proved we don’t discriminate/we’ve done our share; we’ve never had a woman MP so we clearly don’t want and shouldn’t have to have one; we don’t want to be told what to do by party headquarters. Harman felt ‘even more miserable’.
Despite the resistance, this policy undoubtedly changed the House of Commons: the number of Labour women MPs jumped to 101 in the landslide of 1997 (317 Labour men were elected). That figure didn’t rise until this year’s election, in which 119 Labour women MPs were elected, 45 per cent of the party’s MPs. Harman writes that while women felt ‘euphoric’ about the 1997 result, the ‘overwhelmingly male political reporters … characterised the new women MPs as substandard, nothing more than mindless groupies of the prime minister’, Blair’s Babes. This wasn’t helped by the photo of the newly elected women with Blair at the centre. Harman writes that they hadn’t wanted him in the picture, but No. 10 just assumed he was to be included. It reminded her, she says, of a line from The King and I: ‘a flock of sheep and you’re the only ram’. Many of the women felt equally uncomfortable, and Clare Short made herself scarce when she realised Blair had turned up. But nothing short of all-women shortlists seems to lift the number of female MPs significantly. Shirley Williams tried to convince the Lib Dems to introduce them. ‘They all thought, I’m jolly good, so I’ll be swept in,’ Williams told Ridge. ‘All these luscious young girls … took to the platform wearing lovely T-shirts saying: “I’m not a token woman” … And so I lost the vote … They rushed about the place chirping and being bought drinks by nice young men who would become an MP rather than them.’ The number of Lib Dem women MPs has only once reached double figures; in 2017 four were elected; in 2015 none. There were 67 Conservatives elected in 2017, up from 17 in 2005.
Harman was first elected to the shadow cabinet in 1992 and her account of her difficulties in her first job, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Gordon Brown’s deputy, are typical of the descriptions she gives of her ministerial career as a whole. She stresses her own inadequacy and failure in a way it’s almost impossible to imagine a man’s political memoir doing. Labour was trying to avoid saying that the pound was overvalued (the Tories had joined the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism but the pound was struggling to stay within the allowed parameters), but whereas Brown ‘looked as if he wasn’t answering because he was too clever … I looked as if I wasn’t answering because I was too stupid … I looked vacuous and evasive even to my own eyes.’ As usual, she imagines her enemies’ glee at her failure. In one interview, she didn’t even understand the questions (she’d spent the journey to the studio talking to her daughter about My Little Pony). To her surprise, the programme researcher looked ‘distraught’ at her failure. It was Ed Miliband.
Tony Blair made her shadow secretary of state for social security in 1996 and she kept that job after Labour was elected the next year, but she noticed that Blair didn’t seem very happy about it. He’d wanted to appoint Frank Field, who, Blair says in his memoir, A Journey, was ‘hugely persuasive on the big picture’, and told her that Field would ‘lead’ on welfare reform. Field told the civil servants he’d have her job within a year and they should take strategic direction from him. Harman complained to Blair, who ‘groaned’ and told her to ‘try to make things work’. In his memoir Blair admits this was a ‘dating agency from hell’ mismatch, but one that many people enjoyed watching: the press were fascinated by what he calls their ‘pas de deux’. Field wasn’t her only problem: she found the transition from opposition to government difficult. She ‘hadn’t a clue’ how to lead a large spending department with a staff of almost a hundred thousand and didn’t like the rivalry between departments made inevitable by the competition for funds and parliamentary time. Other ministers were unhappy with her seeming to interfere with their business in her other role as minister for women and equality. David Blunkett, for example, thought childcare the remit exclusively of the department of education.
Harman says she should have insisted that Blair sack Field and should have refused to make the cuts to benefits for lone parents that Brown was demanding. This isn’t the only occasion when she feels she should have been less loyal and trusting. As it was, ‘I felt they’d find a way through it. Little did I realise that the way they found through it was to pitch me out of government.’ She and Field were both sacked in 1998 in the first post-election reshuffle. She set herself to take defeat well, not to plot, or complain to journalists about her treatment, but to work loyally from the backbenches, and after the 2001 election she was brought back into government as solicitor general – not a cabinet job. She didn’t mind: she writes that she couldn’t face the press attention a more prominent role would have brought and didn’t have the confidence to run another big spending department. She set herself to ensure better treatment within the criminal justice system for victims of domestic violence, making changes to the way the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts handled cases and getting the Home Office to sponsor new legislation. In 2009 the law was finally changed to stop the provocation defence being used in domestic homicide cases.
In 2007, after Gordon Brown finally became prime minister, she decided to stand as his deputy. She worried, as usual, that she’d be mocked in the press; after all, she had been ‘downwardly mobile in government’. She keeps returning to her ‘sacking’ almost a decade earlier: again, it’s hard to imagine her male equivalent admitting so openly to a lack of confidence, and even to possible incompetence, without at least shrouding it in boilerplate about strategic errors and personal differences. Despite being seen as the ‘rank outsider’ by the press, she won. But still she dwells on her ‘bad experience’ at the Department of Social Security: she was ‘apprehensive’ about being back in the cabinet and didn’t want to lead a ‘big operational department’.
It’s only on women’s issues that she seems to have felt confident – here at least, she felt able to ‘tell male colleagues what I wanted’. In other areas she was more orthodoxly New Labour and much more hesitant, trying too hard to please, ‘desperate to be supportive’, Blair says. She’d backed Blair against Brown as leader; Brown, who’d assumed she’d support him, ‘couldn’t bring himself to speak to me’ (in his new autobiography Brown hardly mentions her). Eventually, she says, neither side saw her as a true believer, and ‘having been close to both of them, I became close to neither.’ Brown had always felt free to override her opinions. When she became shadow social security secretary in 1996, there was a row over how best to allocate money to pensioners, and Harman wanted to use her conference speech to explain why targeting would help the poorest pensioners, often women; Brown thought she should make that argument in private to those, like Barbara Castle, who were opposed to what they saw as means-testing. When Harman came to give her speech, she quickly realised that the text on the autocue wasn’t the one she’d prepared. The section on targeting was missing: Brown had rewritten the speech while she was sitting on the platform waiting her turn. ‘I didn’t yet seem to have any autonomy as far as he was concerned. The pattern … was never to change.’ He also tried to change the speech she made immediately after she was elected deputy leader, although this time she managed to thwart him (after she made her speech, the senior figures in the party lined up to shake her hand. She said to her predecessor, John Prescott, who opposed positive discrimination for women, ‘I’ll need all your advice and support. I hope you’ll help me.’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I won’t’).
Brown didn’t make her deputy prime minister, as Prescott had been. She writes that she should have challenged his decision, but just as she didn’t challenge Blair over Frank Field, she didn’t. It was, she writes, ‘all too easy not to appoint me’. When cabinet met, she assumed she’d sit next to Brown, as Prescott had to Blair, but Jack Straw’s name was on the place card: she was at the very end of the table, far from the main players. Brown knew she wouldn’t make a fuss. When Britain hosted the G20 summit in 2009 she was asked to the wives’ not the leaders’ dinner (Brown claims in his autobiography that ‘I could not invite her,’ as only prime ministers and presidents could attend). Harman and her staff decided, unsurprisingly, that she should ignore the slight and go to the wives’ dinner, intended, according to Brown, to ‘celebrate the contribution women were making in all areas of our lives’. There was, Harman says rather cattily, ‘a lively discussion at the table about a new diet’. Castle had had a similar problem in the late 1940s when she went to Canada with her boss, Harold Wilson, when he was president of the Board of Trade. ‘Wives are never invited’ to official dinners, she was told. ‘“I am not Harold’s wife,” I retorted hotly. “I am not even his mistress. I am his PPS.”’
It’s interesting to see just how much Brown thought he could get away with. When Caroline Flint resigned from the cabinet, claiming that he treated women as ‘window dressing’, he expected Harman to defend him, but Flint’s point was rather proved by Brown’s simultaneous and unwilling admission to Harman that he was about to make Peter Mandelson deputy prime minister. ‘Over my dead body,’ Harman said, and eventually Brown promised he wouldn’t do it. That same afternoon it was announced that Mandelson had been appointed first secretary of state, ‘an office which puts the holder above all other cabinet ministers’. She argues that her silence this time was a consequence of Brown’s weakness, not her own: she felt sorry for him, something he’d wanted so much for so long ‘was all turning to ashes in his hands’.
When Brown resigned after losing the 2010 election she replaced him as interim leader and was perceived by the party to have done well. She basked in the approval: ‘after decades of feeling such an outsider, it was extraordinary to feel accepted.’ (When Margaret Beckett became acting leader after John Smith’s sudden death she was made to feel she was there on sufferance, not by right as deputy leader. The morning after Smith’s death Robin Cook rang her and said: ‘We’re agreed that the only sensible thing is for you to stay on as leader.’ ‘That’s kind of you, Robin,’ she replied.) Harman says here that she has no regrets about not running for leader, although in interviews this summer she sounded less sure, saying she thinks she ‘would definitely have got it’, but that at the time ‘there was no sense anywhere, as there always is with women, that I was leadership material.’ She became interim leader again in 2015 after Ed Miliband resigned, and was asked whether she would stand for his job by journalists who’d spent years writing about how useless she was.
A couple of episodes late on in her front-bench career make one wonder if, had she won (which seems unlikely), she would have acted with the feminist militancy that is the only thing that really distinguishes her from any other New Labour apparatchik. In 2008, when she was Leader of the House and minister for women and equality, she made sure that an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would have extended abortion rights to women in Northern Ireland as well as making abortion easier for British women wasn’t passed – the excuse was that the Lords might try to amend the bill to reduce the time limit on abortion. This was at the very least a misjudgment; worse, it seems to have been a reward to the DUP for its support on 42-day detention earlier that year. She doesn’t say anything at all about this here, and hardly mentions the most controversial episode during her second spell as leader in 2015: her decision not to oppose the Tories’ welfare bill or to challenge its stipulation that child tax credits should be paid only for a maximum of two children. (She also skates over her much earlier decision to send her son to grammar school, which Blair describes as a ‘real shocker’.) She must have known that her line on the welfare bill would be seen as a betrayal. Abstention was intended to signal that Labour knew its spending plans hadn’t been popular (that was what she says Labour polling after the 2015 election had found) and intended to mend its ways, to accept the Tory view of the deficit and the need to reduce it. The strategy bore some similarity to Brown and Blair’s decision in 1997 to stick with Tory spending plans for two years in an attempt to show that Labour could be trusted with the economy. Then, as secretary of state for social security, Harman had wanted to refuse to make the cuts, but didn’t have the nerve, especially after Brown told her she’d be responsible for bringing down the government; now, when she had the power to make the decisions herself, she again lost her nerve: she left Northern Irish women with absolutely no abortion rights and enabled, and even backed, benefit cuts to a group she came into politics to help.
Among the 48 Labour MPs who voted against the welfare bill was Jeremy Corbyn, soon to be elected as leader. He had tried for Harman’s Peckham seat (his brother, Piers, was leader of the local squatters) before being elected in Islington North in 1983, but although they had both been Labour MPs for London seats for more than thirty years she says she hardly knew him. Her book was written before this year’s general election and doesn’t anticipate Corbyn’s surprising success in it. To her, his victory and the consequent upheaval in the party is ‘a painful echo of the 1980s’. His priority during thirty years as a Bennite footsoldier was class; for him, women’s rights have always been trumped by workers’ rights. When there was a fuss over his initial failure to give any of the most senior shadow cabinet jobs to women, his office said that the perception of which jobs were important reflected ‘an era before women or workers had the vote’. The unprompted addition of ‘workers’ makes clear his real interest. He’s now promoted Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott to shadow the Foreign Office and the Home Office, but you can imagine that Harman sees him still as a representative of one of the types of male MP in the Commons she entered in the 1980s, maybe not the worst kind, but the sort who didn’t really think that women’s problems mattered all that much compared with other forms of oppression. Now, as she says, left-wing men indignantly ‘declare themselves to be feminists and every bit as much in support of women’s equality as the women themselves’, but somehow they still end up being the ones in charge.