Interview: Harriet Harman MP

The Labour MP and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister talks to Bryony Clarke about the continuing struggle for gender equality and the importance of encouraging women to stand for office.

There have arguably been few women in British politics as unfairly vilified and ridiculed in recent years as Harriet Harman. She has been described as ‘harping', ‘barmy' and even a ‘feminazi' by political opponents and in some cases Labour party colleagues alike. Being one of the pioneers and chief architects of the 2010 Equalities Act, it is perhaps little wonder that the MP and now Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has encountered and generated so much opposition and vitriol among the right wing press. Rod Liddle, of the Spectator, has accused Harman of a vacuous feminism, a reflex loathing of men and of being either "thick" or "criminally disingenuous". There is even a website, harrietharmansucks.com, which was created in the wake of her review of the stubbornly low rape conviction rates in August 2009.

The Equalities Bill proposed by Harman encompassed a whole spectrum of progressive demands aiming to combat, amongst other things, ageism, homophobia and racism in the workplace. Yet it is her continuing campaign for gender equality for which Harriet Harman is perhaps best known and most heavily criticised. Within the Labour Party, Harman has said that she does "not agree with all-male leaderships" because men "cannot be left to run things on their own"; and that, consequently, one of Labour's top two posts should always be held by a woman. In 2010 Harman commissioned a report that proposed extending the arrangement allowing all-women shortlists beyond 2015. "It's always been a controversial agenda", Harman concedes, when I ask about the cloud of dissent that has inevitably settled around her, "but many things that start controversial end up being conventional wisdom".

She points to one of Labour's earliest equality campaigns upon entering office - legislation against age discrimination. "This was initially regarded as political correctness gone mad, but now of course people have since realised its crazy to write people off the moment they hit 60."

Some of her detractors are of course not so much opposed to her egalitarian ideals as her proposed means of enforcing them; the idea of women-only shortlists, for example, being particular contentious. However, the Conservative opposition and heavy modification of the Equalities Act has, according to Harman, a more fundamental and ideological basis than mere quibbling over methods."The Tories have never been a party to take equality seriously. Because of where the heart of the Tory party is at, they are not able to make progress. What is so disappointing is that although the Conservative Party claimed they broadly supported at the time, they've actually announced bit by bit they're not continuing with key parts of it." There have certainly been some hard wrought changes and measures implemented by Labour that the Conservative government has since simply abandoned, cut back or reduced; childcare, SureStart, support for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

The Equalities Bill designed by Harman included a provision that would require companies to publish the gender pay gap within their own organisation, which will now no longer be going ahead.

Another clause, allowing an employer to chose a candidate of an ethnic minority out of a group of equally qualified candidates, solely to improve the diversity of their organisation, has also been dropped. "It is so disappointing that after we had an agreement that we needed a more fair and equal society which turns its face against discrimination, they are turning back the clock".

It is clear Harman feels the Labour Party is very much the party of, as she calls it, the ‘Women's Movement'. "We speak up on issues like domestic violence, equal pay, childcare - we champion these causes in Parliament. You can't leave equality and women's rights to the Tory party and the Lib Dems have just been too prepared to sell out all their principles. We have more women MPs than all the other parties put together so we represent the voice of women in this country in Parliament". For Harman, it is apparent that, while it is valuable and important for men to themselves fight and campaign for women's rights, this is not in itself empowering. "You cannot have men speaking on behalf of women. You have to have men and women speaking on behalf of men and women."

On the subject of female empowerment, at the time of our meeting the ‘SlutWalk' marches across the country were imminent. On the 4th June, 3,500 gathered in Trafalgar Square to march as part of this movement, in various states of undress, to protest against the comments made by a policeman at a university in Toronto, as he told female students to ‘stop dressing like sluts' in order to avoid harassment.

The SlutWalk movement has ignited as much dissent and division within the feminist movement as outside of it, as many of those who would be broadly sympathetic of the aims of the marches would rather like to see the word ‘slut' dropped from our language altogether.

Harman avoids addressing the particular semantic difficulties of reclaiming the word ‘slut', but is otherwise forthcoming in her support of the movement. "I think it is really important because it is basically challenging the notion that if women are harassed or assaulted it is somehow their fault. And so I very much support women collaborating to challenge this notion and I'm very much in support of this movement. Women have the right to wear what they want, and there is never any excuse in any circumstances to carry out assault or harassment."

While Harman has a tendency to speak in a series of clichés and platitudes, the opposition and indeed real hate that she has amassed for her comments and equality campaigns has been nothing short of baffling. Is it really so unreasonable to suggest that the spheres of politics, law and finance could benefit from having more women in top positions? Is it really so outlandish to argue that because women make up half the work-force in banking and insurance, they should also be equally represented on the boards?

Does suggesting that the current rape conviction rate of 6.6% (the lowest in Europe) might be a bit too low really make you a man-hating ‘feminazi'?

The deluge of derision, contempt and ridicule Harman has received for her comments in these areas has constituted a silencing, even a censorship, of the feminist cause she is propounding and arguably says even more about the state of gender equality in this country than Harman does herself.

Bryony Clarke

Image: Steven Punter

Article First Published June 2011

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