Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, has a formidable reputation. Serving as the MP for Camberwell and Peckham since 1982, she is the continuously-serving female MP in the House of Commons, with more than 30 years of parliamentary experience under her belt. If that’s not enough, her pre-parliamentary career reads just as impressively.
When found in contempt of court whilst working as a legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties, she took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, and won. The name of the case itself – Harman v United Kingdom tells you much of what you need to know about this fastidious, quick-witted, and fiercely intelligent politician.
We were lucky enough to catch her at the end of a speech she’d made to the assembled masses of the Cambridge Universities Labour Club (CULC). Jokingly, she says that in the campaigning for an upcoming council by-election, “the hand of history is on your shoulder”, though there is a sense of a more serious, and potentially ominous, undertone. The appearance of both Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband in Cambridge in the past month are testament to Labour’s near-obsession with Cambridge in themselves.
Harman is no ignoramus as to the importance of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed CULC members filling the day’s conference room in Homerton College. “I think it’s very important that young people do vote because it’s a way of making your voice heard. It’s important not only for young people to vote, but we value very much that our young people are engaged in the Labour Party, and we’ve got more young members of the Labour Party than all the other parties put together. It’s about making sure that the voice of young people is heard.
“The proportion of older people who are voting is much higher than younger people, and that skews our politics, so, that’s one of the reasons why we want votes at 16 as well as a student and youth movement in the Labour Party.” With an afternoon of campaigning ahead for the CULC, she’s preaching to the choir, and it works. In her speech, she rousingly declares “we’re not here to predict the outcome of the election. We’re here to produce the outcome”, to great acclaim.
On immigration, often seen as the thorn in Labour’s side, she offers a refreshing perspective: “this country has benefitted from people who have come to this country from around the world”, and emphasises the need for a “re-education” of the public as to the huge benefits that migrants bring to the country. Later, however, we hear from some intrepid first-year HSPS-ers that she had a rather different message to share on the issue at a separate event that same morning.
On the issue of all-women shortlists, she shows what is perhaps her true passion: the representation of women in politics. “They’re not the best way to do it, they’re the only way to do it. We tried every other way. When I first started being an MP, it was only 3% women, 97% men, it just wasn’t representative. We tried to have mentoring and encouragement and extra training and it didn’t work, it was still men becoming MPs. We tried a women on every shortlist, that didn’t work, the men only got selected. Then we tried 50% shortlists of 50-50 men and women and still the men from the 50% got selected. The only way we managed to actually make our parliament properly a representative democracy was by ensuring that we have some seats which we set aside, 50% of our seats, and we say ‘okay, in these seats, you can pick whoever you want, but it’s got to be a woman’. It is a difficult mechanism, and I know it’s very unpopular, but it’s achieved its objectives.”
“Politics is about being representative, and our parliament needs to have in it people from all different backgrounds, from all ages, from all parts of the country, and women and men as well. There are issues that unless women are in the House of Commons, and in politics, that people won’t speak up on, and since the women have come in to the House of Commons, principally in the 1997 election when we got 100 Labour women elected, the question of childcare and balancing work and home, and the length of maternity leave – those issues are on the political agenda when previously they weren’t even regarded as political issues. I’ve seen the change that women can bring, and I think it’s important that our democracy is not just men making decisions over women’s lives.”
For young women thinking of the political world, Harman has one unequivocal message: “we need you. It’s often a tough road, being in politics, but we need you, because it’s still overwhelmingly male-dominated. Women are still outnumbered 3 to 1, even in the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and therefore we’ve still got some further progress so therefore; be part of the cause, step forward, and help make a difference for women in your local area and women in this country.”