Stever Punter

Mother of the House, Harriet Harman, on a lifetime in politics

Harriet Harman is one of the most prominent political figures in recent history. A pioneer of women’s rights and representation, Harman entered Parliament as a pregnant thirty-two-year-old at a time when 97% of MPs in the House of Commons were men. After serving in various shadow and cabinet positions, including as the first-ever Minister for Women under Tony Blair, Harman was elected Deputy Labour Leader in 2007, serving under Gordon Brown. At the same time, she was appointed Leader of the House of Commons and Labour Party Chair. She served as Acting Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition following the resignation of Gordon Brown in 2010, until the election of Ed Miliband who appointed her Shadow Deputy Prime Minister. She once again became Leader of the Opposition following Labour’s defeat in the 2015 General Election which precipitated the resignation of Ed Miliband. Soon after, Harman resigned as Deputy Leader. Harman holds the informal position of Mother of the House, being the longest continuously-serving female MP in British history.

I began by asking Harriet about her experience as a female MP and whether she thought the experience of female MPs is different from that of their male colleagues. She told me that it certainly was when she entered Parliament in 1982. At that time, the Commons “was an overwhelmingly male institution and…it felt like a very isolated, pioneering experience, especially as I was trying to pursue the women’s movement agenda like childcare and domestic violence and equal pay”. Things are somewhat different today. Harman was among those who pushed for the adoption of all-women short-lists in the Labour Party which in 1997 saw the number of female MPs reach unprecedented levels. She told me that today “43% of Labour MPs are women and in the House as a whole there are women on all sides and therefore we are a critical mass”. She said that “it’s still a different experience to male MPs because of the division of labour in the home. Women are still largely responsible for the caring of young children and older relatives.” She is presently trying to introduce a provision for maternity and paternity leave for MPs to ease these burdens. However, “the experience of pushing a women’s agenda…in the House of Commons is a bit more mainstream than it used to be. But that took three decades of struggle to get it there”.

Harriet recently made headlines by calling for the Labour Party to only consider women in the next Labour Party leadership contest, allowing the men to “jostle among themselves” for the Deputy position. I asked Harriet why she thought it necessary to make such a call. “[W]e regard ourselves as the party of women and equality,” she said, “[but] throughout our history, our hundred years of Labour history, we’ve had male leaders, we’ve never had a women leader”. What is worse, “the Tories have had not one but two women [leaders],” despite having far fewer female MPs, “and it’s just embarrassing to the large number of women MPs and the large number of women members [to suggest] that somehow we’re not good enough to lead. I think unless we get into our mind that next time we need to choose from amongst the women…we will end up with a man again”.

Stepping back in time, I asked Harriet about her experience working as Deputy under Gordon Brown and later Ed Miliband in opposition. “I gave Ed Miliband his first job in politics, he worked for me, so it was quite odd when he became Leader and I was his Deputy. Everyone predicted it would be insufferable for me to be Deputy to somebody who I’d employed, but actually I think the mandate creates the relationship; he had a mandate to be Leader and I had a mandate to be Deputy and there it was.” She described Ed as “extremely hardworking and extremely committed and extremely bright, both when he was working for me and when I was his Deputy”. She labelled Gordon Brown as “one of the two giant figures in our generation,” alongside Tony Blair. When Blair and Brown came to lead the Labour Party, Labour had lost four consecutive General Elections. “[F]or all our good principles, we were never able to do anything to change the country in the way we thought right, because we could never win an election. What Tony and Gordon did is that they thought through how the Party could be true to its principles and values but appeal broadly enough that we could actually get into government, and Gordon was the economics side of that”. She went on to credit Brown for his management of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008: “he brought everybody together for governments to react so that, although it was a recession, it wasn’t a global depression”.

“[We] regard ourselves as the party of women and equality… [but] throughout our history… we’ve never had a woman leader”

In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap General Election in the hope of exploiting Labour’s poor polling and gain an even larger majority in the House of Commons. The move backfired as support for Labour rose rapidly. The Conservatives lost 13 seats and their absolute majority in the Commons, while Labour gained 30 new MPs. I asked Harriet if she was surprised by the results. “Yes, I was, because people were telling us on the doorstep that they weren’t going to be voting Labour, [and] they didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn”. She said that Labour MPs in marginal seats believed that they would lose their seats: “the atmosphere in the Parliamentary Labour Party…before the election was really gloomy. Everyone was saying goodbye to each other. They thought they were literally not coming back”. She told me that “one of the iron laws of elections had always been that you go into a campaign at a certain opinion polls level…and you come out exactly the same…the difference in the 2017 Election is that opinion changed during the campaign”. She said that a major factor was the contrast between the party leaders: “[Theresa May] was the [Tory] election campaign. Nobody saw anybody else and people saw a lot of her and they decided they didn’t really like her and actually they didn’t warm to her at all, whereas they saw a lot of Jeremy Corbyn and they actually thought he wasn’t as bad as they might have heard about in the newspapers”. She also said that the Tories committed a “massive own-goal” by seeking to reform social care and thereby alienating their older support base. By contrast, “our manifesto was very sensible, mainstream, and left but also included the abolition of tuition fees which went down very well with young voters”. She described the results as “tremendous”: “Theresa May had broken her own prime-ministership. She’d called the election because [she thought] she could ‘crush’ Labour, and in fact she crushed herself. The Conservatives will never forgive her for losing them seats when they didn’t even need to be having an election”

Moving on, I asked Harriet if there were any decisions she had made in her political career which she later came to regret. She told me that this is something she has reflected upon a lot: “there’s always a difficulty of doing what you think is the best thing to be doing, but on the other hand compromising because you’re part of a team. In those cases, you might be doing something you don’t feel comfortable with or you wish you didn’t have to do but often…you’re just trying to do the best you can in the circumstances”. So while she admitted that there were some things she wished had worked out differently, “I don’t really look back and think ‘I should’ve done that’, ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’ because I’m looking back and realising that all the time I was just doing my best and trying my hardest”.

“[May] called the election because [she thought] she could ‘crush’ Labour, and in fact she crushed herself”

Before she left to make an address at Mansfield College, I asked if she had any advice for students considering a career in politics: “Well, I would say don’t go into politics as a career. I would say do what you care about and if you care about social justice and equality you can do that by working in public services, you can do it working in the private sector, you can do it in the voluntary sector…it shouldn’t be a career”. Thinking about being an MP in this way “doesn’t give you the right attitude to your electors and to the public service you’ve got to do”. Nevertheless, “it is a great privilege to be an MP and to be in there and make change and to quest for good things”.