'From pioneers to parity?' - extract from a speech by Harriet Harman MP

8 Mar 2018
Harriet Harman speaker to new Members of Parliament

In this extract from a recent speech, Harriet Harman MP reflects on over 30 years at the centre of British politics, from successfully contesting a by-election as a young pregnant women in 1983, through the difficult campaigns for greater representation for women in Parliament, to some of the major policy changes that have marked her career.

Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, Member for Camberwell and Peckham
Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP,
Member for Camberwell and Peckham

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This is an extract from the 2018 Alice Bacon Memorial Lecture, ‘From pioneers to parity? 100 years of suffrage’, delivered by Harriet Harman MP to Leeds University on 25 January, 2018. The full text is available to download here (pdf). Alice Bacon was elected as Yorkshire’s first woman MP in 1945, and represented the constituencies of Leeds North East and Leeds South East between 1945 and 1970. We are publishing this extract as part of our 'Vote 100' blog series, marking the centenary year of the first women in the UK getting the vote.

… Alice [Bacon] was one of 24 women MPs in 1945. By the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was deeply involved in the Women’s Movement and Labour politics there were only 19 women MPs out of 650. So the ‘quota’, if you like, was three per cent, and that was it.

But we were determined to change the face of Parliament. We thought – women all up and down the country – we’ve got to get into Parliament. We don’t want to be asking men to do things for women. We want to be in there; to be part of the decision-making. And in my constituency, Camberwell and Peckham, when the [sitting] MP said he was going to retire, they made a decision: that in London, in the heat of the Women’s Movement, they only wanted a woman MP. They didn’t pass a resolution about that, but that was very much part of the spirit of it – like Rachel [Reeve] ’s constituency, Leeds West, which made a resolution [to select] a woman to increase women’s representation in Parliament, and here in Leeds [Central] .

So, I got selected along with a load of other women in constituencies we were going to fight in 1983. And that was going to be the moment when there was going to be a big breakthrough.

Sadly, the MP I was due to replace, Harry Lamborn, died and there was therefore a by-election. But at that time I was pregnant, hoping that by the time I’d had the baby and sorted myself out – although that never actually happens until they’re about 30! – we could have a general election. But suddenly [Harry Lamborn] died – and I was 5 months pregnant. And it really was the elephant in the room. Nobody wanted to say, “For heaven’s sake you’re pregnant! You can’t fight a by-election pregnant!”

It was mad, really, because the Women’s Movement [taught you] that if anybody said you couldn’t do something, you had to do it. I only had to know that somebody was thinking I couldn’t stand for [a] by-election pregnant to know I was going to do it. And of course, my husband, not knowing anything about babies or pregnancy, said, “Of course you can do it, it’s going to [be] absolutely fine.” And so I got into Parliament, hoping there would be a great load of women arriving in 1983 – to be the class of ‘83 that was going to change everything. But when I first arrived in the House of Commons it was very daunting. I was one of only 10 women Labour MPs and there was an overwhelming Tory majority. London was almost entirely Tory and I was a Labour MP in London. There were hardly any women – as I say, only 10 Labour women – and a much older Commons; and I was only 32… and pregnant.

I remember, as those huge doors to the House of Commons swung open – because when you’re elected in a by-election you have to walk down the carpet with everybody staring at you, bow three times, try not to trip over, walk on another three steps, again with everybody staring at you, and they were obviously all men in suits, because that’s the way it was – I felt a sort of prickling on my skin and begun thinking, “You’re wearing the wrong thing,” because I was wearing a red velvet maternity dress… I had hoped all these women would arrive in 1983, but Labour did so badly we actually lost women MPs.

The thing is, the fortunes of women’s representation are the fortunes of women in the Labour Party and women in the Labour movement. All the ground that has been gained has been pushed forward by Labour women and the Tories have followed. [The Tories] looked like the Politburo of the 1950s – loads and loads of men. Women in the Tory Party have therefore said, “Look, there’s so many women in the Labour Party, we look ridiculous and old-fashioned and discriminatory – we’ve got to have more women!” So, as we began the painful process of getting more women into Parliament as Labour MPs, we made the case for more women MPs. And everybody was like, “Yeah, it’s the Labour Party, the party of women and equality – we totally agree with you.” And yet nothing changed. So then we argued for a change in the rules. We said, we’ve got to stop having these all-male shortlists for Labour safe seats where the only candidates interviewed are men; we’ve got to have a woman on every shortlist. This caused absolute outrage, fury and defensiveness from the men, who felt it was somehow a criticism of them, when it wasn’t – it was just wanting to advance women.

But we managed to get it through – a woman on every shortlist – and nothing changed, so we thought, well, we’ll have to be even bolder and we argued that 50 per cent of the shortlist must be women. More huge rows, more backlash and, as you can imagine, the 50 per cent of the shortlist who were men got selected, so nothing changed.

So in order to actually make a difference, and move up from this three per cent there had always been, we [decided we needed] all-women shortlists that said, “You can choose whoever you like in this constituency, but it can’t be a man.”

And that is a very difficult thing, because it feels uncomfortable and it is uncomfortable. But what was also uncomfortable was that Parliament was completely unrepresentative. It was a Parliament that was 97 per cent men and three per cent women, in a country where women were believing themselves to be equal. [All-women shortlists] were a necessary means to get to the ends we needed.

In 1997 we therefore went from 60 women MPs to over 120, and 101 were Labour. It sent an amazing message to women throughout the country: that there were women in Parliament representing both men and women, and there was also a more balanced team. But it did create a backlash.

You’ll remember the photograph of all us women MPs, with Tony Blair standing in the middle. Now, I did actually recommend to Number 10 that Tony shouldn’t come to this photograph, because it was a photograph of women standing together, but the finer ideology of feminism was not quite steeped into Downing Street at that point, and Tony came – and you can hardly say to the Prime Minister who’s won an absolute landslide, “Sorry, get out of our photograph!” So, there he stood, in the photograph – and the press absolutely loved it because they were able to do ‘Blair’s babes’.

The thing about ‘Blair’s babes’ is, it was not light-hearted. It was belittling. It was belittling women who had struggled and who were determined to make a difference. It was demeaning them. And it was chanted by the newspapers like a joke.

How could Mo Mowlam ever be regarded as a ‘Blair’s babe’, she was a Mowlamnite rather than anything else. It was ludicrous to see her as a ‘Blair’s babe’; ludicrous to think of Clare Short as a ‘Blair’s babe’; or Yvette Cooper, Ann Cryer or Caroline Flint.

I challenge anybody now when they look at the list of women MPs who have come in since all-women shortlists – you can’t tell which are from all-women shortlists and which are from open shortlists. Everybody said, those women who [enter Parliament] on all-women shortlists will be useless MPs – they won’t be as good – but you cannot tell by looking at them who came in on an all-women shortlist and who didn’t. They are all pioneering.

What we wanted – and, by and large, what we achieved a lot of when we were in government – was a real change in the political agenda and a change in public policy.

When I was first elected, if you beat your baby or neglected your toddler, you could get a nursery place. But it was only for parents who were a danger to their children. If you were just somebody who wanted to go out to work, either to contribute to the family income, or as a lone parent, you couldn’t get a nursery place. We wanted childcare for everybody. And we argued it was also better for those vulnerable children to be together with all children, rather than just in nurseries for children from families with problems.

We wanted childcare for everyone and that argument has by and large been accepted. The reality, we know, remains far from that – but the argument has been accepted.

On domestic violence, we wanted it to be accepted and the law to recognise that there is no justification, ever, for there to be violence against a woman in the home, and that regardless of what has happened in the relationship, [domestic violence] is not justified. We therefore argued for a change in the ‘provocation law’.

People will remember that there used to be a law, a defence, which said if you murdered somebody you get charged with murder, but if you murdered your wife you don’t get charged with murder, you get charged with manslaughter, because you’re able to say that it was not your fault that you killed her, it was her fault because she provoked you. And it used to be called the ‘nagging and shagging’ offence by people at the Bar, because she either must have provoked you by having an affair – and everybody would go ‘oh God that’s awful, how you must have suffered’ – or she provoked you by not being a proper wife to you and not doing her household duties. And often there would be a non-custodial sentence. It took us until 2009 to get the provocation defence abolished, but we got there.

We got all the arguments about the importance of the Equal Pay Act being implemented more accepted. We doubled maternity leave and pay and introduced paternity leave. And next week we’ve got a vote in the House of Commons where, for the first time, there will be a system for maternity and paternity leave for MPs. Since 2010 there have been 17 babies born to women MPs and yet there is no system of maternity leave, so we’re following in New Zealand’s footsteps a bit there.

With the all-women shortlists in 1997 in Yorkshire and Humberside – sorry to include Humberside, but it is done on regional configuration – there were only two Labour women MPs out of 34. Then it built up to 10 out of 47. And now it’s 20 out of 37.

If you think about it – going from only two to 20 out of 37 – [all-women shortlists] are leading to much more equal representation. I used to say to my Yorkshire colleagues, “Why are there only two women from Yorkshire and Humberside in the House of Commons?” And they would say, “You’re just a metropolitan elite person. You don’t realise that women in Yorkshire and Humberside don’t want to be MPs.” And one even said, “There aren’t any women in Yorkshire and Humberside.” And I thought, “You know, I’ve heard many arguments in my time, but that!”…

Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP25 January, 2018

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