Harriet Harman: '˜Yorkshire could produce the first female Labour leader'

Harriet Harman was five months pregnant when she first became an MP in the early 1980s.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 28th January 2018, 9:08 pm
Updated Sunday, 28th January 2018, 9:55 pm
Harriet Harman MP  in Leeds, 25th January 2017.  Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Harriet Harman MP in Leeds, 25th January 2017. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

So it’s apt that she went on to become the ‘mother of the House of Commons’ - its longest serving female MP - and remains perhaps its most ardent champion of equal representation and gender equality to this day.

As one of the original ‘Blair Babes’ - a term she personally reviles for its regressive undertones - she helped spearhead the party’s rebirth and evolution in the New Labour days.

Now, in the Jeremy Corbyn era, the 67 year old veteran politician is on a new mission - to ensure the next Labour leader should be a woman.

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Harriet Harman MP presenting the inaugural Alice Bacon Lecture at the University of Leeds. Pic: Simon and Simon Photography

Not that there is about to be an imminent feminist coup to claim Mr Corbyn’s crown - “I’m going to be cheering on the people who are in the leadership now” she says - but she is also “hopeful of having a woman Prime Minister in due course from the Labour side sooner rather than later”.

Ms Harman - who was twice acting leader of the Labour Party, as well as holding various Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet positions and the deputy leadership role, but never made it to the top job - spoke to The Yorkshire Post ahead of presenting the inaugural Alice Bacon Lecture at the University of Leeds.

Co-organised by her friend and protégée Rachel Reeves, who is Alice Bacon’s biographer as well as Leeds West MP, it was dedicated to the woman who became the city’s first female MP back in 1945.

It took another 65 years for the next incumbent - Ms Reeves - to be elected, and that was partly down to the pioneering work done by Ms Harman and her colleagues at the height of the New Labour years, to campaign for all-women shortlists.

Blackpool, 2nd October 1968 Labour Party Conference. Alice Bacon MP replying for the government in the education debate.

And now, she says, it’s time for the party to consider doing the same for the more senior roles in the party.

She will be circulating a motion on the idea in the Commons in the coming weeks.

And she believes there’s every possibility Labour’s eventual first woman leader will come from Yorkshire’s current crop of “firebrands”, who now represent more than half of all the county’s Labour MPs.

A self confessed “daughter of the women’s movement”, Ms Harman was the first ever Minister for Women, and helped drive the numbers of female MPs to over 200 for the first time ever.

Harriet Harman MP presenting the inaugural Alice Bacon Lecture at the University of Leeds. Pic: Simon and Simon Photography

When she was first elected in 1982, there were just 10 female Labour MPs, and only one from Yorkshire, Joan Maynard of Sheffield Brightside.

When she retired in 1987, that number doubled to two with the arrival of Alice Mahon in Halifax and Ann Taylor in Dewsbury.

Fast forward to 1997, and 10 of the 47 Labour MPs elected in Yorkshire were women, a fifth of the total.

And today, after another surge in 2015 and 2017’s snap election, 20 out of 37 Labour MPs in Yorkshire and the Humber are women.

Blackpool, 2nd October 1968 Labour Party Conference. Alice Bacon MP replying for the government in the education debate.

Ms Harman has continued to champion all women shortlists, an idea she admits remains “controversial”, both with the public and within the party, to this day.

But it was effective - and in Yorkshire, it’s led to the current gender-balanced status quo. The county also has more female council leaders proportionately than the rest of the UK.

“Women in Yorkshire need a voice in the House of Commons as well as Yorkshire men speaking up in the House of Commons,” Ms Harman said of the steady rise in representation.

“All of the argument was going on, but there was no change until we got the all women shortlists, which really turned everything around.

“They were really controversial. But all women shortlists took us from five percent to 20 percent, it was the breakthrough.”

She admits the core idea has “engendered a lot of hostility” both in the public and in the party, and that it does seem “unfair” on the surface.

“However it worked and it was the only thing that worked because we had tried everything else and we were stuck at three per cent since 1945,” she says.

“Now we have got a balanced team in Parliament, and ironically, it’s changed the Conservative Party too.

“We had to do all the heavy lifting of doing the controversial things. The women in the Tory Party were then able to say to their leadership ‘it looks quite bad that we are absolutely raining men here, we are looking very backward’.”

Ms Harman notes that it was 70 years ago that Alice Bacon was first elected, and 35 years ago that she herself was elected.

It was the initial “big influx” post 1997, she believes, that triggered and brought about her proudest achievement in Government, “getting more women in”.

Her other source of personal pride is the advent of the Equality Act, which paved the way for better childcare legislation and the whole gender pay gap debate and pressure for pay transparency which is currently dominating the political agenda.

The Alice Bacon lecture is the first in a new series, and also marks the city’s celebrations of 100 years of women’s suffrage and the Representation of the People Act, which first gave some women the vote.

Alice Bacon was a pioneer in many ways, but Ms Harman admits she didn’t even know about her huge achievements until Rachel Reeves wrote her book.

She admits that this “hidden history” of women is a key reason for why the battle is far from won.

“Unless women write about other women or unless they write about themselves nobody will know what they have done, and it is just the story of what men did,” she says.

It’s a point she will repeat during her lecture later on.

She will also stun the packed audience in the Great Hall at the University of Leeds by talking about her traumatic teenage experience - mentioned in her memoir - with sexual harassment while at university in York.

She says a tutor offered to raise her grade in return for sexual favours, and though she refused, a classmate - who was from a deprived background and had very different circumstances to her own - recounted to her years later her own experience with the same individual.

Recent controversy around the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its triggering of a swathe of other revelations of harassment in other sectors also proves the battle is far from won, she says.

“I think that we have changed the mood because there is rightfully outrage about Harvey Weinstein, there’s rightfully outrage about Carrie Gracie of the BBC being paid less, and there is rightfully outrage about the Presidents Club dinner.

“But the reality has not changed as much as it should have done and, in some respects, things are slipping back.

“Five years ago if you had complained about the Presidents Club dinner nobody would have recognised how wrong it is - now we recognise that it’s wrong but it’s still going on.”

“Women are still having to be pioneers,” she adds.

“They are still having to break new ground 70 years after Alice Bacon was first elected.”


Rights for mothers have always been a passion for Harriet Harman and now she is bringing the battle to the House of Commons itself.

This Thursday, she will table an amendment to a new Government bill on maternity leave to introduce a system of voting by proxy for women MPs who have just had a baby.

She said she finds it shocking that “in the ‘mother of parliaments’, there is no system of maternity leave at all and yet there have been 17 babies born to women MPs since 2010”.

Currently, new mums in Parliament have to be paired with an opposite number to even up voting, which can leave them with difficulties if they are unable to find someone, a matter raised by Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns last week.

Ms Harman said pairing was “not the way to do it” and “there should be a proper system” so no new mum is “left struggling either with her own or with our side”.