Harriet and Labour’s own “woman problem”

POLITICS Harman 183331

The treatment of Harriet Harman these past days, as with that of her whole political career, by the political and media establishment only serves to underscore her point: women in politics cannot reach the top without vehement misogynistic ridicule. Even before Harman had delivered her speech the knives were already out. Outraged at her criticism of his old boss, McBride rushed to attack Harman’s speech as “bilge”, without engaging with her main point about representation in whatsoever.

Now, of course it’s obvious to anyone why Ms Harman is bringing this up and in public no less: she wants to be Deputy PM. Indeed, she practically said as much on Newsnight. However, there are two issues here:
a) Personal motivation does not make it impossible for her to be genuinely concerned with representation and sexism in politics
b) If she is just trying to jockey for power in government, well, WHAT ELSE DO YOU EXPECT?

Harriet Harman has been a senior figure in politics for decades, and is currently the longest serving female MP in the Commons so the idea that she shouldn’t be ambitious is preposterous. Naked ambition in senior male politicians, such as Boris Johnson, is expected and does nothing to dampen their chances to gaining power. Conversely, women like Harman is ridiculed and reprimanded for being so shameless. Ambition is apparently unbecoming for a woman. We’re meant to sit quietly in the corner and be asked to join in by gallant and generous men, not demand our place at the table and shout when we’re ignored.

Even if McBride is honest when he says that Brown wouldn’t have made anyone Deputy PM, her point still stands. Can you imagine Alan Johnson or Jon Cruddas accepting that they wouldn’t become Deputy PM like Prescott? Does anyone think that serious concessions wouldn’t have been made if that was the case – a good Cabinet position perhaps? Or are women just expected to want less and be grateful for it?

Of course there is the McBride argument that women like Harman aren’t promoted or take seriously because they’re useless, however such an argument would be more compelling were it not for the legions of useless men at the top of every bastion of power (Jeremy Hunt, Paul Flowers and the lovely but ineffectual Tristram Hunt to name but a few). Given their sheer numbers one can only presume that female under-representation has more to do with sexism inherent in a “chumocracy”.

One could argue that Harman should be savvy enough to lobby for the Deputy PM role in private, rather than run to the media but surely that would to assume that she hasn’t made her feelings clear in private before, which we know not to be the case.

Ultimately Harman’s move may have not earned her any more friends in Westminster but it does mean that Miliband may have to park his plan to abolish the Deputy PM role and make room for Harman (or indeed Clegg in the likelihood of a Coalition – where that would leave Harman is another question entirely). Once again it seems that women have to force themselves through the corridors of power and risk chastisement and ridicule for it, or spend their careers overlooked and under-valued. Labour is right to criticise Cameron over his pitiful lack of women in Cabinet but to show that the Shadow Cabinet’s diversity isn’t just for appearances Miliband has to take a look at Labour’s own back room and answer some serious questions about the role senior Labour women have to play in the election campaign.

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