ALTHOUGH HARRIET HARMAN never held a front-rank cabinet job, she is probably one of the most influential politicians of recent decades. “I knew exactly what I was coming into Parliament to do,” she writes of her arrival at Westminster following the 1982 Peckham by-election. “I was there for women… we wanted equality, in work and in politics. We wanted childcare, maternity rights, for domestic violence to be taken seriously and for women to play and equal part in political decision making.” Harman has stuck to her agenda for 35 years, with a measure of success that puts most male politicians in the shade.
In 1982, Harman joined just 20 other women in the Commons. Now there are almost 200 – not equal representation, but what Harman calls “a critical mass”. When she became the first sitting MP to have a baby, she faced outright hostility from male MPs, and was “too much on the defensive” to even ask for maternity leave. Now, pregnant MPs are almost commonplace and ministers of both sexes take parental leave. And it’s inconceivable today that a Prime Minister would even try to get away with forming an all-male cabinet, as John Major did in 1992.
Harman lead the successful but highly controversial campaign for all-women shortlists in the Labour party. This was the real turning point for women in British politics, leading directly to the election of over 100 women Labour MPs in 1997. “We argued for it as a last resort,” she writes, “because we had, over many years, tried everything else to get women Labour candidates into safe or winnable seats and nothing had worked.”
Harman’s says her involvement with the women’s movement in the 1970s convinced her that real change for women could only come with a Labour government. This is a lesson Jeremy Corbyn’s party will have to learn all over again, but also one that can stick committed campaigners like Harman with some very awkward choices.
As social security secretary in 1997, Harman was forced to cut single mother’s benefits because Labour had promised to stick to Tory spending plans. She kicked up a fuss but eventually went along with the policy. “Our government still felt fragile to me. I couldn’t do anything to threaten it,” she writes. It’s typical of Harman that when she was shabbily sacked from the cabinet by Tony Blair a few months later, she comes close to blaming herself.
But while Harman has a great story to tell, this book falls between three stools. Having dismissed memoirs as “male vanity projects”, she is reluctant to write one, so we just don’t get enough Harriet for a satisfactory autobiography. As a chronicler of the Blair-Brown years, Harman is too reticent and still seems as reluctant as ever to rock the boat. Through her ever-reasonable lens, the split between Blairites and Brownites seems even more incomprehensible than it did at the time. You end up thinking, what the hell they were rowing about?
And as a history of the women’s movement, it feels a bit bloodless. There are lists of people worked with, meetings attended and press releases issued, but real working women seem almost absent from what might have been their story.
No doubt, Harman sees her unwillingness to dish the dirt or blow her own trumpet as a positive thing, but A Woman’s Work is perhaps just a bit too modest for its own good.