In 90 years there have been 5,000 men and 292 women MPs – that’s why we need to defend Harriet Harman’s position

August 5, 2009 11:49 am

HarmanBy Olivia Bailey

So, Harriet Harman appears to be embroiled in another “Harperson saga”, where she has the sexist media lining up against her to shoot down whatever ridiculous thing it is she has said now. I’m amazed this is still rolling in the press – and I am thrilled that Harman is continuing to engage with the debate.

But, I wish to focus on the eye of this current ‘storm’ – and work out quite how it is the press are now saying that Harman doesn’t trust men to do anything. The Sunday Times headline on Sunday read “Harriet Harman: you can’t trust men in power”. The headline was based on a ‘News Review Interview with Harriet Harman‘ in the same paper. What Harman said, taken within the context of the profile, is, as far as I am concerned, eminently reasonable:

“Men cannot be left to run things on their own…in a country where women regard themselves as equal, they are not prepared to see men just running the show themselves. I think a balanced team of men and women makes better decisions”.

So what exactly is wrong with this? She doesn’t say that men can’t be trusted, she doesn’t bring in to question the competence of male politicians, she makes the perfectly valid point that true equality means equal access to positions of leadership. The fact is, that in the 90 years during which women have been able to sit in Parliament, you can count the number of women leaders and deputy leaders on one hand. Incidentally, in the same period nearly 5,000 men, and just 292 women, have been elected MPs.

Currently, the odds are stacked dramatically against women who want to get to positions of leadership – in politics, and in business – and, just as All Women Shortlists were an excellent suggestion to boost the number of women MPs, suggesting one woman in every leadership team is a serious suggestion worthy of serious consideration.

But, this still doesn’t explain the media outcry about something Harman tried to do two years ago, when she had just picked up the Deputy Leadership. All she did was ‘propose’ it, she didn’t try to use her muscle to drive it through, and having just taken office she will have justifiably been fired up to promote a renewed equality agenda.

Aside from the rather witty, but perhaps ill-judged, Lehman Sisters joke, Harman has clarified her comments from the weekend clearly, and reasonably. Yesterday, she said that she:

“didn’t actually say you can’t trust men, I basically said you get better decision making in a team if it’s a balanced team with women and men working alongside each other”.

So, I’m still stuck as to what exactly it was in this interview that got the pillars of the patriarchy trembling. I realise that many of you will love to shoot me down for saying this – but I’d venture to suggest that this furore is a direct result of sexism.

I am used to the right wing media having a go at feminists. That happens weekly. Women in the spotlight consistently have their arguments reduced to ‘how patronising’ they are, to the ‘colour of her jacket’, to their ‘militant feminist agenda’. According to the Sun, Harman is regularly teased by Labour MPs for her obsession with “the sisterhood”.

But, what has really shocked me over the last few days is the number of Party members participating in the mockery and deliberate misrepresentation of what Harriet Harman said in the Times.

This blog from John Prescott, in particular, shocked me. In the blog Prescott deliberately misrepresents Harman’s interview to somehow suggest it was a renewed bid at the leadership, before moving on to make some meek points about the importance of a meritocracy. His posture of sorrowful paternalism creates the impression that he is disciplining a naughty child. In my view, he is the one being unprofessional, not her. Fine, disagree with the proposal and talk about meritocracy if you must, but engage as a discursive educated adult, not in that sickly, self-satisfied, holier-than-thou kind of manner.

So, John, at worst, you’ve revealed yourself tangentially opposed to the equalities agenda your party has promoted. At best, you need to read things more carefully before you fire off your response.

I am the first to criticise Harriet Harman when I don’t think she is doing enough for feminism. There are a number of things that Labour is yet to achieve for equality – there are still pityingly few women MPs, the rape conviction rate is an absolute disgrace, the pay gap is showing no signs of improving etc. Ask me what she has done, though, and the list is definitely a long one.

I refuse to follow what appears to be the trend to mock and despise her, because I want there to be more days when the person leading this country is proud to call herself – or himself – a feminist.

Olivia Bailey

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