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We need to talk about Harriet


Harriet Harman’s speech at the end of Labour Party Conference hit a dull note for women.

Last week saw the annual Labour Party Conference take place in Manchester.

The week drew to a close with the final speech being delivered by Harriet Harman, one of Labour’s most reliable figures, a respected and seasoned parliamentarian with a trailblazing track record in equalities.

Not only that, she is also the longest continuously serving female MP in the House of Commons.

Harriet, lest we forget, is the women who, in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, was Minister for Women and Equality. She sponsored the Equality Act which, amongst other things, set out new protections against discrimination for women with regards to pay, maternity rights and employment conditions.

So all in all, a good egg, one might say.

And while her current portfolio in the Shadow Cabinet is no longer in the field of equalities, being as she is the Shadow Culture Secretary, she is still seen as a torchbearer for feminist equality by countless women – and indeed men.

With this in mind, it’s little wonder that many were left more than a tad bewildered by her ‘performance’ at the 2012 conference.

For it was indeed a performance, which The Telegraph referred to as ‘Harriet’s hilarity roadshow’.

It seems to be more and more common for the political big hitters to pepper their speeches with comedy, particularly when wrapping up the annual conferences.  Some carry it off, some not so much.

Unfortunately for Ms Harman, it was not so much.

Bad jokes and bad delivery aside, it was the content of her address that made for jaw dropping listening.

Picture the scene.  The conference is drawing to a climax.  Ms Harman prepares to take the stage.  The audience are pumped (in expectation of Ms Harman’s closing address….. and perhaps also because it is nearly home time.)

At last Harriet takes to the stage to warm applause….. or rather, as The Telegraph put it, ‘on she tottered, beginning with an impression of a Page 3 girl. “Hello conference,” she piped, “I’m Hattie, 62, from Camberwell!” To the relief of the room the impression ended there, jacket and blouse intact.’

Eh?  Could this be the same Harriet Harman who opened her 2009 conference speech, with ‘Since last Conference, we have had twelve months of determined progress towards equality?  It’s been a year of promises made and promises kept. Twelve months ago, I pledged to you that we would press forward on our progressive agenda to help make Britain a fairer and more equal place.’

Make no mistake. It pains me to write this.  I like Harriet, I really do.

But when she said ‘’Women are finding it hard to hang onto their jobs – and that’s just the women in David Cameron’s Cabinet. You know Angry Birds used to be David Cameron’s favourite computer game – now it’s his pet name for Caroline Spelman and Nadine Dorries’, I almost wept.

Harriet!  What are you doing?

In 2009 she said ‘For us, for Labour, equality is not just a slogan – it’s what we are about. It’s a way of life.’  She talked about the eradication of the gender pay gap, about greater choices for working mothers, about protecting women from violence and sexual exploitation.

This year she talked about ’50 Shades of Grey’, saying that women didn’t want a man who would tie her to the bed, but rather one who would load the dishwasher and let her watch the ‘Great British Bake Off ‘ in peace.

Given her track record in fighting discrimination and, in particular, being a figurehead and spokesperson for gender equality, one can only hope that this was a momentary glitch, high spirited end-of-conference hysteria.

Either way, at the end of the day, it just showed that trying to be ‘one of the boys’ was, frankly, beneath her.

  1. Oh my dear lord! this is so so strange! Its quite a good case to demonstrate the difference between women’s rights and everyday feminism. Caitlin Moran has been criticised for her approach top everyday Feminism but it matters. It especially matters when our pioneering female politicians don’t even realise how damaging it can be. shudder… (also, great writing!)

  2. It was pretty terribly judged as a speech, but I can’t help but feel sorry for Harman. Any woman in the public eye who expresses any interest in feminism and equality immediately has this burden placed on her that everything she does has to be feminism-max, or she’s letting everyone down.
    On the other hand, ‘Angry Birds’, Harriet? Really?

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