Harriet Harman marks 30 years in parliament
Earlier this month, the speaker of the House of Commons held a reception at his home to mark a rather historical occasion.
The great and the good of Westminster and beyond gathered to pay tribute to the UK’s longest serving female MP, who was celebrating three decades in the business.
Yes, 30 years ago this winter, Harriet Ruth Harman, solicitor and equality campaigner, became Member of Parliament for Peckham.
At the time, just 3 per cent of MPs were women.
The fact that women today have a far more prominent – albeit fluctuating – place around the tables of power is, in no small part, down to the years of campaigning on the part of Ms Harman, who would eventually become the country’s first ever Minister for Women.
But having trained and qualified as a solicitor, she was making her mark as an equality campaigner long before anyone had ever heard her name.
Her first job as a solicitor was at Brent Law Centre, the left-wing campaigning body where she met her husband Jack on a picket line, if legend is to be believed.
Even then, she was fighting against a tide of patriarchy and trying to make her way in what was very much a man’s world.
When she was job-hunting as a trainee solicitor, law firms would advertise for “the right young man for the job… It wasn’t recognised what women could do,” she said.
She then became Legal Officer for what was then the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), and is now simply called Liberty, where she took on the first cases for women under the – then new – Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts and won a landmark Sex Discrimination Act case.
After several years of frustration witnessing women struggle for equality in the workplace, as well as in society in general, she decided that there was a more direct way to tackle discrimination – and became an MP.
At the time, she was one of only ten women Labour MP’s..
Three decades later, she is still in the House, now representing Camberwell and Peckham.
This in itself is quite an accomplishment, and her list of achievements on the equalities front is more than significant.
But being a woman in politics, it was inevitable that she would make regular headline news – some good, some not so good.
On a personal level, she has been criticised and vilified for everything from being ‘on the posh side’ – she is a a descendant of the 7th Earl of Longford – and, conversely, for deliberately dropping her ‘t’s, and from sending her own children to an opted-out Catholic School, to being banned from driving and fined for speeding.
On a professional level… Well, that has also, on occasion, been something of a bumpy ride, not least of all for her rather questionable turn at the Labour Party conference this year.
But like every political figure, she will most likely be judged on her legacy, and for her, that means the ways in which she has changed the way women in this country live and work.
She has held an array of impressive posts, from Shadow Minister for Social Services, Labour Spokesperson for Health, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, for Social Security and for Employment, Minister for Women and of course deputy leader and acting leader of the Opposition.
And she has campaigned for – and achieved – many landmark changes in the law and in social attitudes that tackle gender discrimination.
After joining Parliament in 1982, for example, she set up the first Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Group.
When it looked as though Labour would select an all-male shadow cabinet, she campaigned for places to be reserved for women – and in 1989, 3 places for women were added.
In the same year, she was instrumental in the introduction of ‘women-only shortlists’, which led eventually to the election of 101 Labour women MPs in 1997.
The national minimum wage is largely thanks to her, and she introduced the New Deal for Lone Parents, to help lone mothers who wanted to get off benefits and into work.
In 1998 she established the National Childcare Strategy, and for years she campaigned for longer maternity leave and higher maternity pay.
As Solicitor General, she campaigned for the prioritisation of domestic violence, and this in turn led to the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act.
It was not exactly plain sailing, however, and she has said that she considered quitting ‘many, many times’ but didn’t want to send out the wrong message to other women.
She has also said that in the early years, it was hard being a woman in a overwhelmingly male environment.
Attitudes were ‘you’re too young; then with children, an absolute write off, too much on your plate; and then past it. You never have a prime.
‘Yet for men, when they’re young they’re ambitious and thrusting: if a man has four children, his work colleagues will regard him as reassuringly virile. And then when he’s older, he’s all wisdom and sagacity.’
Like all politicians, Harriet Harman hardly has an unblemished record and has attracted her share of scandal around party contributions and expenses issues.
But one thing is indisputable.
Without her, we might never have had the protections against discrimination for women with regards to pay, maternity rights and employment conditions that we do today.
And while she is now no longer at the cutting edge of equalities, being, as she now is, the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, she is still seen as a torchbearer for the fight against gender discrimination.
She once said that if she became prime minister, ‘there wouldn’t be enough airports for all the men who would want to flee the country’.
As unlikely a prospect of her ever becoming prime minister may be, should it happen, there is always the ferry…