Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Speaker's Lecture - Parliament & Equality - 08/07/2014

8th JULY 2014
Harriet Harman MP


I'm very proud to be giving the Speakers Lecture. This is one of your many innovations since you've been speaker.  And I'm delighted to see you all here.  I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, for this choice of subject.  It is very typical of you. You presided over radical proposals in the Speakers Conference on parliamentary representation.  You insisted - in the teeth of opposition - on a nursery for the children of MPs and the 2,000 people who work in parliament.  You appointed the first woman to the post of Speakers Chaplain and you ensure, when you choose who to speak in the Chamber, that it’s not just the usual suspects but that all members get a fair crack of the whip.

You said when you ran for Speaker that you would be a champion of equality and you have been exactly that.

[I'm delighted to have been asked by you to talk about Equality and Parliament - a subject close to my heart and one of my central missions over the last 30 years. and one which has earned me  nicknames like Harriet harperson, harradan Harriet - there are so many who clearly need a stint in the Harriet Harman institute of political correctness]


I'm grateful for the opportunity, in this moment of pre-referendum and pre-election fever, to set out why the issue of equality and parliament is - and remains - so important.

Equality and diversity is important

*as a matter of principle,
*to ensure good people are not excluded from parliament,
*for the signal it sends to the public who feel disaffected and distant from parliament.
*to avoid the group-think which comes from a homogenous group which will fails to understand the different groups of people in this country.
*and it’s needed if parliament is to lead change to a more equal country

And inequality is old fashioned and out of touch. Any institution, anywhere in the world, which is all-male is showing that it’s stuck in the past.

But my starting point is the basic principle.  The principle of equality - that no-one should be excluded from, or discriminated against in, representing a constituency, becoming an MP because they're a woman, because they're not white, because they are gay, disabled or from a working class background.  Parliament must represent all of the people so it must champion equality.  It cannot do that if, by its composition, it's an emblem of inequality.


Parliament must include the best people - drawn from the widest pool of talent and commitment.  It is not doing that if it’s exclusive and discriminatory.  So it’s paradoxical that our argument for equality in the composition of parliament meets with resistance on the basis that it would water down the "quality" of MPs.  MPs are chosen on merit - we were told - and what were arguing for was a threat to that.

But how could it have been the result of merit or quality that, when I arrived in 1982 parliament was 97% men and only 3% women. And this overwhelmingly male parliament was 100% white.  The "merit" argument has been used to resist progress towards diversity not just here in parliament but right across the establishment from boardrooms to the judiciary.  I have always found the argument that pits merit against equality not just ludicrous, but offensive.  Essentially it's saying to women, black people, people with disabilities and from working class backgrounds "we'd like to have you here but we can't afford to water down the quality".  What matters is not just the quality of the individuals but also the composition of institution as a whole.  And even if the individuals are high quality, if they are totally homogenous then the institution as a whole lacks merit.


When people see parliament on TV it’s important that they see and hear people like themselves.  How could women believe that parliament understood their lives when it was so overwhelmingly male?  How shameful that for so many years people from the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities had played their part so assiduously in our democracy by voting in general elections and yet not one single MP was non-white.  When Bernie Grant - who along with Diane Abbot was one of two Afro-Caribbean MPs to come into parliament in 1987 - appeared at the Queens Speech dressed in full African dress there was muttering and sneers.  But to see him there - resplendent in flowing African robes on the Green benches of the House of Commons sent a huge and positive message that reached people from the Afro-Caribbean community - not least in my constituency - that the House of Commons was hearing now from their community. He was representing not just his own constituency of Tottenham - but the wider Afro-Caribbean Community.

The election of David Blunket in the House of Commons not only brought a great politician to parliament, it sent a powerful message that parliament would hear from people with disabilities and recognise their abilities.  Every time Ann Begg speaks from her wheelchair in the Commons it’s not only about the importance of what she says but also about the inclusion of wheelchair users more generally.


But it’s more than just about what parliament looks like... that parliament should mirror the country which elects us.  It’s also about the fight for change.  This country is riven by deeply-entrenched inequality - which are growing.  We need parliament to lead the fight against inequality - to address the causes of it.  It must lead by example to lead change in the country.  It cannot hope to lead change to tackle inequality in the country, if you can see, just by looking at it, that it itself, embodies discrimination.  So equality and diversity in parliament is important to drive forward equality in this country.


Diversity is about class background too.  The Labour Party specifically was founded to speak up for working class communities.  But the founding PLP - being disproportionately university graduates - was initially very different from the Trade Union members in whose interests the party was established.   But through the Labour Party, the trade union movement did, for many years, bring to parliament men from working class backgrounds.  There wouldn't be any women for me to sit with in the tea room when I was first elected - but because of the 20-strong NUM group of Labour MPs I would often find myself in the tea room with former miners from the coalfields of Scotland, Wales and the North.  And their voice was strong in the chamber.  With the change of our industries and the fall in trade union membership that has changed.  But, in the Labour Party we are acutely aware of the need to represent the breadth of people who elect us.  It is a challenge to our party to select candidates from all different backgrounds - a challenge for the Labour Party and for our trade unions.  And with more than 50% of the trade union members being women, that means working class women as well as men.


Who is in parliament is obviously critical to what we debate and the decisions we make.  It’s embarrassing in a democracy if you are deciding on behalf of people who are not there to speak for themselves.  Who's in parliament shapes the political agenda.  Despite pioneers like Jo Richardson, issues like childcare and domestic violence scarcely made a dent on the political agenda before the women MPs arrived in 1997.  It needed Dawn Primarolo to move an amendment to the 2000 Finance Bill to exempt sanitary towels from VAT.  No man in parliament at that time could even bring himself to mention it.  A debate about the wearing of the veil needs to hear not just from men...but also from women...especially from our women MPs from the Muslim community. 

Diversity in Parliament is needed to protect us from the group think which is so dangerous for any institution - most spectacularly recently in the financial services industry.   A homogenous group of men in the boardrooms - all mutually reinforcing - was oblivious to the risks they were taking with their companies' and their country's future.  There was no-one with a different perspective, able to see things differently.

Because equality and diversity is essential for our democracy to be worthy of the name "representative democracy", having a truly representative parliament is a democratic imperative.  We need more people - like the rest of the public to be in parliament.  Especially at a time when people feel that politicians are a different species who have no idea about the lives everyone else leads.  So, the issue is not just who gets in to parliament but what we do - and feel able to do - when we get here. It’s no good having MPs from all walks of life if when we get here we morph into homogenous parliamentary uniformity.


Though my election to parliament was very much to do with the demand of the women's movement to redress the lack of women in Parliament, as soon as I got here I was under massive pressure to be as like the men as possible.


Being very much a fish out of water - one of only 10 Labour women in a parliament of over 600 MPs, I received well-meaning advice on how I could redress my deficiencies.

I should keep my head down for a few years, and learn the ropes. I should avoid the terrible humiliation that would befall me if I made a mistake.  I must avoid drawing attention to myself.  It would only annoy everyone     I should not bang on about women or I'd be pigeon-holed and stereo-typed so I should focus mainstream issues. And I should hang out in the bar to show I was "clubbable".

But having supported me to get into parliament the women's movement wanted me to blaze a trail - and would have been dismayed it I’d kept my head down. 

It was impossible to be inconspicuous when I arrived hugely pregnant.

Women outside Parliament were counting on me to talk about childcare and maternity leave - not just join the debates about the money supply. 

And I couldn't hang out drinking in the bar when I was feeling sick from pregnancy or rushing back home to put the babies to bed.

Because I didn't conform, the punishment for being different was often nasty. 

When I came back after having my first baby I was reported to the Sergeant at Arms for breaking the rules by taking my baby through the division lobby under my jacket. Of course I'd done no such thing - I was still fat from being pregnant. What made it worse was that it was obviously my own side... because it was our lobby.  I told the whips I'd have to miss a vote because I was ill - with mastitis.  And they put it in the papers.


When I campaigned for more women MPs, that was deeply and very personally resented by the men MPs who accused me of attacking them by saying they were incapable of representing their women constituents.

The point I'm trying to make here is that it’s not just the struggle to get in to parliament but the struggle to stick to what you stand for when you do.  So I'll always be grateful for the support I got.  Jack always insisted that however horrible it was in parliament, the women's movement was right behind me.  And both Neil Kinnock and John Smith were massively supportive. 

But that pressure to conform and homogenise is still alive and well. After the 2010 General Election, you organised a session in the chamber for all the new MPs and I spoke as former Leader of the House.  I reminded the new MPs that their constituents, having voted for them, expected them to blaze a trail here and that they should ignore warnings (and hints about the fastest route to ministerial office) to keep quiet for a few years.  In the following weeks so many came up to say that's exactly what had happened to them


The whole point is that each Member elected must represent their constituents and what they stand for in the way that they see best.  I've always been happy to hear women saying that they've stood for the council or for parliament because they saw me doing it.  But I don't like the notion of role model.   To follow someone and model yourself on them is the opposite of change.  There is no right way to be an MP.  Every MP must be their own role model. 


And once you are here - even if you are in a minority - and even if you find it ridiculous, and hard-going and are determined to change it - you still have your job to do for your constituents.  And must plunge in and stand up for them

Throughout the years that I was struggling as a young MP with young children, like every MP I still had to play a leading role on behalf of my constituents - as they struggled on long hospital waiting lists, as they aspired to better education and opportunities for their children.  You always have to be there for your constituents especially when the community faces huge shocks.  Over the years my constituency has been rocked by the murder of 10 year old Damilola Taylor, rioters smashing up Rye Lane, 3 women and 3 children being burnt to death in the tower block fire at Lakanal House. There's no point in being an MP if you can't stand up for your constituency.  So no matter how hard you find it, you have to get on with it.  Minority MPs - whether women, BAME or disabled however difficult we find it, we can't afford to be victims, we have to be pioneers.


Our campaigns for more women MPs succeeded.  But only through the mechanism of All Women Shortlists.  This is has always been and remains to this day, hugely controversial.  But we only did it because it was the only thing that worked.  We had tried bringing about change by winning the argument - making the case to select more women.  But still only men were selected.  We tried a woman on every shortlist for selection.  There was an almighty row about that but still only men were selected.  We tried 50:50 shortlists.  Again a huge row but still no women selected.  So it was only by the radical measure of excluding men altogether from 50% of the seats we hoped to win, that we got women elected. 

But the effect of those all-women shortlists was transformational - and more than 100 Labour women swept in to parliament in 1997.  That decisive moment changed not just the face of parliament but the agenda of politics and parliament.  We introduced the National Childcare Strategy, new laws on domestic violence, the Equality Act, doubled maternity pay and leave, brought in the right to request flexible working - issues of huge importance to women in this country -   we know that there is still a way to go on all of this - and new frontiers like the challenges facing older women have to be faced up to - but none of this would have happened without the women.  And now in parliament - like in most workplaces in the country there are pregnant women and loads of Westminster babies - who can, thanks to your change in the rules - be taken through the lobby without, it seems doing irreparable damage to our democracy.


But even though now things are miles better - with a critical mass of Labour women MPs - they still face challenges.  Not least around the issue of children. A woman MP is still defined by her marital status and reproductive record in a way that would be unthinkable for a man.  And to an extent she can't win. This was set out so clearly by Hilary Clinton.  The Clinton Conundrum is...  Bake cookies and you are a real woman - but can't be a leader.  Fail to be bake cookies and you can be a leader but you're not a real woman. 

This can be painfully divisive amongst women MPs.  In any interview, a young woman MP who doesn't have children is challenged to explain herself.  Something that doesn't happen to a married man MP.  If she explains it by way of her focus on her work being incompatible with having children she's inadvertently making a judgment on other women who are trying to be mothers as well as MPs.  And it works the other way round too.  Maria Miller, pointing out that she was the only mother in the cabinet, was passing judgment on the other women in the cabinet who didn't have children - but not the men.  If a woman MP does have children she is either a devoted mother and a deficient MP who'll remain on the side-lines.  Or is she a dynamic and ambitious MP and therefore a deficient mother.  An MP father who attends his child's school open evening can tell everyone about it in a loud voice and is admired as heroic.  But a woman MP best not mention because she'll soon be identified as insufficiently committed to her work.  And this is because the underlying reality is, and the cultural expectation is, that it remains the case that in most families, it's the mother who takes the daily responsibility for young children - and indeed for older relatives.

I massively admire my younger women colleagues - with and without children - who forge their way through this.  But though they get on with the job and don't whinge, it’s still hard for them. In some ways it’s easier for them - there now being a critical mass of women.  But in some ways it’s harder. It’s particularly galling to arrive in parliament in a generation which purports to espouse equality only to find it is far from the case.


Though we have made a great deal of progress - we still have a long way to go. Though active opposition to women in parliament has all but disappeared - it has been replaced, to an extent, by "passive resistance" - protestations of a belief in equality unmatched by preparedness to change.  While everyone says they are in favour of equality and diversity in parliament, we shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security.  Active outspoken opposition has been replaced by passive resistance which in some ways is harder to deal with.  You don't have to openly oppose equality to perpetuate inequality.  All it takes is for those in positions of power to do nothing and the status quo prevails.  Progress towards equality requires men to change as well as women.  Particularly men in positions of power.

And women must not only seen but also be heard.  It's really a deliberate misrepresentation to have the few Tory women MPs clustered around the Prime Minister so that they can be picked up by the TV cameras while the rest of the government benches are nearly exclusively men.

And just as the front line of politics must be equal, so must be the power structures behind it.  It is not only on the green benches that power is exercised but also in the corridors.  Remember in "The Thick of It" the special advisor was more powerful than the junior ministers.  The overwhelming majority of special advisors are still white men.  And they work with a press lobby which is the same with a mutually reinforcing homogeneity.


And though we know that increasingly people exchange views directly on twitter and other social media, the lobby is still influential in setting the agenda for both print and broadcasters.  The lens through which an overwhelmingly male parliament is reported on to the public and commentated on is, itself, woefully male.  The parliamentary press lobby is long overdue for change too 


And the truth is that even getting to the top of the political structures is no guarantee of equality.  Imagine my surprise when having won a hard fought election to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader of the Labour Party, I discovered that I was not to succeed him as Deputy Prime Minister! If one of the men had won the deputy leadership would that have happened? Would they have put up with it?  I doubt it.  And imagine the consternation in my office when we discovered that my involvement in the London G20 summit was inclusion at the no 10 dinner for the G20 leader's wives.
We must remember Caroline Flint’s denunciation of women being used as "window dressing"


My particular experience has been as a woman in parliament trying to bring women's concerns in to politics.  But as I've reflected in my comments, parliament needs to be more ethnically diverse, more representative of people with disabilities, include more people from working class backgrounds. In the quest for progress, some argue that race discrimination is much more vicious and intractable than discrimination against women.  That All Women Shortlists have discriminated against black men.  Some argue that it is your class background, which matters above all. That middle class women squeeze out working class men.   We have to guard against the danger of pitting one sort of inequality against another.... fighting amongst ourselves to establish a hierarchy of inequalities is self-defeating.  The issues are different ...but they all matter.  We need to make common cause, not succumb to divide and rule.

Though the women's movement has made massive progress, there are still many doctrinal controversies - the right not to take your husband’s name, the right to make your husband take your name - then the assertion that women are now so strong that it’s ok to take your husband's name.  This culminated in Beyoncé’s latest tour being entitled "I am Mrs Carter."  This is of course highly relevant to me because, like Beyoncé, I too am going on tour in the New Year - my General Election tour 2015.  Like Beyoncé I've been thinking about what to call my nationwide tour. If anyone here's got suggestions...do please let me know.  But I think it is unlikely to be "I am Mrs Dromey."

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