Labour’s deputy leader is tipped to succeed Gordon Brown, says Rod Liddle. But her vacuous feminism, her reflex loathing of men, her lack of interest in real statistics and her worrying links with trade unions would spell disaster for the party
So — Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober. The alcohol is sloshing around inside your brain, you’ve enjoyed a post-pub doner kebab together and maybe some grilled halloumi (a woman’s right to cheese) and she suggests, as you stand inside the frowsy minicab office: fancy going south, big boy? (I don’t know for sure that she’d use the term ‘big boy’; this is largely hypothetical stuff, you understand.) Anyway, the husband — Jack — is chilling in their second home in Suffolk, the kids are with their scary godmother Patricia Hewitt and the Peckham pad is free for the night. You imagine what might happen, what carnal delights are in store: Harriet fixing up some Moldovan Fairtrade coffee and then back in the living-room minxily slipping out of her stab-vest, the one she tends to wear while in her constituency, while sliding a sultry Joan Armatrading CD on the stereo. Would you? I think you wouldn’t. I think you have more self-respect, a greater sense of self-worth, no matter how much you’ve had to drink. I think you’d make your excuses and leave, just as the first bars of ‘Me Myself I’ strike up. I think you’d do the same with most of the babes who were once, or are now, on the government front bench.
That’s the problem with Caroline Flint’s statement that Labour’s most senior women were used by the Prime Minister as ‘window dressing’. I mean, would you dress your window with Jacqui Smith, or Ruth Kelly, or Harriet? If you had a window? You might dress the window with Caroline Flint, who, we should all agree, is as fit as a butcher’s dog. But the rest? I suppose Caroline meant ‘window dressing’ in a different way, i.e. as a highly visible sop to the remaining tranche of early 1970s feminists still active in the Labour party and in the campaigning quangos. In which case, she is probably right: what other reason could there be for the presence in high office of Jacqui and Harriet, other than some form of gender discrimination — i.e. for their looks — or for discrimination of the better, ‘positive’ kind, i.e. they are the only women around.
Apparently, within one year David Cameron might well be Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition his half cousin, Harriet Harman. At which point we will have a government front bench which speaks (in private at least) with the sort of vowel sounds you might have expected from Lord Salisbury’s last cabinet, and an opposition leader drawn from no less a privileged background. Harriet Harman, we are led to believe, might one day soon lead the party of Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan. Harriet is, as they say, to the manor born and was educated at St Paul’s School for Girls (£5,000 per term, if you’re thinking about it), although following this useful start in life she managed only to get into York University. Nor do her kids go to school locally in Peckham — heaven forefend; they go to posh schools some distance away. But class war, which is always fun, is not the reason why we should have disquiet about Harriet Harman. Or, if you’re me, not the only one.
The reason we should have disquiet about Harriet is because she is either thick or criminally disingenuous. My guess is thick. Being a bit thick should not disqualify someone from leading their party, I suppose, as both Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Salisbury would concur. But the problem with Harman is that this is stupidity repackaged as a form of jejune radicalism and as a consequence nobody in her party will gainsay it, for fear of being branded a reactionary.
Her only policy, her only raison d’être, is a particularly vacuous feminism dating from a sixth-form common room in about 1973. Were this a serious commitment and grounded in reality, one might respect her for it and even agree. But it never is grounded in reality. It is the perpetual shrieking of an idiot. Take, for example, her insistence, back in June, that rates of pay for women lag behind men by about 23 per cent, a figure which she jumped upon and which was widely reported in the press alongside her predictable commentary. The boss of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, actually had to tick her off for willful misreading of the figures — Harriet had not allowed for the far, far greater proportion of women working in part-time employment, with substantially lower wages. Once that was factored in the gender gap reduced to below 13 per cent. But even then — and again, this was either stupidity or disingenuous interpretation, and I favour the former — the figures raised more questions than they answered. Why do so many women work part-time? Why, even once these figures have been adjusted to take account of the part-time working, is women’s pay still below that of men’s? These are interesting questions which might well reveal a few truths about how we live now, and in a better world might impinge upon government policy. It might well be true that sexual discrimination is partly to blame; but it might be more the case that women prefer part-time working because they also wish to bring up children and that even when in fulltime employment a good many ‘down-size’ because they wish to achieve a better work-life balance and so on, and therefore do not end up earning the same salaries on average as their male colleagues. Hell, the evidence for this process is right there in front of her, with Estelle Morris and Ruth Kelly, to name but two. Investigate that and you might grope towards a policy which enables women to achieve their employment aspirations while at the same time recognises that, on average, fewer women wish to commit themselves totally to work than do men. But you dare not even suggest such a thing to Harriet. For her, it’s straightforward, even when she has to mishandle the figures. But my point is that there is not the slightest indication of thought from Harman about any of this, just a furious yapping based upon a misconception.
Her pronouncements this last weekend, about how some mechanism should be put in place to ensure that the Labour party always has a male-female partnership leading it, and that men should not be allowed to run things because they’re not very good at it, was from the same school of pre-Eighties high-school feminism: men, they’re all the same, gawd love ’em! Again, she misunderstood statistics and applied her usual brand of kneejerk gender hatred to the effects of the recession which, she implied, had been caused by men. Women must not be the victims of the recession, she whined, before the figures were produced which showed that in fact men had been much more badly hit as a consequence of the slump than had women. And on that notion that the Labour party should never be led by a man alone — isn’t there, sort of, a conflict of interest in such a statement? Given that Harriet is about the only woman left at the top of the Labour party? And, to occupy her campus-ground for a moment, what about those other victims of discrimination — black people, homosexuals, the elderly, the disabled? Shouldn’t there be some sort of mechanism to ensure that they are represented in senior positions at the top of the party? This is not simply a facile observation: as black Labour activists will tell you, one of the biggest obstacles in the path of getting more black and Asian Labour MPs has been the party’s insistence upon all-women shortlists. Of the various communities exulting in multicultural Britain, it is whitey who, sadly, is most committed to the principle of equality for women; hence all-women shortlists tend to discrimina
te against black men.
Bizarrely, Harman has been allowed to draft legislation based solely, it would seem, upon her hatred for men. Legislation to ensure that men who murder their wives are banged up for life with no recourse to a plea of provocation occasioned by the woman’s behaviour. And, at the same time, that women should henceforth be allowed to plead provocation when they murder their husbands and get a lesser sentence. This ludicrous and plainly unfair manipulation of the judicial system was again accompanied by Harriet shrieking out statistics — on this occasion, that 86 per cent of domestic murders were committed by men. You had the feeling that she’d be happier if the overall level of murders remained the same, so long as 51 per cent of them were committed by women. Sort of all-women shortlists for murderers.
So juvenile and deep-seated is her loathing of men that she has even argued that men are not really needed in a family set-up, that there’s really no great necessity for a child to know its own father. This goes against the findings of just about every social study of the family that’s been undertaken, where it is always the case that a child brought up in a stable family environment with a father and a mother tends to be happiest — and less criminally inclined — later in life. But then reality is rarely allowed to intrude upon Harman’s dogma.
Labour’s great campaigning women MPs always drew from a reservoir of feminism, alongside what used to be called class-consciousness (a difficult one for Harriet, this). But Bessie Braddock, Renee Short, Barbara Castle and the like were scarcely monomaniacs. Even Joan Ruddock was not as sex-obsessed as Harriet Harman.
I suppose if you were to put money on it, you would say that Harperson is the most likely candidate to become leader of the Labour party, assuming that Gordon Brown loses the election next year. An old Labour politician, now in the House of Lords, warned me about this several years ago, his hands shaking on his cup of tea. I thought he was going mad, to tell you the truth and simply smiled and asked after his wife. But he was right. You look at the rivals — is there a politician in Britain with less of a popular touch than Peter Mandelson? Well, maybe David Miliband. You are left pinning your hopes upon Alan Johnson, and they are fairly slender hopes.
I don’t suppose it will hurt Harriet very much that her husband is the treasurer of the Labour party and the deputy leader of Unite’s TGWU branch, Jack Dromey. And I don’t suppose the irony will smack her in the face if the trade unions, in deciding who will be the next Labour party leader, alight upon Harriet Harman. She’ll have got there all by herself.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 8, 2009