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Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips: poles apart in the sisterhood

Bossy headmistress or gobby girl in the playground? It doesn’t need saying which Labour MP I prefer, says Julie Burchill

25 February 2017

9:00 AM

25 February 2017

9:00 AM

A Woman’s Work Harriet Harman

Allen Lane, pp.416, £20

Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth Jess Phillips

Hutchinson, pp.256, £14.99

We’re told not to judge books by their covers, but faced with these two it’s hard not to. Harman’s is one of those thick, expensive tomes which, understandably, politicians write when they’ve had enough earache and, unbelievably, publishers keep buying for vast sums, despite the fact that a fortnight after publication you can pick them up cheaper than an adult colouring book in a remainder bin. The old saw that ‘all political careers end in failure’ might now better be: ‘All political careers end with a book on Amazon going for less than the price of the postage.’

In the run-up to lift-off, Harman sought to sex up her selling point by performing a sort of abbrieviated, civic-minded Dance of the Seven Veils, revealing a double-whammy of sexual indignities at the hands of powerful men, and demanding that the next Doctor Who be female. Sadly, the combination of the two things — not complaining about real assaults then, and being stroppy about an imaginary character now — make her look as bogus and bossy as far too many female Labour MPs already have a reputation for being. Even the title conjures up an unappealing image of a tutting busybody aching to run rings round men just for the sake of it rather than from any burning desire for social change.

Like the awful Diane Abbott, Harman is one of those thoughtful, serious-minded Labour women who seems to come alive when saying silly, thoughtless things.
She even has the Voice — that more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger Sunday-school drone which remains convinced that if it keeps repeating itself in ever slower permutations, opposition will do the decent thing and crumble. Brexit, of course, was the ripest raspberry ever blown in the face of such wheedling arrogance. Still, it’s hard not to warm to her sharp-nosed, clear-eyed young face on the front cover, peering bravely into a future of policy reviews and quangos galore. Sadly her writing style is so dull it makes ditchwater look like a dry martini — if you had to guess the MP author, you might hazard John Major in his pedantic pomp — and this is rendered comical by the three dynamically named sections of the book: ‘Upheaval’, ‘Transformation’ and ‘Challenge’.

With almost three decades on the front bench, twice acting deputy leader and the first Labour woman to feature at Prime Minister’s Questions, Harman is the definitive Nearly Woman — as are all capable Labour women, trapped in a party which having signed up to the brotherhood of man seems quite happy to ride roughshod over their sisters, forever promising them jam tomorrow so long as they themselves pick the fruit, boil the berries and write the labels. At a time when the Conservatives are on their second female leader and Labour are led by a man who seems as impervious to sexism as any other weirdy beardy from Real Ale Society to mosque, Harman’s book seems especially poignant. But I must say that any sympathy I had for her went out of the window in the first 40 pages when, having already suffered physical and verbal gropings from lecturers, employers and comrades without complaining about it, she gets stalked by a nutter whose case she has been bothering the poor police about through her job with the National Council for Civil Liberties. ‘He was menacing and angry. Having been his solicitor, I was fully aware of every detail of his record of violent crime. I knew that he didn’t just threaten violence, he carried it out’ — and yet she doesn’t tell the coppers for years, until he actually threatens to kill her. ‘As I tipped out the carrier bags full of just some of the letters I’d kept, the police were aghast that I’d done nothing about it before.’


Here is the masochistic madness of do-gooding socialist feminism laid bare — and Labour wonder why women vote Tory! While we’re on the subject of perverts, instead of unreservedly presenting the NCCL as a heroic ‘thorn in the side of government’ forever fighting for the rights of the little man, Harman might have seen fit to mention that, during her time there, they also granted the Paedophile Information Exchange formal affiliate status at a time when this vile lobby group was suggesting that the age of consent be lowered to ten. A little mea culpa might not have gone amiss. Still, it’s in the nature of the great and the good not to admit to anything which might reveal them as the entitled, woolly-minded mediocrities they generally are, and Harman — despite her admirable work for women’s rights — is no exception.

Jess Phillips’s book couldn’t be more different. Instead of cool, classy, monochrome photography, there’s a rough sketch of the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley which is so slapdash that the words JESS WAS ERE — LOLZ wouldn’t look out of place. But the cover words from J.K. Rowling — ‘Jess Phillips is a heroine’ — paint a thousand pictures, and I imagine will make this book move quite a bit quicker than the aforementioned dour doorstop.

Phillips is the anti-Harman; whereas the well-born lawyer preached women’s equality and suffered sexual terrorism in silence, the gobby Brummie appears never to have had a thought that wasn’t roundly expressed, especially when it comes to the liberties little men take with visible women. ‘You will never be popular’ are the first words of the book, spoken by none other than HH herself to our humble heroine just a few months after she arrives in Westminster. For those of a profoundly shallow set of mind, such as myself, this encounter will evoke images of leading lady attempting to put down ingenue from endless Hollywood showbiz flicks. But Jess is nothing if not sisterly: ‘I’m not messing — I feel a proper div saying this — but I felt something in my heart… I kid you not, I felt some sort of baton passing.’

Generally, when politicians try to be matey, the result is excruciating, and you wish they’d just sod off back to their ivory tower. But this book really is like reading a transcript of your cleverest, funniest friends talking about what’s getting their goat at that point where the prosecco has made them sparkly and before it makes them silly. Not to denigrate the talent of Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran, but Everywoman has all the laughs theirs have with a backbone of real glinting anger which has not had to manicure and mutate itself in order to maintain a cool media career.

Phillips works for the people of Birmingham Yardley, not some entertainment tycoon, and her passion to serve them above all (witness her recent vote for Brexit, although a Remainer, because her constituents were in favour) makes her a far better writer than she would be if angling for clickbait was her primary source of income. Her brazen bumptiousness will appal some and delight others; an MP for only two years, she has yet to have her rough edges smoothed over; and while this is generally an excellent thing, reading her book can sometimes feel a little like having the bolshiest girl in the playground shove you up against a wall and shout in your face until you’re saved by the bell.

But I never could resist a bolshy broad. In my time I’ve had to review loads of books which I couldn’t stand. This was the first which I dreaded going back to because there were so many funny and wise things on each page that whittling them down into a review seemed impossible. It’s very good for the sisterhood that Phillips likes Harman — but it’s very good for admirers of wit, wisdom and wicked humour that she’s nothing like her at all.


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