James Kirkup

In praise of Harriet Harman

In praise of Harriet Harman
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One of my proudest moments as a Daily Telegraph leader writer came in 2015 when I managed to persuade my masters that their paper should bestow official praise on Harriet Harman as she stepped down (for a second time) as Labour’s interim leader and made way for Jeremy Corbyn.

The resulting editorial (you can read it here) raised a few eyebrows, but the most striking thing about it was the number of people on the right of politics who quietly agreed with it. You don’t have to agree with all, or even any, of Harman’s political positions to acknowledge her formidable resilience. There are mountain ranges with less endurance than the MP for Camberwell and Peckham, who was first elected in 1982 at a by-election that made her one of 20 women in the Commons.

Thirty-eight years in parliament inevitably means a long and contested record. I have no interest in debating the rights and wrongs of Harman’s CV before the current day; more than anything else, it would just take too long. Other people can fight over everything from her record at the National Council of Civil Liberties to Labour’s parliamentary votes on welfare reform.

My interest is much more immediate. I’m writing this because on Tuesday night in the Commons, the government published an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The amendment would remove 'consent for sexual gratification' as a defence in court for those accused of causing serious harm.

In simpler terms, this ends the 'rough sex defence'. It will no longer be possible for a man to kill a woman then get away with it by claiming she died as a result of a 'sex game gone wrong'. 

For obvious legal reasons, I will name no names, but this repulsive device has been used by a number of men who have killed women in horrible ways, sometimes with the result that those men escape proper justice. According to some lawyers and campaigners, the use of that defence has become more common in recent years.

The government’s amendment, in the names of Priti Patel and Robert Buckland, is in large part the result of a tremendous campaign called We Can’t Consent to This, which raised the issue and marshalled the evidence that allowed parliament to get to this point.

But the final push in the Commons was led, in part, by Harriet Harman, indomitable and indefatigable, and a much more consensual politician than you’d expect if you just know the Harriet Harperson caricature of dogmatic left-winger.

For Harman may have pushed the government towards this amendment, but she did not do so alone. She worked in close harmony with Conservatives, including Mark Garnier and Laura Farris, and built the sort of coalition that ministers cannot ignore. Garnier, whose campaigning over the death of his constituent Natalie Connelly deserves great praise, was last night clear where credit belongs for the coalition’s victory: 'All thanks to Harriet Harman for her astonishing leadership with this,' he said

For almost four decades, Harriet Harman has been part of national life. She has been right about things and she has been wrong. She has been mocked and she has been praised. And through it all, during all those long years, she has persisted. There are all sorts of consequences of a political career so long and varied, but maybe the result of this latest chapter is that some women might just be a little safer than they were – or maybe, more sadly, that some vile and worthless men find it a little harder to get away with murder.

We live in grim times, where political conversation is too often reduced to binary morality based on confirmation bias and judgements about imputed motives rather than actions. The people who say things we agree with must be all good, and the ones who say things we dislike do so because they are all bad. Put that nonsense aside for a moment and consider this: Harriet Harman, admirably dauntless, has done something good. Praise her.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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