The rights stuff

Harriet Harman hits back at the critics for victim shaming. And she says Labour should have done more for the north

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Labour’s failure to invest sufficiently in the north when in government contributed to Brexit, admits Harriet Harman.

Harman, a minister throughout the Labour years of 1997 to 2010, says Labour was not radical enough when in power, and although it invested in the north’s cities, many other areas that were devastated by deindustrialisation in the Thatcher years failed to recover. The result was a disconnection from politics and ultimately a vote to leave the EU.

Harman’s unapologetic partisanship is one of the themes of her new memoir

“I don’t think we realised just how much power we had,” says the 66-year-old former secretary of state for social security, minister for women and solicitor general. “We had been in opposition for so long that we felt we couldn’t take for granted being in power. But we had a landslide and therefore we could have been more radical than we felt we were able to be.”

During those years of relative prosperity, Labour governments gave the go-ahead for the hugely expensive Crossrail in the capital, sunk billions into housing in the already overheating South East and devised education policies aimed at preventing middle-class flight from London schools. The north, by comparison, received less attention.

Harman, MP for the south-east London seat of Peckham since she emerged with a strong campaigning track record from the women’s movement in 1982, insists Labour was right to invest in the capital but says the north should not have been left behind.

“I remember when Manchester was really struggling and the impact of all the investment when Labour was in government and the renaissance. Liverpool is a city transformed – that was not a transformation that would ever have happened under a Tory government. And I see the same in Newcastle and I see the same in Leeds. But there are still so many areas of the north that have not had that great renaissance and who were left behind – and that was not good enough.

“We could have said: ‘Well, these are all the things that are wrong and one of them is the division of the north from the south and we’re going to sort it out.’ We had so much backing we could have done more on that.

“The investment we put in made some progress but not enough difference was made. We should have done those transport things that connected up those northern cities. We should have done Crossrail but at the same time we should have done the TransPennine stuff. We did need to sort out London schools because many of them were failing but those terrible wounds that arose during Thatcher’s time, we could and should have done more to heal them when in government – and the legacy of those wounds is seen in Brexit.”

Harman’s unapologetic partisanship is a theme of her new memoir. Sitting in her Portcullis House office at Westminster, she’s forthright when reminded of an anecdote in the book from the 1980s, when a cardiac consultant drew a line a third of the way down his waiting list and told her all the people below it would die while waiting for an operation.

“Politics is not theoretical – it’s about people’s lives. And if you have a Tory government running the NHS, people suffer. That’s why I wanted us to get into government and that’s why I hate having a Tory government now. People talk disparagingly about people being tribal – well, I am tribal. I’m tribal for Labour against the Tories because my practical experience is when you have a Tory government things get worse for people further down the scale.”

The main theme of Harman’s book, however, is the struggle for women’s rights. Her mother made it to Oxford to study law but the criminal law tutor refused to teach her, saying it was a waste of his time, so the university had to bus in a replacement tutor from London. Harman also became a lawyer – a more radical one than many might assume from her current image – supporting striking women fighting for equal pay, pushing for maternity rights and more.

When she got to Parliament in 1982 there were only a handful of women MPs and one of her greatest achievements was later campaigning to change the working hours of the Commons so MPs who are also mothers can combine their roles without the hardship of 2.30am finishes. And the stick she got for being a woman came not only from Tories – Conservative MP Terry Dicks said she should not be allowed to speak because she was “too scruffy” – but from her own side too. One of her colleagues complained that she had smuggled her baby into the House under her coat. She hadn’t.

At an event, another Labour grandee groped her as they danced, but she felt unable to say anything for fear of causing a scene. But the passage from the book that made the headlines was her revelation that her York University lecturer TV Sathyamurthy, who has now died, promised her a higher grade if she slept with him. Was she surprised at the reaction in some elements of the media, in which she was accused of slandering a dead man’s name for the sake of publicity?

“I was the student and he was in a stronger position – he was in control of my degree. Are people saying I am telling a lie about this? Why would I? I’m 66 – I do not need to invent this story.

“But the fact that people think it’s the right thing to do to challenge somebody who says this happened to them, it just reinforces in my mind that that’s why victims don’t complain, because I’m being blamed for besmirching his reputation. I’m being accused of doing it to sell my book. Now that is victim shaming.”

Struggling to reconcile the roles of mother and politician – and in the face of such sexism – Harman came close to giving up her seat at various times but remained resilient enough to lead the opposition in 2010 when Gordon Brown stood down and in 2015, after the Ed Miliband era. She made few friends on the left of the party when in 2015 she told colleagues not to vote against a Tory bill that contained welfare cuts – and indeed boosted Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign when he took what many thought was a principled stance and voted against the bill.

She is unrepentant, claiming that voting against the bill would have meant falling into a Tory procedural trap and led to the loss of three million promised apprenticeships that were bundled into the bill. “That’s what our position was – we were for the apprenticeships but we were against the tax credit cuts.”

But there’s an echo of Labour’s uncomfortable triangulation years when she adds: “But the other thing is that when you are in opposition you have to sometimes recognise when people are worried about what you’re saying and that’s why they haven’t voted for you. And one of the things that people were worried about – I heard it over and over again – is we’re working really hard but you are not keeping a close enough eye on people who actually aren’t working and we’re working twice as hard to support people who can’t be bothered.

“And it’s all very well saying they’re wrong. You can say that, and that’s fine but you are in opposition. And when you are in opposition, you can’t do anything.”

Harman’s ally Chris Leslie, Nottingham East MP, pops his head around the door to discuss tactics for Harman’s amendment to the Article 50 bill, which would guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Later that afternoon the amendment, along with all the party’s other ones, is thrown out, and she ducks a question about what leverage her party now has in seeking to avoid a hard Brexit after it voted to trigger Article 50.

She does square up to one about this week’s by-elections in Copeland and Leave-voting Stoke, where Labour is struggling, despite the best efforts of Ukip’s Paul Nuttall to implode.

“The important thing is to tackle people’s belief that we are not in touch with their lives, that Labour somehow is distant from them, that we don’t understand their lives and we disapprove of their views.

“You can’t be a political party on behalf of people if they think you are not on their side.”

Harriet Harman: A Woman’s Work is published by Allen Lane (£20)

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