“It's embarrassing misogyny”: Harriet Harman on why Labour has never had a female leader

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Harriet Harman says “embarrassing misogyny” is to blame for the fact that Labour has never had a female leader – despite regarding itself as the “party of women and of [gender] equality” next to the Conservatives, who have had two women at the top.

In an exclusive interview with Stylist’s Harriet Hall at the Hay Festival today, the veteran politician, who is standing for re-election in Camberwell and Peckham, says “it is not OK” that Labour has never had a woman at its helm; and insists that the party must actively work to alter its poor gender leadership record in the future.

Harman attended a Facebook Live session with Stylist alongside Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates, after promoting her new memoir A Woman’s Work at Hay.

Having campaigned for women’s rights as a Labour MP since 1982, she’s well placed to observe how the party has changed – and the progress it still needs to make in terms of gender representation.

“It’s just embarrassing misogyny really,” Harman says, on the fact that Labour has never had a female Labour leader.

“It’s not OK that Labour’s never had a woman leader, particularly as we do have more Labour women MPs than all the other parties put together and we regard ourselves as the party of women, and of equality,” Harman says.

“So it’s a bit of an embarrassment. Next time [there’s a leadership election], just has to be a woman.

“We need to look at all the men in the Labour party and think, ‘you’re great, we want to encourage your ambition but have the ambition to be a deputy to the woman leader and let’s look at those women and let’s choose one of those women that are there,’” she adds.

Harman suggests that Labour needs to actively work against voting in a man when the opportunity arises to elect a new leader.

If Jeremy Corbyn were to lose June’s snap general election, this process could happen within the next few months.

“We do need to have a women leader next time,” says Harman. “And that must involve us not considering the men for leader. Because at the moment, there are lots of great men in the party and everyone looks around and think, ‘Hmm, leadership potential.’” 

But, she says, “once we start on that path, inexorably we’ll end up with another man leader.” 

Harman counted herself out any potential leadership contest, however, saying that “there are a new generation of women in the party who need to come forward –  and I will cheer them”.

Interestingly, the one-time solicitor believes she would have won the Labour leadership contest had she stood in 2010, after Gordon Brown’s stunning electoral defeat.

“I think if I’d have run for leader of the Labour party after we fell out of government in 2010, I probably would have won because David Miliband was not popular enough in the party – obviously because he didn’t get elected – but most people in the party didn’t really know Ed Miliband,” she says.

“So I probably would have won the leadership. As to whether or not I’d have been a good leader, well you don’t really know. Until you step forward, you can’t tell how you’re going to do. David Cameron no doubt thought he’d be a good leader of the Conservative party and look what an absolute hash he made by his own terms.”

But, she says, “If I had have been elected as leader of the Labour party, it would have been a very strong statement for women and I know that there are so many women... who want to see women going forward, so it would have helped with that.”

Harman also refuted the idea that Britain’s first female Prime Minister had set any kind of feminist record.

“If you think about Margaret Thatcher getting to be leader of the Conservative party, she did it like the men,” she says. “She was there to beat the men at their own game, not to change the rules but to actually win at the rules as they were. She wasn’t there to change the system… she wasn’t a challenge to the status quo in parliament or in the Conservative party, and so paradoxically it was easier for her.

“The women in the Labour party who are saying we want to go forward in the Labour party, we want to be in the leadership positions, but actually we want to change everything. And those people who argue for change are much more strongly resisted than those people who are in the system... Labour women are more subversive because we want actual change.” 

Harman has spent the past 35 years advocating women’s rights in issues that span from work discrimination to domestic violence.

“Things really have changed but we need to change them more,” she says. 

“When I first joined the House of Commons in 1982, it was 97% men and 3% so women were literally marginal and not heard,” she adds.

“I think the big change is women’s voices are now heard. [We’re tackling] issues that never used to be talked about before, like domestic violence and childcare, like tampon tax, women’s pensions – they were never discussed. But now, although we’re still in a minority in the House of Commons, there’s a critical mass of women.”

Harman says she decided to write her autobiography because “women don’t write their memories so much and unless we write, we’ll be hidden from history”.

Images: Rex Features and Stylist