The left should be above using Harriet as a scapegoat

 Wrote the following as a response to an anti-Harriet rant on LabourList…at about 3am, so good luck with this one 🙂

Let me start with a confession: I am an unapologetic Harriet Harman fan. I get a kick out of having a woman in her position who is proud to call herself a feminist , and who is accepting of the view that families don’t all look the same. But I think the main reason I love Harriet may be because of the people who hate her.

Think about it. It’s the Daily Mail. Fathers 4 Justice. The Daily Mail again. The Telegraph. People who troll LabourList and similar sites to peddle their paranoid delusions that domestic violence is a myth; that the pitiful number of women in the Commons, the courts and the BBC constitutes a feminist takeover; that to point out the truth about the sexism in British society is PC-gone-mad. They hate Harman because she’s feminist and because she is pro-choice and because – let’s face it – she’s a woman, in power, who doesn’t keep her voice down.

But criticism comes from both sides; and yesterday it came from LabourList, when Rebecca Galbraith posted in the long tradition of using Harman as a scapegoat for the entire government.

Let’s go back to 1997. I refer you to what Donald Macintyre wrote in the Independent at the time:

‘…the government’s plans to cut benefits for lone parents [are] not solely of her making, and [are] at least partly prompted by the decision of Chancellor Gordon Brown to remain within the spending limits set by the previous government. [Harman] has a strong desire to encourage…poor single mothers to boost their income and prospects by working rather than surviving on benefits.

OK? Next, on to Galbraith’s main point, which is about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill last year, and the opportunities it missed, particularly in extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland.

First of all, think back to last year and what actually happened with this Bill. We were on the defensive. Legislating to ‘allow nurses to perform first trimester abortions, allow abortions to be carried out at GP’s surgeries and family planning clinics, reduce the two doctor jury to one…ban the misleading advertising of pregnancy counselling services and clarify the limit of conscientious objection’ would be awesome; I will continue campaigning for it, and so should everyone who supports a woman’s right to choose.

But in this imperfect world, resisting the hordes of (some) Catholics and (most) Tories who would bring abortion time limits down to conception or before; and removing the need for lesbian parents to find a token man called ‘Dad’ before they’re allowed to have IVF, seem reasonable achievements. And what Rebecca Galbraith doesn’t mention is that keeping the debate on the Bill short limited the amount of time the anti-choice lobby could spend ranting. Have a look at this blog post: it’s a great example of why Harman – and the government – can’t please all the people any of the time.

The main reason Harman can’t win in Rebecca Galbraith’s post, however, is that she is a member of the Government. The criticisms made of Harman relating to Northern Ireland have very little to do with Harriet Harman. The clue is in the phrase ‘participated in a Government which…’. The point of Monday’s post is not to express outrage that Harman blogged for International Women’s Day: it’s to express outrage that any Labour cabinet minister did.

So what we’re really saying here is that the Government is insufficiently feminist. We already knew that. Governments are all insufficiently feminist, that’s what the women’s movement is for. But this government is the most feminist one there has ever been. Increased childcare provision and maternity pay, flexible working, a fairer pensions system, investment in refuges for women and children, funding of Sexual Assault Referral Centres, more domestic violence courts. There was Jacqui Smith’s launch yesterday of the largest-ever cross-government public consultation to tackle violence against women and girls.

And there’s Harman’s own Equality Bill. Amongst other measures it will allow employers to discriminate in favour of a job candidate on the basis of their race or gender, where the candidates are otherwise equally qualified. Employers would not be required to use these powers, but would be able to do so without the threat of legal action for discrimination. (Visiting Tories – make sure you’ve read that twice, because it’s often misunderstood. When two candidates are equally qualified, it will be OK to balance out your mostly-male workforce by hiring the woman because she is a woman. If you want to. That’s all.)

The Guardian has pointed out the bill is a ‘watered-down’ version of Harman’s original plans, as it doesn’t include a requirement for private sector companies to conduct compulsory pay audits to promote equal pay for women. According to the young women running for Women’s Officer at my old Students’ Union, equal pay – the current lack of it – is the biggest reason to be a feminist in 21st century Britain. I’m not sure if I agree, but I think this demonstrates that the youngest generation of the women’s movement has Harriet on their side.

So, do I agree that ‘The only useful contribution our Minister for Women could make on International Women’s Day is to resign’? Hell, no. Assuming that once again by ‘Minister for Women’ the contributor means ‘the government’, then I think we all know what the alternative is: a Conservative Party that pays lipservice to women’s rights (which is in itself a nod to the work this government has done by driving the debate in a more feminist direction) but would strip back reproductive rights and punish single parents by introducing tax breaks for married couples. The best thing Labour can do for women is to make sure we are still in power next International Women’s Day, and the one after that and the one after that.

And the second best thing? Keep Harriet. The Labour Party, and the country, would be a worse place to be a woman without her.


One thought on “The left should be above using Harriet as a scapegoat

  1. It’s crazy how much hatred is directed towards Harman and I think it’s quite saddening that a woman in parliament can’t call herself a feminist and campaign for women’s rights without facing the same treatment as she does.

    It’s comforting to read this. A refreshing break from most of the rubbish written about Harriet Harman.

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