Harriet Harman was elected as Labour MP for Peckham in 1982, joining a House of Commons which was 97% male. She had three children while in Parliament and has been politics’ most prominent champion for women’s rights, introducing the National Childcare Strategy, All Women Shortlists, the Equality Act and changing the law on domestic violence. She was the first woman to represent Labour from the Government benches and the first Labour woman to answer PMQs.
Q: In your long career, you have fought for equality and respect for women and brought women’s issues to the heart of the Labour Party. How has the woman shaped the politician and how has the politician shaped the woman?
A: It’s quite hard to disentangle the two. Being part of the women’s movement from the 1970s and 80s onward, was about making progressive change and achieving equality for women. And politics is one of the most important ways of making that happen. When I started out in Parliament in 1982 there were 97% men MPs and only 3% women. Women had the vote but it was always men who were elected. It was wrong that men were making all the decisions and women were not getting their say.
Q: Women representation in politics has dramatically grown in the last 20 years. Do you think this growth has now stagnated? What are the shortcomings still to face?
A: We’ve made great strides – from 1982, with just 3% women MPs to now, with over 20%. But we’re still a minority. And we need to ensure we don’t slip back. Having a woman Prime Minister doesn’t, in itself, ensure progress for women. Look at Margaret Thatcher! And much of the politics around Trump have been downright misogynistic. We don’t want to let that catch on here!
Q: From campaigning with small children to increasing the number of women in Parliament, you seem to have fought in all possible fronts. What would you say has been your biggest achievement?
A: Getting more women into Parliament. 43% of Labour MPs are now women. That has made our Parliament more representative. It also changes the political agenda ensuring that issues like childcare and domestic violence are recognised and given the importance they deserve.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure? Or something that you wanted to achieve/change but you haven’t managed to?
A: I’ve achieved more than I ever dreamt I would. But I made lots of mistakes along the way. I look back over 30 years and see now how I could have done things better and differently. But I know I always tried my best. I just wish I had had, in the early days, the confidence and thick skin which I have now! But as I know I always tried my best, I never really use the F(ailure) word!
Q: What would you say to girls and young women in the country to encourage them to get involved in politics?
A: If girls and women don’t get involved in politics then all the decisions about everything will be made by men. Politics, like everything, is best if it’s a team of men and women working together on equal terms.
As Britain’s longest continuously serving woman MP who was twice Acting Deputy Leader, and after 28 years on the Front Bench, in her memoir A woman’s work Harriet Harman writes about the story of women’s progressive politics, offering an insider’s account of the progress and setbacks in the Labour Party, and UK politics in general from the 1970s.
Published by Allen Lane