Harman talks down men

Political editor Graham Dines looks at Harriet Harman's outburst against men.

Political editor Graham Dines looks at Harriet Harman's outburst against men.

WHEN Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman returns to her weekend retreat near the River Deben in Suffolk, she'll still have the acid words of former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ringing in her well-educated ears.

Ms Harman - who is Gordon Brown's stand-in while he's on holiday - said on Sunday that the days of male domination of the Labour Party were over. “Men cannot be left to run things on their own.”

To which Prescott snapped: “You can't dictate equality in leadership elections. You must let the party decide.”

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Ms Harman sees herself as a future party leader and Prime Minister. That's she's unlikely to fill these dual ambitions is not down to the fact that she is a woman, but because she is seen as preachy and patronising who could send tens of thousands of would-be Labour voters into the welcoming arms of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

It's fine to want equality in politics. Women are just as capable as men of running major Government spending departments - it's just a pity that those who have in recent years have been found wanting.

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It still hurts Labour's “wimmin” that the Conservatives not only had Britain's first female party leader and Prime Minister - Margaret Thatcher - but also had the first woman Member of Parliament to take her seat, Nancy Astor, who won the Plymouth Sutton by-election in 1919.

(The Countess Markievicz was actually the UK's first female MP, winning a by-election for Sinn Fein in Dublin St Patrick's in 1918 while she was in prison for anti-conscription activities. As with all Sinn Fein MPs, she refused to take her seat).

Harman's outburst at the weekend does not come from a position of female weakness in the parliamentary Labour Party. She was elected to the position in June 2007, beating four male candidates. There are more than 100 Labour women MPs.

And it's often forgotten that Margaret Beckett was acting leader of the party in 1994 between the death of John Smith and the election of Tony Blair.

But Harman can't stop herself banging on and on about equality. A few weeks ago, she opined that there were too few northerners on Government appointed quangos and commissions. I'm not sure what her definition of a northerner is, but next time she passes through Watford Gap she might care to take note that she's actually in the Midlands, whose residents and academics probably suffer the same sort of “discrimination” as her northerners, the Welsh, and the Scots, and those who live south and west of Bristol.

Harman is all for positive discrimination, empowering women and minority ethnic minorities through all-women and all-black shortlists for jobs. In itself, of course, that discriminates against white Anglo-Saxon protestant men, but that bias is neatly glossed over.

Before stamping down on men, she ought to consider that it is difficult for women outside London to juggle the work-life balance of being an MP. Should the children live with mummy in Westminster or daddy in Manchester? Where should they be educated? Should a man's career by wrecked because his wife insists he looks after the children during the week?

And then after untangling that particular knot, no doubt the under representation of minority ethnics will become the focus of some New Labour task force headed, of course, by the white Ms Harman.

It was her assertion that “men cannot be left to run things on their own. I think it's a thoroughly bad thing to have a men-only leadership” that vexed John Prescott so much.

“Actually, I don't ever think there will be a men-only team of leadership in the Labour Party again. People would look at it and say: `are there no women in the party to be part of the leadership? Do men want to do it all themselves.'”

No matter how unlikely such thoughts would dominate the bar parlour of the Clog and Billycock in Jack Straw's Blackburn constituency, Prescott hit back. He gives as good as he gets, telling her to “stop complaining and get campaigning.”

He said it was particularly crucial to make the case for a fourth Labour term now, “after a disastrous June election campaign you were supposed to be running,” - ouch! - “and with a poll today saying we're 24% behind the Tories in the key marginals that you're supposed to be in charge of campaigning.”

“Why take away from the party the right to choose its leaders on the basis of ability? You can't dictate equality in leadership elections. You must let the party decide.

“I was beaten fair and square in the 1992 deputy leadership election by Margaret Beckett. You yourself beat four men to become deputy leader in 2007.

“In theory you were elected on merit, not your gender. The system works and I think we should keep it that way.”

And ouch again.


First female MP to be elected: Constance (Countess) Markiewicz (Sinn Fein, Dublin St Patricks, 1918)

First female MP to be elected and take seat: Nancy (Viscountess) Astor (Plymouth Sutton, 1919).

First female Labour MP: Ellen Wilkinson (Middlesbrough East, 1923)

First female Tory MP to serve as a minister: Dame Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl (Kinross & West Perthshire, 1924)

First female party leader: Margaret Thatcher (Conservative, 1975).

First female Labour leader: Margaret Beckett (1994).

Britain's only current female party leader: Dr Caroline Lucas (the Greens).

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