EIBF 2017: Harriet Harman with Ruth Wishart in the Chair, Gender Politics

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Harriet Harman with Ruth Wishart in the Chair
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Ruth Wishart in the Chair, introduced Harriet Harman as someone who had her own set of rules; she was a housewife and a mum - so how did she rise to great heights in the Labour Party as the Deputy Leader and then find herself in charge of the party at two crucial periods. Ruth said that she was initially here to talk about her new book, "A Woman's Work" but she was prepared to speak about Brexit.

Harriet Harman started by saying that, of course, we should never have thought of leaving the single market. She was very clear that the blame for the mess we were in now was due to David Cameron and the Tory Party in general. Yes, she said, the voters were confused with the Labour stance and some had expressed the opinion that Jeremy Corbyn should have campaigned more vigorously for the 'Remain' vote. Labour supporters were confused by the campaign because we had people like Kate Hoey and others, Labour supporters of 'Leave', working alongside Boris Johnson and Michael Gove from the Conservative Party. The electorate had really little idea of what they were voting for. But, she added, all that had been promised by those who wanted to stay, had actually happened - although it had been christened 'Project Fear' people were feeling the effects of leaving the single market already.

Turning to the Labour Party itself, she said that the purges of Blairite MPs would never happen and the Party was now in a much better state than they had been in since 2015. Now progress was being made and what Jeremy Corbyn had been keen to establish were "objectives" and these Harman felt were now in place.

Ruth brought her back to her new book and asked what her experience had been of the Blair/Brown relationship. Her feeling all along had been that the relationship was good for the country and for Labour. At least now they were ready for power. At least the stage was set for them to get the Tories out. She acknowledged the huge amount that John Smith had done for the party, but in her opinion these were the two men who at the time could take the Labour Party forward. Peter Mandelson had been a lifelong servant of the Party , but something had to be done urgently as they were in danger of being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats! This meant a very serious approach to Government and it meant having an undertaking in the manifesto that gave assurances that people would not be taxed out of existence and that their money would be wisely spent. Therefore, it was an assurance that for the first two years of a Labour Government they would not spend more than the Tories. This went down well with the voters at the time.

Harriet Harman then moved on to the question of all female selection lists. At the time the Parliamentary Labour Party was 97% male and females found it very difficult to get on any list of candidates. She said that she did have sympathy with the man - and there were indeed several like him - who claimed that she had, "ruined my life" this was because he had moved his wife and family down to a remote, but Labour area and now he was told that he could not even apply to be on the list because he was a man!

She also said that Tony Blair did not really "get" the fact that the large number of women who were successful in being elected to Parliament in the Labour Party was actually, "women being the engine of their own liberation". Instead the photograph taken soon after the election was entitled "Blair's babes". Of course this was due to the fact that almost 95% of the Westminster press corps were male. She recalled that this affected different generations in different ways. She said that her own mother who had been to university and then qualified as a barrister, discarded her wig and gown and put them in the dressing up box. On another occasion she watched her mother who was cooking breakfast, reading a law journal at the same time - this was when she vowed that she would arrange things differently and not let this happen to her. She was adamant that although a lot had been achieved, there was much more to be done - for instance she said that in the Labour Party manifesto there was much more about football than about women and their rights. We still have unequal pay and there is still the tendency for men to chide those women who speak out as having, "no sense of humour" which was the approach in the 1950s. She said that the House of Commons was really a male club where it was much easier to settle into as a man than to have to try and force your way in as a woman.

Turning to her very slim victory against Alan Johnson, she said that it was very special and magnanimous of him to publically congratulate her on her success, although he must have been very upset at that time - it meant that all his supporters were clear that she was the person to follow. It is a great pity she said that this did not happen when Ed Miliband just beat David Miliband for the leadership of the party.

She said that it was interesting how things have changed for the Tories since the election; before, Theresa May used to stand at the dispatch box and boom out the message, "strong and stable leadership" while the Labour Party simply hung its head and hid. Now, after the election, there has been much less trumpeting by the Tories and a much more deferential approach by them to the Labour Party.

In questions she was whether she was nervous when facing the task of taking on Prime Minister's Questions; she confessed that she was and described it as something that was staged and very frightening for her as a woman with the banks of people on either side and the enormous din that went on throughout the event. Getting through this with the help of her team of advisor, she felt, had been the moment she was most proud of in the House of Commons.

(60 mins)