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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with Harriet Harman

Posted on 22 April 2021

Back in March, Harriet Harman QC MP spoke with Managing Associate Michael Frost, about her political career, how COVID-19 and Brexit changed the political landscape, and what the future holds for the Labour Party.

Harriet was the elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 2007-2015, was appointed Shadow Deputy Prime Minister in 2010-2015 and has twice served as Interim Leader of the Labour Party in 2010 and 2015. She was also the first woman Labour politician to answer Prime Minister’s Questions. In 2017 she became the longest serving woman MP becoming ‘Mother of the House of Commons’. 

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Michael Frost

I’d like to welcome everyone and thank you for joining the Mishcon Academy Digital Session.  I’m Michael Frost, a Managing Associate in Mishcon’s Private Department and I’m hosting today’s event.  And so, to my guest.  Harriet Harman QC is a Politician and Solicitor who has served as Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham since 1982.  She was fundamental in securing the election of over 100 women MPs in Labour’s landslide victory in 1997.  Once Labour was in power under Tony Blair, Harriet was appointed Secretary of State for Social Security and the first ever Minister for Women.  Harriet is now Chair of the Joint Committee of Human Rights and holds one of the greatest titles in politics, Mother of The House.  Much of the focus of Harriet’s career has been campaigning on Women’s and Equality issues, both in and outside of Parliament and in and outside of power.  Today, we’ll be discussing Harriet’s pivotal career in the lens of these issues and it is a very timely discussion.  We’ll be dedicating some time later in the conversation to discuss the events of the last couple of weeks.  So, Harriet, it’s lovely to welcome you and thank you very much for joining us. 

Harriet Harman

Thank you.  I’m delighted to join you all. 

Michael Frost

My first question is, you are, for your sins, speaking to a room full of lawyers and before you became an MP you practised as a Solicitor and held the position of Legal Officer for The National Council of Civil Liberties, which everybody on the call will now know as the campaign group, Liberty.  My question is, what drew you to Liberty?

Harriet Harman

I did my articles of clerkship in a firm called Nat Fisher and it just reminded me that that is not the sort of firm that I wanted to carry on and work in.  We particularly acted for Courage, the Brewers, who had this amazing computer system that seemed to be able to chuck out tenants from pubs and they had no redress and there was just doing all sorts of work that I thought was really horrible.  So, I went to work at Brent Law Centre and it was not only helping individuals but also helping community groups.  So, I kind of very much felt that that was the law as a tool for change and there was the Women’s Movement very much rising up at that point in the early ‘70s and the National Council of Civil Liberties – which is now Liberty – had a Women’s Committee, which was really pioneering and they invited me to join the Women’s Committee and then I did that sort of as a volunteer and then moved into Liberty.  Because it was all about everybody bringing to the cause for women’s advance, whatever tools they had.  We were all trying to surge forward on all fronts and I was on the legal front and then on the political front.  There was a real spirit of kind of, a movement. 

Michael Frost

So, you mentioned some of the… and the types of work you were doing, what exact type of cases were you taking on, on behalf of Liberty?

Harriet Harman

Well, I did the whole range of cases that the National Council for Civil Liberties did in those days, which also included the very first sex discrimination cases because in 1970 there was the Equal Pay Act and it came into force in 1975, at the same time as the Sex Discrimination Act.  And one of the first cases I did was that, as people will know, the law outlawed direct and indirect discrimination and we had, a woman wrote to me from a munitions factory in Birmingham, saying that the union had just concluded a redundancy agreement where it was first-in, last-out and then, except for part-time workers, who were out first.  And of course, all the women were part-time workers and so they were out the door first and they were all made redundant.  She said, “This is unfair.  This collective agreement discriminates against me and my women members.  Isn’t this against the law?”  So, we took that case to a tribunal, Stephen Sedley was our Barrister at the time and we won that case and it then made clear that indirect discrimination on the grounds of working part-time was sex discrimination.  So, basically it was not just helping that individual woman and all her co-workers, it was helping all women by showing employers that they couldn’t discriminate on the grounds of part-time work. 

Michael Frost

Now, moving to Parliament, you were elected at age 32 and pregnant at a time where there were more MPs called John than there were women MPs.  Looking back, do you think you appreciated at the time the challenges facing you as a woman in Parliament?

Harriet Harman

There was a whole movement of women that thought, “97% men in Parliament, only 3% women, no wonder women’s voices don’t get heard.”  It was very much a kind of determined effort to get into all where there was power, whether it was into the Judiciary, or whether it was into the top of the Civil Service, whether it was into the top of business, or into the top of Parliament and Government for a purpose which was to open up the doors to other women and to ensure women’s voices were heard.  And of course, to do that, we needed not just me there in my byelection in 1982 but we needed to get loads more women in, I mean, in my case, Labour women, and that took a bit of a while, until ’97, before the kind of troops arrived, the feminist troops arrived.  So, that was quite lonely.  1982 to 1997 before really we had the 100 women MPs.  So, that was lonely and difficult.  But if you’re a pioneer, I think it always is. 

Michael Frost

It’s interesting you say that you were alone as a woman in Parliament in the ‘80s because obviously that was the height of Thatcherism and you know, the top job was occupied by Margaret Thatcher.  Did you identify her as a kindred spirit in the Women’s Movement?

Harriet Harman

Not at all because she was very clear that she was not doing it for women.  She was doing it to show the men that she was better than then and she could beat them on their own terms.  She was not about structural change for women and for equality, she was about believing that she could do the top job in the structure as it was at the time, so, basically she was not a sister. 

Michael Frost

We’ve had the recent change in law to allow six months maternity leave for ministers but this doesn’t include back-benchers.  So, this law wouldn’t have helped you as a member of the opposition in the 1980s.  Do you consider this law as progress or is it favouritism for the AG?

Harriet Harman

Oh no, it’s huge progress and actually, women now go through the Divisional Lobbies in the House of Commons, that’s when the House of Commons is sitting with their bumps proudly shown and it’s always the case that somebody is pregnant.  It’s not out of the ordinary.  We’ve got proxy voting now, so you can still vote but somebody else casts your vote for you, the way you would and that’s for new fathers as well.  So, we’ve come on absolutely leaps and bounds. 

Michael Frost

As I said in the introduction, you are Mother of The House.  Everyone I think has probably heard of the Father of The House, but Mother of The House is a relatively new role and you are the inaugural Mother, aren’t you?

Harriet Harman

Yes, well it… what happened was, when I was being Acting Leader of the Labour Party one of the things that the Prime Minister does and the Leader of the Opposition does is that they, when the House gets back after a general election, you elect the new Speaker and the person who does the first speech is the Father of The House, which is the longest-standing MP, who of course is always a man.  And I was… and then the Prime Minister has to say, “Oh, the Father of The House is so marvellous.  He’s so wise; he’s so sage” and then the Leader of the Opposition has to say, “Oh, he’s absolutely flipping marvellous and everything.”  I thought, “Oh, God here we are deep in the patriarchy.”  And I said, “But actually, shouldn’t we be thinking about the Mother of The House as well?” and then it occurred to me that the longest-serving woman MP was me.  So, I said, “Oh and it’s me” and it was just a bit of a kind of joke, but Teresa May, bless her, picked it up when she became Prime Minister, so she said, “Well, we’ve got a Mother of The House as well,” so I was like, “Oh.”  So, really it’s something which has just evolved because there’s only so much of praising and revering men that women MPs can bear to do. 

Michael Frost

Talking, you spoke previously about the troops arriving in 1997 and when you arrived at Parliament, there was a famous photo.  I think you coordinated the famous photo for all of the new women, and it slightly took a... ended up being slightly different to what you envisaged. 

Harriet Harman

Yes, because me and Joan Ruddock, who was the Minister for Women and I was the Secretary of State position, we thought, “How incredible.  Let’s have a picture of all the women Labour MPs together – 101” and they were women from all parts of the country.  The next thing we heard is that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was going to come to the photo and it was like, “Oh, God.  This is not the idea at all.”  So, he came along and we were all lined up – 101 – and he stood right in the middle of the photo.  We were the sort of backing singers for the rock star and thereafter we were called, “Blair’s Babes,” ugh.  It was terrible. 

Michael Frost

We spoke about it before this call about that sort of issue of compromise which comes through well it certainly comes through your book where there are several instances where you’ve had to compromise.  You’ve decided not to push back where you feel like maybe you otherwise should have.  Is that something which you felt has been a significant part of your career?

Harriet Harman

I really could write a whole entire book of all the things where I’ve had to duck the row in order to stay in the game, in order to continue the fight.  The system is always trying to get rid of you if you are a change maker and a reformer because it’s uncomfortable.  So, you have to watch your back and make sure you don’t overstep the mark or you’ll just be chucked on the scrap heap and then you won’t be able to do anything. 

Michael Frost

The Domestic Abuse bill is passing through Parliament.  What improvement would you like to see to it, to address domestic abuse related homicide?

Harriet Harman

These old common-law defences are trouble, you know, they give good flexibility but they also provide lots of excuses.  So, I think and have long thought that the diminished responsibility as an excuse for men to kill their wives is not a right thing to do.  I incidentally think that the single punch manslaughter needs amending as well.  I think it should be like the civil view, the eggshell skull rule.  I think the person who should take responsibility is the person who throws the punch, not the person who cracks their head on the pavement.  So, I do think there is some change in the law on homicide which will very much include domestic homicide and also ought to recognise that when women, which they do very, very rarely, kill husbands or partners, they usually do so out of fear.  Not out of anger, not out of jealousy but out of fear and there needs to be a defence which is tailored for that.  So, I think that needs to happen.  But I think, in this police bill, in the wake of the terrible Sarah Everard killing, the whole question of safety of women on the streets has come into focus and I think there’s a couple of very clear things the Government should be doing in this bill.  I think they should outlaw kerb-crawling.  At the moment it’s only an offence if you’re soliciting for prostitutes and annoying the neighbours.  It should be… you shouldn’t be able to kerb-crawl a school girl on her own, in the dark, on the way home from school, urging her to get into your car, winding down your window, not taking now for an answer, following her.  That is terrifying.  That should be against the law.  I also think street harassment should be.  At the moment you have to have a course of conduct.  So, we need to say, “No, you do not follow a woman down the street, calling for her number, filming her, asking her out.”  You don’t do that.  And you don’t do kerb-crawling.  I think we need two bespoke criminal offences on that and also half a dozen other things which I won’t mention because it will take too long. 

Michael Frost

On the tragic death of Sarah Everard, it really has struck a national chord and it’s reignited a furious debate about male violence.  You marched in the 1970s in the first Reclaim The Night marches and obviously male violence has been prevalent, if not increasing, ever since.  Were you surprised by the level of public response to her death?

Harriet Harman

The thing about Reclaim The Night, which was in the ‘70s after a particularly grizzly spate of killings in Leeds, was that we had our argument, we had our protest, but there was no men in Parliament or in Government that were going to listen to it.  It didn’t even get on the political agenda, let alone get any change.  The difference now is that women after the awful killing of Sarah Everard, who was just literally walking on her way home, have all shared on social media their daily everyday experiences.  And there’s a lot of problems with social media but my goodness, it allows women to speak about their daily experiences and all around the country, women have done that and have shown that this is a universal experience.  If we argue that we should get women into Parliament because then we would hear women’s voices and we would deliver for women, this is that moment of test.  It’s our duty now to deliver on that because that’s the point of us.  The point of us is to hear and represent women and make change which reflects what needs to happen in women’s lives. 

Michael Frost

A lot of commentary this week about how the question’s wrongly been framed as a women’s safety issue as opposed to a male conduct as in, the issue isn’t about women being out in public at night but about tackling predatory men.  But how do we refocus that discussion?  How do we reframe the question?

Harriet Harman

Well, I think it is about women’s safety because of men’s bad actions.  So… but it’s not about women’s unrealistic fears and I think that actually it is something that if the Government got a real grip of it, they could do quite quick cultural change and I think that that’s what Priti Patel should do.  She should just set up a task force, Boris Johnson should just sign the form which says, “Whatever they come up with by way of resources or legislation necessary, he’ll agree to it,” and then he can start exculpating himself for his awful words in his newspapers for all those years. 

Michael Frost

Thank you so much for taking the time this afternoon and being so generous in your responses and thank you for everybody for watching the session, this academy session and thank you, and good afternoon. 

Harriet Harman

Thank you. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com. 

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