Harriet Harman A Woman;s Work

Harriet Harman’s autobiography, A Woman’s Work, is an account from the frontline of women’s progressive politics from the past thirty years; from a prologue that describes a predatory University lecturer to a later anecdote of being a Deputy Labour Leader in 2009 and being asked to the G20 “wives dinner” rather than the main event, there are depressing little nuggets that colour in the backdrop of what Harman has had to contend with in her tireless efforts to help the lives of others.

Throughout, the book is a small window into the workings of modern politics, with an early example from her working life how Home Office civil servants were misleading their Labour Home Secretary in the seventies, Roy Jenkins, and undermining is progressive approach to rehabilitation in prisons.

The internal Labour party politics details, while covered only fleetingly, are even more gripping. Harman writes about the significance of developing an economic policy after the painful 1992 defeat, previously an electoral achilles heel, which would focus on increasing the rate of economic growth, which as Harman puts it was about increasing the size of the cake as well as dividing it more equally. From that firm footing, where Labour where establishing themselves as a credible alternative government, the book looks at the relationship between the prime architects, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, extremely close allies when strategising and working hard how to make electable after four consecutive general election defeats but whose strong personal relationship became fractured, never to heal, after the untimely death of John Smith.

Harman suggests the break was further damaged by Peter Mandleson, to the detriment of both the party and country, and a character Harman clearly has little time for. Brown meanwhile is someone who is portrayed as being loyal to Harman earlier in her career but whose chaotic management style and inability to stop scheming, or stop his staff briefing against colleagues, are flaws that highlighted why he was a leader who should have left office when it was clear he was out-of-touch with both the party and the country, prior to the 2010 General Election.

After that 2010 election Harman’s place at the table discussing a potential coalition with the Liberal Democrats allows her to report about the hostile, disengaged and obstructive approach from the Lib Dems, despite the opportunity of a bill in the House of Commons (without a referendum) on Proportional Representation; Harman records David Laws “pushing for even more austerity than the Tories”.

Harman, whose own mother was a Liberal parliamentary candidate, notes the hypocrisy of a party who criticised Labour for not being left-wing enough propping up an economically hard-right ideological austerity agenda.

Documenting the toughest time in Tony Blair’s ten years as PM, Harman details the background, recalling the instant geopolitical shift we all saw happening with our own eyes, on television on 9/11. When efforts failed to move Al-Qaeda from their safe haven in Afghanistan military action followed, but it was the further action in Iraq, in 2003, that Harman notes was different. Harman sets the context, including the many experiences shared by Iraqi trade unionists at previous Labour meetings, of a regime executing and torturing workers, as well as killing millions, including with the use of chemical weapons. But Harman maintains she didn’t vote for action for regime change, but on the intelligence that there were weapons of mass destruction, which Harman notes, Saddam Hussein had himself boasted of possessing. Harman clearly writes with regret when she says the inaccurate intelligence coupled with the failure to bring about peace in the region has overshadowed both previous successful interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, as well as the countless domestic achievements from a Labour Government that challenged the notion the country had to choose between economic prosperity and social justice.

Those many achievements, from investment in public services to the Freedom of Information Act, via Devolution and the introduction of the Minimum Wage, were a new dawn after the dark earlier struggles Harman wrote about in the party from the late seventies to the early nineties; Harman, describes how entryism within the Labour Party led to hostile, divisive internal meetings and a bullying culture that was focused on intimidating and attacking hard-working Labour party members while people were suffering under a Tory Government and the official opposition lost focus on being a credible alternative to run the country.

Even when Labour did have power though, Harman herself never had it easy herself; much of her wisdom in the book comes through hindsight and experiences, such as having to hang round in her departmental office all day after being sacked at 8am that morning for the sake of the government being able to break a good news story later in the day. After that, despite the offers, Harman stayed loyal and never briefed against a Government she fought hard for.

When she was later persuaded to run as Deputy Leader against, at that point, an all male list, she later had to take out a second mortgage to help fund the campaign. And then when elected, she wasn’t given the role of Deputy PM, the office her predecessor, John Prescott, who comes across as ungracious, had held.  She was undermined further when Brown gave the role in all but name to Mandleson. But there are wins too, despite the odds, and there is a nice touch when civil servants sent her a DVD, emblazoned with the positive newspaper headlines, following her successful first PMQs.

A meaty epilogue records how things have improved for women in society during her years in politics, as well as things still to be done. This includes a criteria for how Theresa May can be judged, built of course before the snap General Election the Tories called themselves, which exposed them as party of no substance and is likely to mean May’s own party won’t even give her the time to achieve anything.  But with a Labour Party waiting in the wings, there is hope that all items on the list will be ticked off while Harman is still active in politics.


Mel Gomes is the author of Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley, an e-book mixing the combination of travel, and sport, where money challenged glory as the aspiration in football.

It is available to preview for free and download in full from Amazon and Smashwords. More details, including photos and links to reviews, here.

Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley

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