Harriet Harman’s autobiography gives an insight into a sisterhood that has supported many and changed Britain for the better, writes Alison McGovern
Ask any woman who has been senior in the Labour party in recent times – and many who were not senior at all – about Harriet Harman, and they will have a story to tell about the woman they know. I want in this review of Harriet Harman’s memoirs, A Woman’s Work, to share an anecdote of my own.
Harriet’s book is full of great war stories: it is a true reflection of life in the Labour movement, some of which I have experienced myself. And of course, there is much of which, long before I entered political life, shaped the chances of success for those like me.
As a volume, it is less about Harriet herself, rather, it is a story of the massive collective of women and men who tried to set about changing Britain for the better, by making Labour capable of winning, and capable of government.
The Harriet that I know, though, is a special person. And as I served as a local councillor in Camberwell in her constituency, I got to know this ever more.
In fact, one of the best parts of Harriet’s book is her early description of the party in Southwark, and the working class families that drove Labour forward in south London, despite the political chaos of the 1980s. Kennedy, Naish, Ellery, Prosser. All names that feature with as much importance as Smith, Blair, Brown, and rightly so. Although readers may be coming across these names for the first time, Harriet vividly describes people who deserve much more attention: those at the heart of the Labour movement, drawn from council estates of south London and focused on making sure our party delivered.
She also details the long march of the women’s movement both inside and outside Labour. Again, she highlights women whose contributions are not always profi led – Deborah Mattinson, Joan Ruddock, Joyce Gould, Glenys Thornton. But they are women whom the close reader of Labour’s past really should know more about. Women without whom my party would have never made it out of opposition.
But fast forward from the 1980s to 2009. The tail end of the Labour government which Harriet – as she describes – saw from both the back benches, after crashing out of government following the disastrous mismatching of herself and Frank Field at the Department for Social Security, and the front benches, rising up from her post as solicitor general to become elected deputy leader. The global economy was careering out of the global financial crisis, and in the UK, Labour was heading for a general election against a backdrop internal strife.
The book explains the back story of those rocky years from Harriet’s point of view. Students of history will be pleased that Harriet’s account is recorded here, and feminists will recognise that it is the leading men’s tales that are often told, so in that sense, this is a crucial addition.
But meanwhile, in Southwark, we were dealing with grim tragedy. A terrible fire in one of Southwark’s own tower blocks which housed hundreds of residents had been started by a faulty television and broken safety mechanisms. And these were the circumstances surrounding my own story of Harriet, permanent in my memory, recalled by reading her book.
The enflamed tower block was in the middle of my council ward. I and the other two ward councillors were working night and day to try and help people who had literally run from the fire and were now scattered across the borough with only what they stood up in. Three women and three children were killed by the blaze. Devastated does not begin to come close to describe how we felt. And at a public meeting in Camberwell Town Hall, during which distressed residents from the estate could explain the terror they faced, and at which Harriet, I and other politicians could press officials to do more to respond, Harriet did a small thing, but one that I will never forget, and which represents to me the message of Harriet’s memoirs. As my voice broke, and the tears came, whilst I was speaking, she silently poured me a glass of water, and without saying a word, put it in my hand, and finished my sentence for me.
She knew I could not go on; she took over, and seamlessly, as one movement, we did the job we were supposed to for the people we serve. I have never forgotten it: the unity of purpose, the solidarity in a moment of severe distress.
The idea of a sisterhood in politics is often mocked. I can only say that Harriet’s memoirs – a must read for women and men alike – demonstrate the truth that it does exist. Women in the Labour movement might not habitually describe ourselves as Harmanites, but that is what we are. This book explains why.
What we do, we do together. That is Harriet’s legacy to the Labour party, and it lives on.