Gordon Brown could have had a woman as deputy PM. He bottled it

When he had the chance to appoint Harriet Harman, his fine words failed to match his actions

Share

We all believe in equality, don't we? If you're on the centre-left, it's axiomatic that you enthusiastically support equal rights for women, LGBT people and members of the BME community. That's great, as far as it goes, but I can't help wondering sometimes whether it means any more than a careful adherence to correct forms of language. It's not so long since I heard a former Labour MP make a tasteless private joke about domestic violence, and I was shocked by the number of men on the left, including Tony Benn, who rushed to defend Julian Assange when he faced accusations of rape and sexual assault. Sadly, this is a subject where the adage "think left, live right" all too often applies.

Take the case of Gordon Brown, who was savaged last week by Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman. These days Brown is a United Nations special envoy for global education, and he has championed the cause of girls' education in particular. He has been a vocal supporter of the cause of the Chibok girls, abducted three months ago from their school in north-eastern Nigeria, and met Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan on a recent visit to the country. Earlier this month, during a rare intervention in the Commons, Brown called for British troops to be sent to Nigeria to help in the search for the girls. He spoke forthrightly about "the battle between the girls of the world and backward-looking extremists" and highlighted the opportunities that should be "every girl's birthright".

So, what did Brown actually do when he had his own opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling? Unlike the Conservatives, who can at least lay claim to Margaret Thatcher, the Labour Party has yet to produce its first woman prime minister. It hasn't even produced a female deputy prime minister, a failure which lies entirely at Brown's door. In 2007, when Brown succeeded Blair as Labour leader and PM, he had an open goal in front of him. Harman had just won a close contest to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader and she expected, quite reasonably, that she would be made deputy prime minister. She was not, and the role remained vacant for the whole of Brown's premiership. I was outraged, not just for her but for the wider cause of women in public life.

It has taken seven years for Harman to say how she felt about being sidelined, and even then she did not name her former boss directly. "Imagine my surprise when having won a hard-fought election to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader of the Labour Party, I discovered that I was not to succeed him as deputy prime minister," she said on Tuesday. She asked her audience to imagine what would have happened if the same thing had happened to a man, doubting whether he would have put up with it.

I'm sure she's right. Despite the slogan of those old L'Oreal ads – "Because I'm worth it" – women are conditioned not to big themselves up in public. Sadly, a similar reticence does not affect many men who go into public life; the only MP in living memory to express doubts about their suitability for a job was Estelle Morris, who resigned as education secretary in 2002. Self-doubt, fear of appearing ambitious and a thin skin combine to hold many women back, not just in politics, but the stakes in Parliament are much higher.

Women don't make up even a quarter of MPs and Harman was right to say that British politics has a long way to go before it is representative of society in terms of women, race and class. Everyone knows that the Conservatives have a problem with all these issues. What's shocking is that the centre-left parties have so much more to do if they are to match their rhetoric with action.

Labour has been selecting candidates for next year's general election and so far, hardly any women have been chosen in "open" selections; the party still depends on all-women shortlists to increase its share of female MPs.

To be fair to Labour, the Liberal Democrats' record on gender is much worse, with so few female MPs on its benches that the imbalance has become a standing joke. The party also has a shameful record of failing to support women who complain about sexual misconduct; it took five years for a former Lib Dem MP, Mike Hancock, to apologise to a female constituent and acknowledge that he had made her feel "degraded" and "uncomfortable".

I'm convinced that some men in both parties suffer from a disconnect between what they say and what they do, apparently not realising that all that stuff about equality actually applies to them. Untested assumptions about gender, race and class have a profound impact on politics, and I wish that Harman had gone public about her own exclusion back in 2007. I can see why she didn't: loyalty to the leader is expected of women in the party, and she would have understood the likely consequences of speaking out. Sure enough, some commentators launched distasteful personal attacks last week, implying that she wasn't up to the job – a test that would rule out many male candidates for high office if strictly applied.

The idea that Harman was any less qualified than Prescott is risible, but the sneer will have a chilling effect on other ambitious women. Politicians should remember that sometimes actions speak louder than words: Brown's campaigning for girls' education is welcome, but the symbolic act of appointing the UK's first female deputy prime minister was in his gift. And he bottled it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Langley James : Desktop Support Analyst; 1st Line; Moorgate up to £23k

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Langley James : Desktop Support Analyst; 1st Line; ...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Sales Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This fragrance store are looking for enthusias...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting and rewarding role ...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Executive - UK / International

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a long-established, renown...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Old London Bridge; how to fight UKIP; and wolves

John Rentoul
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible