Harriet Harman is one of the most effective parliamentarians. She has never led the Labour Party but tends to get her way as often as a leader does anyway.
MPs from across the spectrum respect her. When I asked the Conservative Nadine Dorries who she admired most on the other side of the House, she picked Harman immediately. “There are many things we disagree on,” said Dorries, “but no one can criticise the way in which she advocates for and supports women – and I and all women should admire her for that.”
Harman is the UK’s longest-serving female MP. When she was elected in 1982, just 3 per cent of MPs were women. For Labour that now stands at 31 per cent, largely down to the efforts of Harman and colleagues, including the controversial all-women shortlists. She has campaigned for – and won – improvements in conditions for lone parents, higher maternity pay and longer maternity leave, and fighting domestic violence. The 2010 Equality Act was Harman’s idea. But then so was Labour’s latest gaffe, a bright-pink van designed to attract female voters.
The van was part of a national Labour campaign aimed at women. Harman was excited, as it was the first time she had managed to persuade her party to let her do something along these lines. Perhaps some are now wishing that on this occasion Harman hadn’t managed to get her way. The van crashed, politically. As soon as an image of it leaked online, Harman was having to defend her campaign from accusations that it was patronising. And it was. It looked like something Barbie might drive.
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
1/6 Settled Silvers
These are the comfortably-off over-60s, still in work or drawing a decent pension – or both – who are enjoying their entitlements such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licence. They are worried about immigration and Europe. Both the Conservatives – who are pledging to keep benefits for wealthier pensioners – and Ukip want their votes
2/6 Squeezed Semis
Slightly older than the Harassed Hipsters, they are the second key group for Labour’s family-focused election strategy. They are married couples on low to middle incomes who own unpretentious semi-detached homes in suburban areas. In 2001, these were the Pebbledash People sought by the Conservatives. Now the pebbledash is gone and a modest conservatory has been built at the back
3/6 Aldi Woman
In 1997 and 2001 she was Worcester Woman – a middle-class Middle Englander shopping at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Today, the age of austerity means she still goes to Waitrose for her basic food shop but cannily switches to Aldi for her luxury bargains such as Parma ham and prosecco. Identified by Caroline Flint, she is a key target of both Labour and the Conservatives
4/6 Glass Ceiling Woman
In her thirties or forties, she has an established career under her belt, perhaps in the “marzipan layer” – one position below the still male-dominated senior executive level. She is now, according to Nick Clegg, forced into making the “heart-breaking choice” between staying at home to bring up her children and going to work and forking out for high-cost, round-the-clock childcare
5/6 Harassed Hipsters
One of the two key groups identified by Labour as crucial to hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. Well-paid professional couples, often with children, they live in diverse urban and metropolitan areas rather than the suburbs. More comfortably off than most swing voters, they are time poor – struggling to balance raising a young family with busy work schedules
These are mainly first-time voters, though some are in their twenties – students and digital-age generation renters helping to fuel the “Green Surge”. Idealists, but with no tribal loyalty to any party, they are anti-austerity, middle class, living in urban areas. Despite studying at university or recently graduated, they are struggling to find decent jobs and want cheaper housing and a higher minimum wage
Behind the scenes, the sniping began. Some claimed the bus was just a means of keeping Harman occupied during the election. Others resumed what is becoming their rather familiar position – holding their heads in their hands because of yet another unnecessary row. The pink van seemed a stupidly easy way of distracting attention from the substance of a well-intentioned campaign.
If the Tories did something like this they’d rightly get pilloried by Harman and her colleagues. Many of them have joined forces to endorse campaigns such as Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys, which try to persuade retailers that offering piles of exclusively pink toys and “princess” clothing to girls might discourage them from thinking they are just as capable as boys of being rocket scientists… or even politicians.
I say “if” the Tories did something like this, but though they had a jolly week laughing at Harman, they’re just as bad. Remember the image the party released after the last Budget, boasting that the Conservatives were “cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hard-working people do more of the things they enjoy”? That “they” said everything about the way the party views the working class.
This week marked the 40th anniversary of when Margaret Thatcher became the first, and so far only, female leader of a major Westminster political party. Yet still the Conservatives think it necessary to issue patronising briefings that they’re embarking on a “reshuffle for the women”, as they did last summer. David Cameron often gives the impression he’s keen to promote any woman to a job, rather than the right one. His party continues to struggle to attract would-be female MPs: sources tell me that less than a third of applications come from women. Just 16 per cent of their current MPs are women.
But the top prize for hypocrisy really must go to the Liberal Democrats, who smugly tweeted “women voters won’t forget Labour’s car crash record on the economy just because Harriet Harman turns up in a pink van”. Well, Nick Clegg’s party would only need a pink people-carrier for its female MPs, as there are only seven of them, and he hasn’t managed to promote a single one of them to the Cabinet.
All three parties suffer from the same habit of jumping on a pink bandwagon that lumps the “women’s vote” into a jumble of issues which either affect mothers of young children, or which should concern men and women alike. Society as a whole should be horrified, for instance, that every week two women in the UK die at the hands of their current or former partners. But then society should also be horrified that men now account for 77 per cent of all suicides, and there’s no special blue bus aimed at blokes.
Beyond those issues, though, there is no such thing as a “female vote”: women tend to disagree with one another about the size of the state, foreign policy and the long-term prospects for the NHS as much as men do. Oh, and we can’t even agree on whether or not we like the colour pink.