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Editor-At-Large: Harman could fix things, but the men won't budge

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 09 August 2009 00:00 BST

No wonder many women find politics a turn-off and the idea of a career in Parliament less than appealing. Just look at the amount of vindictive press Harriet Harman attracted over the past seven days. If a mouthy, intelligent female – who, won an open election for her job, unlike her male superior – gets described as "thick" and "an idiot" by that repulsive shagger Rod Liddle in The Spectator, and is relentlessly pilloried day after day in the tabloids, it's no wonder her colleagues, Caroline Flint, Ruth Kelly and Jacqui Smith have jumped ship.

Harriet's treatment is not about the need for a thick skin or an ability to cope with the "rough and tumble" of politics (code for macho boorishness), but shows the relentless pigeonholing of any woman in politics who has the temerity to stick her head above the parapet, break ranks and have an opinion of her own.

Successful female politicians get turned into cartoon characters, shrieking feminists, bossy headmistresses, stupid girls or disorganised airheads by these self-appointed guardians of our democracy. Liddle, by the way, is the Michael Winner or Jeremy Clarkson of political journalism – all bluster and no balls. The idea of an articulate woman being in charge of the country for a whole seven days is enough to give chaps like him sleepless nights. What is the world coming to.

Even Prezza, who is a hell of a lot less intelligent than Ms Harman, felt obliged to weigh in with his five bob's-worth when she said that 50 per cent of the top jobs in the Labour Party should be held by women. He was less than impressed. Well, no surprises there.

Harriet Harman certainly had a week in the spotlight with newspaper interviews, the Andrew Marr Show and then Woman's Hour last Thursday. Having read the coverage, I expected to tune in and hear the rantings of a bossy megalomaniac demanding that all men should report to a detention centre and be reprogrammed forthwith. What I got was a reasonable, highly articulate, passionate woman who was completely unapologetic about her view that financial institutions should have far more women on their boards, that the review of how rape cases are dealt with should be more comprehensive, that the pay gap between men and women is unacceptable.

The difference between men and women's pay for the same job is 13 per cent and it's going to widen, according to a recent report. Why should part-time work, which suits many women, be paid at the lowest legal rate? Why shouldn't the BBC, the banks, and all quangos and institutions receiving public funding be mandated to make their boards a 50-50 gender split? That's not stopping minorities, disabled or gay people rising up the ladder – it's giving half of the population a voice.

Rod Liddle says Harman's politics are the "vacuous feminism of the sixth form". If politics engaged with women and delivered a democracy in which women felt they were equal partners, how come there's only one woman left at the top in government?

Harman is derided for a posh background, but let's remember she won a by-election for Labour in 1982 when it couldn't have been more unpopular. As for her oft-stated desire to reform the handling of rape cases: this year two men were finally convicted after 28 rapes and over 100 attacks on women. The police's handling of these cases was called "an abject failure".

Why should 100 women have to be attacked before a man is behind bars? Reported rapes in London rose 14.5 per cent in 2008 and the conviction rate is an all-time low at just 6.5 per cent, so Harriet Harman is right to demand a radical rethink. Many people who denigrate her probably believe many rape victims were "asking for it".

Harriet Harman's Woman's Hour interview was refreshingly jargon-free. There was none of the Brown waffle, and a total lack of rhetoric. You may not agree with her, but there's no doubt that she connected with many listeners. She says she doesn't want to stand as leader – and who can blame her?

In the meantime, we've got Mandelson, Darling and Straw rotating in the hot seat. I don't expect any of them will be labelled "stupid". Which proves my point about the lack of a level playing field. Sadly, the past week proves conclusively we're not ready for another woman – from any party – to run the country.

New SuBo: But only until she's through the front door

Susan Boyle has succumbed to a makeover and looks radiant in a new set of pictures in American Harper's Bazaar. Labelling this troubled women a "hairy angel" was the ultimate insult: she generally looked the way I do after a couple of weeks in rural Yorkshire 20 miles from a hairdresser with only my cabbages and runner beans for company. Let's face it – a basic perm, a £16 Primark jacket and a fake Burberry scarf won't seem out of place in downtown Blackburn, West Lothian. What else would you normally bung on to visit the chip shop or the karaoke bar down at the local hostelry?

Now SuBo's been whisked off to posh Cliveden in a limo, had her hair restyled in that sub-Meg Ryan perky way we know so well and is wearing Donna Karan. She looks great ( But I bet the tracksuit and slippers will be back on the minute she's through her front door. Her local council is said to be considering erecting a SuBo statue as the place has become a site of pilgrimage. But will it be of old-style SuBo or the new glam version?

Ruth Madoff feels the pinch

Ruth Madoff, the wife on jailed US financier Bernie, has always claimed she had no idea what her husband was doing as he swindled his clients out of billions of dollars. The family certainly led an opulent lifestyle, but now the prosecutors trying to discover where Bernie hid his ill-gotten gains have decided to get tough with Ruth. She's been photographed travelling on pubic transport, and has to submit accounts for any expenditure over $100. Looking at her expensive blonde bob, I doubt she's get those highlights redone for that, so we could soon be seeing Mrs Madoff in her true colours. Shame our politicians didn't have the $100 rule slapped on all their expenses.

Bing's mile-high bling

The publicity-shy multi-millionaire Steve Bing (at 18 he inherited $600m from grandad's property empire) likes to stay in the background, but it's emerged that he paid for his private plane to fly Bill Clinton to North Korea and bring back the two female journalists imprisoned there. Bing gives huge sums to Democratic causes, raised money for Hillary's presidential campaign and is a passionate environmentalist – a bit hard to square with owning a huge private jet. I once flew to Venice for the day with him and the jet he owned then featured a circular bed, gold taps and reclining brown leather seats. Very Boogie Nights.

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