Johann Hari: Harman could yet give Labour its legacy

Her Equality Bill is a glistening reminder of what a Labour government is for

Monday 30 June 2008 00:00 BST

After Labour's long death-march to Henley cemetery last week, it's plain the future isn't Brown; it's black. No party has ever heaved itself out of a grave this deep in just two years. The next general election is lost – so for its remaining years in office, the Government has a contracted mission. They have to leave the Labour Party with enough sense of shared mission – enough sticky social democratic glue – to hold it together when it emerges, bankrupt and battered, from the 2010 landslide loss. If all the party's activists remember of 13 years of Labour rule is the Iraqi inferno and Heathrow and casinos, they may well leave it by the roadside to die.

Harriet Harman's Equality Bill is a glistening reminder of what a Labour government is for, but you wouldn't know it from the deafening cannon-fire of lies that have been blasted in her direction. The Bill takes some of the most blatant blocks on British people getting to use their talents – sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, and prejudice against the disabled – and tries carefully to unpick them.

Let's focus on sexism, since it affects the largest number. The facts are plain: women in full-time work earn 17 per cent less than men. Women in part-time work earn 40 per cent less. Harman asks: "Do we think she is 40 per cent less hard-working, less intelligent, less qualified?" After a decade of the Government asking businesses nicely to change their ways, the situation is barely improving: the average woman is still cheated out of £330,000 in her career. At the current rate, there will be equal pay in Britain in 2088 – when everybody reading this article is dead.

So Harman believes the Government needs to act. Does anybody disagree? Yes, actually. Some right-wing critics have tried to stop her right there, at the first premise. The Daily Mail has announced that women "choose less well-paid jobs" because they want "more time with their families". In reality, this is a factor in lower pay for women – but it is relatively small. How do we know? Because the pay gap sets in and swells long before women have kids.

The Women and Work Commission found women with first-class degrees are earning considerably less than equally-qualified men virtually as soon as they enter the workplace. Within five years, the pay gap for highly qualified women is 15 percent – even though the women are on average just 26, and almost none have had babies.

All Harman has done is propose some straightforward measures, adopted in almost all the countries with narrower gaps. She wanted all employers to have to calculate the pay gap between men and women in their organisation, and publish it. It would take an afternoon. Women could then start to figure out if they were being cheated, and put it right workplace-by-workplace.

But there was fierce resistance from the Business Secretary, John Hutton, in Cabinet, so Harman had to accept a frustrating compromise. The public sector will now publish the gap and Harman-ise. Any private firms that sell to them will also at least have to add the gap up, and present it when bidding for government contracts. The rest of the private sector will be left as they are today.

For this, Harman has been called in the press "a patronising cow" and an "idiot" who is "hanging on by her pretty little fingernails". The metal-fetishising eunuch Jeremy Clarkson squealed: "Equality was tried very publicly in Russia. Rich people were shot. Everyone worked in a tractor factory." Uh ... there is a small difference between a pay audit and a gulag, Jeremy. He then wrote: "No matter how many times I applied, Sir Alex Ferguson would not employ me as his next striker. Under Harperson's regime, I'd be able to take him to court." Of course, dear.

The critics have fixated on one tiny part of the Bill that lets employers take gender or race into account if they have a skewed workforce. All this means is that if, say, a primary school is staffed only by women, the headteacher can legally decide to pick a man to balance things out, provided he is equally good. Yet the Daily Express reported this on its front page as: "White Men To Face Jobs Ban." It's hard to have a functioning democracy when the press lies en masse this blatantly.

When they have run out of all other arguments, the gap-dodging critics complain we can't afford gender equality while the economy sighs into recession. But wasting the education and talents and skills of a hefty chunk of the country is actually a drag on the economy – one that costs us £23bn a year. When Norway demanded that 40 per cent of all seats on corporate boards be female, business growth shot up. When McKinsey studied the effect of having women in senior positions, they found it boosted stock-price growth by 53 per cent. This shows that white men (like me) suffer when talent can't rise. We can't afford not to lift the sexist brakes.

The cultural chasm between Labour and the Tories on this was illustrated with Carry On garishness last week. On the Labour benches, there was a sea of men and women, black and white, gay and straight, trying to outlaw the most egregious forms of discrimination. Opposite there was a braying row of public schoolboys calling it "completely and utterly outrageous".

The culture among Tory MPs was compressed into a few sentences when one of them, David Heathcote-Amory, saw a black woman walking on the member's terrace and demanded to know if she was an MP. "Yes, I am actually. Are you?" Dawn Butler replied. He snapped to his colleagues: "They're letting anybody in nowadays."

When you see them massed, you realise David Cameron's Conservatives are an unreconstructed rich-boys-only club, opposed to basic gender equality. There are more Old Etonians on their benches than women (they're just 9 per cent), and the Shining Leader is even a member of White's, a club that bans females from setting foot inside. The only influential woman in Cameron's circle is his dowager-heiress wife, who spends her time designing £1,000 handbags. The fact the Tories' modernising-sheen soon rubs off matters: Boris ran as a "compassionate Conservative", but his first act as Mayor was to cancel half-price bus fares for 130,000 of the poorest Londoners.

When Barbara Castle pushed through the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the same predictions of economic apocalypse and misogynist insults were machine-gunned at her, word-for-word – but today we look back on it as one of the great achievements of the Wilson years. In a more equal Britain 30 years from now, we will feel the same about Harriet Harman – and we will remember this Bill in dark times as one of the reasons to fight for a Labour government.

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