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Blogs Coffee House

Harriet Harman was not ‘bullied’ at PMQs today

7 November 2012

6:41 PM

7 November 2012

6:41 PM

Barack Obama’s re-election has naturally perked up the Labour party, on the optimistic basis that the Obama formula for success, sans Obama, could work perfectly well here. But there’s a limit to how far you can take that approach and it was reached, PDQ today, by the feisty editor of the LabourList website, Mark Ferguson, today. The key to Obama’s victory, he correctly observed, was his appeal to women, some of whom took a dim view of some Republicans’ attitudes to rape and abortion. The working equivalent of the Republicans over here, he went on, is obviously the Tories, whose antique and regressive attitudes to women could be observed in, um, the treatment of the Shadow Deputy PM, Harriet Harman, in the Commons today. As he put it:

‘Today though, the real attitude of some in the Tory Party to women was laid bare. Heckling is always a problem at PMQs, but for women it’s far, far worse. Sometimes it’s hard to hear female MPs deliver their questions such is the barracking (or worse, just talking over them). Today, Harriet Harman was given the full hairdryer treatment from the moment she stood up until the moment she sat down. It was relentless, ugly and shocking. No group of MPs would treat a senior male politician in such a way. And yet Harman is considered fair game.’

Now, I appreciate more than most the difficulties women have in making themselves heard; I’m a martyr to the problem myself. But his observations about HH are, quite simply, untrue. During PMQs she was heard with near silence and respectfully when she was talking about the Leveson Inquiry – indeed I wish she’d had a far tougher ride on that one – and it was only when she went on to attack the Coalition’s family policies that the volume rose discernibly. But that was because she was making statements about the cuts to the SureStart programme that were downright provocative. Which is, by the way, her job.

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All that the heckling did was give Harriet an occasion to make a joke, which is something of an Event. ‘I’m starting,’ she said, to have sympathy with the hon member for Mid-Bedfordshire….all those rats and snakes, and that was before she went into the jungle.’ Very nice, Harriet.

Does it matter that any stick is good enough to beat the Coalition with, when it comes to suggesting that the Tories are irredeemably sexist? No, not really. But trying to invoke the spectre of Harriet Harman being bullied by men in government when she plainly wasn’t, does suggest that the parallels between the Tories and the Republican Right just don’t work.

Look, I’m not saying that there isn’t still a place in the great scheme of things for a feminist take on things. Today we learned from the Chartered Management Institute that women executives earn, on average, half a million quid less than their male counterparts over their lifetime. Some of that is because women decide perfectly sensibly that they’d prefer a bit more time on the home front than spending all their time at work: less pay but fewer heart attacks. But I just know from the experience of my peers that some of the gap is because women don’t really push their case when it comes to getting paid as much as men; they get on with the job and are hurt and surprised when they find out later that they’ve been undervalued.

If we could focus on perfectly reasonable issues like pay, there might be a case for suggesting that the Government still has some way to go when it comes to its woman problem, which The Spectator, incidentally, was the first to draw attention to. But trying to erect an edifice of oppression on the back of Harriet Harman really won’t wash. Particularly when, as the Speaker noted, the person who got the really rough ride during PMQs – from both sides – was poor Nick Clegg.

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