There is an irreducible problem with making decisions. Decisions will always be terrible when people have beliefs that are passionate, confident, certain but wrong. Some of the most terrible chapters of human history were framed with extraordinarily incorrect beliefs that were, nonetheless, widely held. For example, there was a belief that many women liked hanging out with Satan. Best practice was to burn these woman at the stake. Another example was that Jews were part of an international conspiracy to take over the world and subvert Aryans. Best practice was to deny them rights and/or exterminate them. A third example was that Cambodia would be mighty and its people joyous if they returned to the traditional agrarian values of the Khmer civilization. Best practice was to destroy all modern technology and kill anyone who had benefited from a good education. In all three cases it is easy to get fixated on the terrible injustice and suffering caused by these mistaken beliefs. But we should not forget that part of the reason for the cruelty was that all of these practices were based on ideas that would never have worked. The witchhunters were talking bollocks. The Nazis were morons. The Khmer Rouge were full of sh*t. None of their ridiculous plans would ever have delivered their respective goals, so escalating violence became their substitute for another terrible realization that they had to avoid at all cost: the realization that they were imbeciles with no idea how to achieve their goals. They hence substituted hurting others as an alternative to admitting they could not find a way to get what they wanted. Killing women for being witches will not rid the world of evil. Exterminating Jews is not a mechanism to liberate Aryans or any other pseudo-sect of people. Destroying tools and knowledge would not have made the Cambodians happier. But an eager willingness to hurt your ‘enemy’ is a great way to keep your friends on side. The problem with modern mass government is it still affords some people the opportunity to seriously propose, and even implement, disastrous, stupid and wrong-headed policies on a terrible scale, with much the same quid pro quo. The unreasonable and inequitable demands always start small enough to be taken seriously by reasonable people, but always have to get worse as it becomes more and more apparent that paradise, the thousand-year reich, or any other twisted utopian fantasy has not been realized through the ‘temporary’ manipulation of society and human freedoms. That is why this week’s post is dedicated to the person who is by far the most over-promoted individual in British politics today. I am writing about the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and general-purpose Cabinet dogsbody, Harriet Harman.
Before I dive into some detail, let me put Harriet Harman into perspective. She is Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. This is currently an important-ish post, because the Labour Party happens to be in government. She is popular in the Labour Party, sort of. She is popular with individual members of the Labour Party, and this popularity was vital for her narrow victory in the Deputy Leadership contest. Labour MPs and MEPs consistently favoured rival Alan Johnson, and the unions were fairly evenly split, so the backing of individual members gave Harman the decisive edge. Doubtless Gordon Brown was happy about that, because whatever Harman’s strengths, being a possible contender for leader was not one of them. In contrast the second and third-place men, Johnson and Jon Cruddas, might have been the kind of people who would have has a serious go at grabbing Brown’s crown. Cruddas is a serious lefty with solid union support, so might still place himself as a go-to man if the elastic snaps on the New Labour vision and it slides down to Brown’s ankles like the withered old pants they are. People also thought Johnson might be a leader, not least because so many of the parliamentary party would follow him, but he has now dimmed his chances by being all meek and mild during the recent attempts to dislodge Brown.
As Deputy Leaders go, Harman is a lightweight. As an MP, she started out as Harriet Likeable-but-Dim, but has matured as a politician. Now she is not so likeable. She entered Parliament after being picked for a safe seat. It is so safe that it is the modern-day equivalent of a rotten borough. If Labour selected Robert Mugabe for Harman’s seat, he would win by a landslide, and without the need for all that beastly violence and intimidation he uses in Zimbabwe. Labour should seriously think about making Mugabe an offer. Replacing Mugabe in Zimbabwe would be great for the people of that country, and the constituents of Peckham would probably prefer Mugabe’s common touch to Harman walking round the streets whilst wearing a stab-proof vest. Ignoring the redrawing of lines on electoral maps, Harman’s seat has been held continuously held by Labour since 1936. For a lot of the time that Labour have been in power, Harman has been given minor jobs, if any. She talks passionately about being a feminist, but even Harman must realize the Ministry for Women is not considered to be one of the top jobs (and subject to a rather less competitive pool of contenders). When briefly given the relatively big job of Social Security (lot of money to spend, new ideas not mandatory) she spent most of the time arguing with her underling, Frank Field. Tony Blair deserves a good slap for that pairing. Putting Harman in charge of the courageous and brilliant Field would be like asking Albert Einstein to report his findings to Oliver Hardy. Unlike her predecessors, Harman has never had one of the big Cabinet jobs. Healy was Chancellor before he was Deputy Leader. Beckett had a stint as Foreign Secretary. Even Prescott got trusted with the big budgets as Secretary for Environment+, before they realized he was not suited to a proper job and kicked him up to the honorary post of Deputy PM. Hattersley spent all his best years in opposition, but at least he shadowed big jobs that whole time. You have to go back to Michael Foot to find a deputy leader with a CV as meagre as Harman’s. The biggest job he ever got was Leader of the House of Commons, which happens to be the same Cabinet job that Harman has now. The historical analogy that Harman might like to draw is that Foot went on to be Leader of the Labour Party, and there are signs that Harman’s thinking runs along similar lines. The lesson from history she might prefer to forget is that Foot, more than any leader, led Labour into a ever deeper and darker oblivion, a course in devastating the party’s popularity that took seventeen years to reverse.
Harman’s the topic of this post, because she spent so much of last week trying to get attention, and hopefully appalling most people for the stupidity of her suggestions. With Brown ‘holidaying’ whilst ‘still in touch for the big decisions’, his minions have had the chance to lap up the limelight with good publicity, and not just be forced to answer all those tough questions that Brown is trying to avoid. Harman has grabbed the opportunity with both ham fists. She suggested that Labour should have a gender quota system for its top two positions: at least one man, at least one woman. That prompted Prescott to respond with the superb line that she should “stop complaining, get campaigning”. She said that Lehman Brothers would still be around today if it had been Lehman Sisters. She reportedly has dug her heels in and insisted that the replacements for half of retiring Labour MPs must be selected from all-female shortlists. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported that Harman’s husband, trade union bigwig Jack Dromey, was being lined up for a safe seat. Presumably the seat is on the other half of the list – one where the local party can pick a man, or pick a woman, but must pick Harriet Harman’s husband.
Comparing Harman to witchhunters and Pol Pot may seem extreme, but anybody who decides that people generally cannot be trusted to do the right thing, and must be forced to do the right thing, is a dictator. That is what Harman is. She is a natural and instinctive dictator. The Labour Party selects John Prescott to be Deputy Leader… WRONG! should have picked a woman. Any woman would have been better than John Prescott (a plausible theory until you remember that his predecessor was Margaret Beckett and his successor is Harriet Harman). Lehman Brothers screws up… INEVITABLE! should have listened to more women. Women are much better at understanding financial markets because of natural selection predisposes them to understand the harmonic variances between stock indices and their monthly cycle, or if not that, then something as equally scientific and proven as that. Want a select a particular man to represent your constituency?… NO! a woman, any woman, would be better. Want Gordon Brown as your MP? NO! a woman would be better. Mandelson to return to the Commons? NO! a woman would be better. Bring back Blair? NO! you must be thinking of Blears, not Blair. Give a seat to Mr. Harman? you might have a point there, men have their uses after all.
The irony is that, despite being a natural dictator, Harman used to be the legal officer for the National Council of Civil Liberties, the old stage name of what is now known as Shami Chakrabarti’s Liberty and is soon to be rebranded as We Love Shami Chakrabarti (formerly known as Liberty). But as I pointed out in a previous post about Chakrabarti and Liberty, it is not unusual for cynical politicians to exploit NGOs to further their career. In fact, the less the interest in the actual goals of the NGO, the easier it is to use as a springboard. Hence why Harman has been so resolute in trying to using anti-terror laws as a way to attack our civil liberties, and why Harman proposed an alteration to the Freedom of Information Act to enable MPs to cover up their abuses of the expense system.
Of course the world is unfair to women. But simple equations and crude gerrymandering will not make the world a fairer place for anybody. Whilst Harman keeps bashing on about quotas every time women are under-represented, and sometimes talks about blacks being under-represented, she never follows through to the logical conclusion of using quotas to deliver fairness. If the world is unfair, and quotas are a solution, you could have quotas for every kind of unfairness, not just for gender or colour. You can use it for disabilities. Check. Stop ageism. Check. Promote gays, bis and lesbians. Check. Give people with a Brummie accent a better chance. Check. No discrimination for fatties. I suppose… Help redheads. Erm, let me think about that. Equal representation for short people. Yeah, but… Stop prejudice to ugly people. Hang on, we need to think this one through. Give poor children a fair chance. No, we do not support that – that would be unfair on our middle class voters, erm, I mean to the middle classes in general, erm, I mean the classless society we are trying to build, erm, I mean have built.
Whilst Harman rants in the absence of any data to support her nonsense, others in the Labour Party end up publishing reports that show kids from poor families have less chance of entering the professions than they did when the Labour got into power in 1997. Alan Milburn’s report on Fair Access to the Professions drew on a broad panel of experts. It refers to inequalities of sexes, and race, where apparent. But the damning conclusion is that people who come from wealthier and privileged backgrounds (people like Harriet Harman) use their influence, more than ever, to secure the best jobs for their children (in much the way Harman decided ordinary state schools were not good enough for her children). Whilst some professions have opened up to young women (for example, women make up 57% of both applicants to and acceptances by medical schools) they have not opened up to the children of the poor (on average, a doctor born in 1970 will have been raised in a family that is richer than five in six of all UK families). As the report also points out, professions like medicine and law remain heavily biased towards those born into wealth and who are educated at exclusive schools (just like Harriet Harman). Yet whilst Harman rails on and on about statistics like how few CEOs are women, and will abuse statistics to suit her purposes (Harman was warned about abusing statistics by the Head of the UK Statistics Authority) she make no mention of stats that show poor men and poor women being treated unequally to men and women from rich backgrounds. That seems remarkable when we talk about the goals of a Labour politician, but perhaps less remarkable when we remember this particular Labour politician has always benefited from prejudice of the right sort, and is only against prejudice of the wrong sort.
To get a feel for how messed up the current equality debate is, I thought I would pick a completely different example to the ones Harman likes to use, but would use it to generate the type of stats that Harman loves to quote. As noted above, Harman’s husband is a union bigwig. When talking about the private sector, Harman adores the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. So what better topic to analyse, than whether there is a glass ceiling for women wanting top jobs in trade unions?
I began my analysis by going to the Trades Union Congress website, the umbrella body for 58 British unions representing nearly seven million workers between them. I stripped the data they had on all the unions in the congress, and I analysed it for evidence of a disparity between the chances for men and women to get the top job at a union. The results were:
- Women comprise 44.6% of ordinary union members, but only 21.7% of union bosses.
- There were 14 unions where female members outnumbered male members, but where the union boss was a man.
- There were only 2 unions were male members outnumbered female members, whilst having a female boss. In one of these, the gender ratio of members was almost equal, with 50.3% men and 49.7% women.
- The four biggest unions all had male bosses. Seven of the eight biggest had male bosses.
- Some unions reported figures for male and female members that did not total to the figures reported for total membership. Either some unionists cannot count or they have identified an unspecified third gender.
Pretty damning. So why does Harman not campaign harder for more female union bosses, or for a law to create quotas for female union bosses? After all, these people are meant to be representing women in the workforce, the same place where Harman keeps insisting they get unfairly treated and unfairly paid compared to men. If the people who campaign for better worker’s pay and better worker’s treatment do not treat women fairly, is it realistic to expect the employers to do more?
It would be easy for Harman to do more for female representation in unions. She could turn over in bed, and talk to her husband, Jack Dromey. His union, Unite, was created by the union of two unions (yes, I know, but true). Unite is the biggest union in Britain. Dromey had been Deputy Secretary of the TGWU and continued as Deputy Secretary of Unite, though you might have thought the need for a deputy is excessive. The two unions solved the problem of a fight for the top job by having two joint General Secretaries (both men). Then again, I can see why unions might find it hard to cut excess staff. To be fair to Dromey, three quarters of Unite members are men, so you might expect more men at the top of the union. Unite’s top echelons include a fair share of women, so positive discrimination seems to be helping on that score. But if they could only persuade some of the male workers to stand aside, so women could take over their jobs… then you would see some real progress for women in the workplace…
I doubt there is much point arguing with Harman. She is in politics because she is convinced she is right. Listening to counter-arguments is best left to those with the minds agile enough to gain from the process. Harman is a bludgeon and will continue to be. She only ever changes her message if it might help her further her career, but even Harman can only double-back so often. She is the civil libertarian who wants to lock people up without trial. She is the advocate for equality that is silent on the growing inequality between children of poorer families and richer families. She is the voice of Labour that will not be silenced by critics, but says nothing about the decline in mobility suffered by those from poorer backgrounds. Aiding the mobility and aspirations of the poor is Labour’s raison d’Ãªtre, so for a Labour Equalities Minister to ignore the topic is not just a disappointment, it is a betrayal.
Harman is a stubborn cynical ‘been there, done that’ sort of politician. When talking about political ‘big beasts’, Harman is the ox. She is slow and remorseless, supported by a safe seat which means no real need to compromise or reach out to a variety of voters. She presses forward in the direction she faces, with no real idea of where it will take her. Only an ox would see no contradiction in bemoaning the lack of top jobs for women in business, whilst ignoring the tendency for professional jobs to increasingly go to the wealthy at the exclusion of women – and men – from poorer backgrounds. That makes Harman that most terrible and terrifying combination: despot and dullard. At least Harman proves one thing about gender equality. Women can be overpromoted almost as much as men.