Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘Yes we did, yes we can’

Women are doing it for each other. Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips tell Richard Angell and Conor Pope about bringing through a next generation of women  

You are Deliciously Ella and I am like Delia’, Harriet Harman says to Jess Phillips as they sit down in the former deputy Labour leader’s parliamentary office.

She is right to liken them to the two food writers. One, a young, healthy-eating blogger; the other, a staple of kitchens throughout the country, whose every recipe seems to include a generous helping of butter.

In so many ways, Harman and Phillips are chalk and cheese. Harman is now the one of the elder stateswomen of the Labour party, a respected senior figure of the New Labour government, while Phillips is the new loudmouth on the block who, in Harman’s words, recently arrived in parliament and ‘kicked the door down’. The two have just published very different books, at very different times in their careers. They act differently and talk differently – and yet they share much more in common than some might think.

Phillips is now chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party, a group founded by Harman, and both of their books, although different in style, focus on centre-left feminism. At times, they both appear to play up to the public personas that they have built; or, perhaps, play up to the personas which life in the public eye may have forced them to adopt.

Harman, for example, is perfectly comfortable casually referencing feminist academics, explaining that Sheila Rowbotham’s book Hidden from History influenced her decision to pen her own memoir, A Woman’s Work. ‘I noticed that, of my male colleagues who had written their memoirs, there wasn’t any mention of any women in them’, she says. Informed by Rowbotham’s argument that ‘if you do not write your history down, no one will understand it’, she decided to write her own book ‘I looked at these male memoirs and I thought: “where is our story of the huge change in women’s lives, and the change in parliament, and the change in public policy? It’s not written down, so I’ll have to write it myself”. That’s why I did it.’

She is relaxed playing the senior role, occasionally stamping Phillips’ point with affirmation. When the Birmingham Yardley member of parliament shrugs off a question with ‘I don’t regret things, to be totally honest’, Harman is quick to back her up: ‘quite right!’

Phillips, on the other hand, is perfectly happy to be the straight-talking Brummie motormouth, more comfortable being self-effacing than highbrow. At one point, during a discussion about what appears to be an increased politicisation of young women, specifically in regards to gender issues, she jokes: ‘third wave, fourth, whatever wave of feminism we’re on these days’. Explaining her own reasons for writing a book, she sardonically shrugs: ‘someone asked me to’.

Yet throughout our conversation, in which both liberally pepper their comments with compliments of the other, they begin to draw out each other’s similarities, slowly revealing that in many ways the pair think alike, even if they do not initially sound alike.

Harman recalls the first time the two met, at a Labour fundraising dinner shortly after Phillips became a councillor. ‘Someone said to me: “That is Jess Phillips. You will want to speak to her because she is blazing a trail on domestic violence” … I met you and immediately, I remember, what a loud voice you had. How confident you were: you had only just been made a councillor and already you were going to be changing the world. I couldn’t ever forget that meeting.’

Phillips begins to reminisce about the second meeting between the pair, at a National Policy Forum meeting, to which she had to bring her children.

‘My son was about two at the time and he had just been potty-trained. He went into the toilet and he thought I was outside and he couldn’t get his trousers up. I just came out of the cubicle as he walked up to you standing there and he just had his trousers half-way up. I remember thinking “Oh my god, my son’s showing his willy to Harriet Harman!”’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve seen loads’, Harman deadpans back.

After the NPF meeting, Phillips received an excited phone call from a friend, which she recounts in a stage whisper: ‘“I’m on the train, and Harriet Harman is in the seat next to me. She’s talking about you! … She was saying that you brought lots of women there!’”

It is no surprise that Harman would be speaking highly of someone bringing more women to a political meeting. Getting more women involved in politics has been one of her lifelong goals.

Indeed, it is a goal they share. Shorter and spikier, Phillips’ is not a memoir, but an angry and playful manifesto, full of advice for women in all areas of life – yet advice which, she stresses, they should ignore if they do not feel it is right for them.

That is because neither she nor Harman believe role models and influential figures are the best way to think about feminism.

‘I’ve got a thing in my book about not agreeing with the notion of role models’, Harman explains. ‘I think that’s a conservative notion. That’s about following in somebody’s footsteps, training to be like somebody else who’s done it. Actually you do it in your own way in your own time. Feminism is the notion of the peer group and the sisterhood and the collective. It’s not about looking up to the inspiring person. It’s about believing in your sisters, and in yourself as part of a “monstrous regiment” of women.’

With all of the difficulties faced by being a woman in public office, arguing for women, over the course of decades, Harman says that ‘admiring some figure in history would not have kept me going. It had to be the absolute solidarity of the sisterhood. However inspired and brilliant you are, you have to make change as a group. No one person ever really made progressive change.’

Phillips’ answer to the same question reveals both the similarities and differences between the two. Whereas Harman references the ‘monstrous regiment of women’ from the title of John Knox’s 16th century pamphlet, which raged at the supposed ungodliness of women in positions of power, Phillips says: ‘I never sit around listening to political speeches. Every time someone says “that was a great thing you just said in parliament”, I think “people actually watch this?”’

She tells a story of how, growing up, there was no childcare option for her parents, so her mother and her friends set up a group to share the burden, so that they could all work a few days a week. Phillips refers to this, with a smirk, as the ‘women’s liberation playgroup’.

But she is entirely serious when she discusses its impact on her. ‘It’s groups of women that inspire me … People don’t realise the things that women do for each other all the time. That’s the heroic stuff. The stuff we do without even noticing we’re helping each other.’

That is why she wants to make sure Harman knows that the achievements of the Labour government are appreciated: ‘my generation couldn’t do what we do if it wasn’t for your generation.’

The New Labour legacy, and the way it is viewed, still drives Harman too. ‘I think we did incredible things [in government] and I can see that in detail, not just nationally, but in my own constituency … I cannot ever own the notion that it was not a good government. It was a government that transformed things. I wanted to put in the book all of the things that were the differences that were made in my constituency and around the country from there being a Labour government … If we don’t say the last Labour government was good, why would anyone vote for the next one?’

Phillips relates it to a dinner she recently had with some friends, setting the scene with her natural aplomb. ‘Everyone got a bit drunk and started one of those arguments where nobody’s listening but everyone’s wanting to speak. It was about who had gained the most from the last Labour government … It’s funny, because I have sat with the exact same group of people being irate at the last Labour government. With where the Labour party is at the moment, it’s causing people to stop and reflect on the “you never had it so good” sort of thing.’

As Harman points out, we are now getting to the point where some parts of the Labour government’s achievements finally begin to crumble away due to underinvestment. ‘When there’s first a Tory government, there’s still some resilience in the system. You’ve still got the spending periods ahead, the investment is still flowing in.’ Now, her comments suggests, things might begin to deteriorate much more rapidly.

Yet she has no time for defeatism. ‘There’s an awful lot of promise for the future and hope for the future in Jess’ book, because it’s got determination and it’s about making the progressive change. I don’t believe those people who say “Labour’s never going to be in government again and the clocks will be turned back” and the point of Jess’ book and the spirit it creates is about going forward and not accepting the status quo.’

In fact, at the beginning of our meeting, Harman had shown us notes she had taken down shortly after the 1983 general election, in which she had warned Labour could be in for a long wait before returning to power unless it learned the right lessons from the defeat. It had been an especially difficult defeat for her, having been in parliament less than a year. ‘I had hoped that, having got elected in 1982, a whole lot of women would have joined me in ‘83, but actually we did so badly in ‘83 we lost women.’

To which Phillips, half ironically, half gloomily, opined: ‘Maybe I’ll never see a Labour government again.’

No chance. ‘You will have a Labour government again which you will be a minister in – if not leader – if you make it happen’, Harman tells her. ‘In the 1980s we were not going “are we going to be in government again?” We were like: “we are going to be, and this is what we need to do to make that happen”. But it took us a flip of a long time.’

Harman can sense Phillips is indulging in mock pessimism. While her own book is a ‘yes we did’, Harman tags Everywoman as a ‘yes we can’. It is clear enough that Phillips would not be here if she thought there was no hope left – she once told a shocked journalist: ‘I don’t do anything unless I think I can get to the top’.

Why? ‘I say it because I want more women not to be afraid of being ambitious.’

A lack of ambition is not something that holds back men, Harman adds. ‘Scratch the surface with nearly all the men in the PLP and they’ll think “Yeah, I’ve got leadership potential”. Why is it so out of order for a woman to think she’s got leadership potential? I remember Ken Clarke saying “Any MP who says they don’t want to be leader of his party is lying”, and me thinking “Oh my goodness, that’s really surprising”. It was an insight into what the men were thinking. Women have got to start thinking like that.’

This, Harman suggests, may partly be why Labour has never had a woman leader – on our side of the chamber, women may be less likely to consider their role as a normal job, with the prospects for promotion that might bring. It is the ‘difference between us and a lot of Conservative women MPs’, Harman says. ‘They talk about it being a career. Whereas for us it’s a cause and a vocation.’

‘It’s much easier to elect women who would be seen as appeasers of more traditional politics’, says Phillips. ‘It’s much harder to elect “bloody difficult women” who might want to get on with a distinctive women’s agenda once in power.’ In her book, she tells women not to fear being ‘pigeonholed’ for their interest in women’s issues, pointing out that ‘no one ever said to George Osborne, “Mate, always chatting about the economy will make people will think you’re a one trick pony.”’

Harman agrees, summarising the point in her own style. ‘We’re not doing it on the men’s terms. We want to change the terms.’ She adds: ‘Women are a subversive force in the Labour party … women are not a subversive force in the Tory party, they are the status quo.’

Another reason for the failure of women to make the final leap to the top of the party, Phillips suggests, is that men in the party might ‘rest on their laurels’. The fact that they are in a progressive party that has strong feminist voices in it means they do not need to think so much about pushing a feminist agenda within it.

Harman is sceptical. ‘I don’t think it’s even that they rest on their laurels, I think they don’t notice.’ Yet they don’t want their feminist credentials to be doubted: ‘They don’t want to be challenged on that kind of stuff.’

She says that a lot of people willing something to happen in good faith is not a recipe for reform. ‘My experience that everyone agreeing something needs to change isn’t sufficient for change.’ This time it is Phillips’ turn to summarise, in her own inimitable fashion: ‘If you’re the one waiting for it to trickle down it seems to be pouring on everyone else. A structural problem needs a structural solution.’

Neither woman, however, is one to sit around and wonder what might have been, or what change could have been achieved. ‘You’ve got to just move on’, says Phillips. Or, as Harman puts it: ‘We haven’t enough time to be regressing off into regret. We’ve got a world to be changing.’

Nor will Harman allow Phillips to become wistful over her own 35-year parliamentary career. ‘Don’t admire any of it! You can do much, much better.’

The spectre of leadership haunts the conversation again. ‘Of course’ Harman should have stood for leader, Phillips says, before she works herself up on a related topic. ‘Had I been here when the Gordon Brown thing that you weren’t made deputy [prime minister] at the time [as Harman’s predecessor as deputy leader, John Prescott, had been], I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have just properly kicked off. I feel like I would have stood up at the PLP and gone “You are a disgrace!”’ One can only imagine what Brown’s reaction would have been to be on the receiving end of a Jess Phillips telling off.

Yet Harman, true to her word about a lack of regrets, does not seem fazed. ‘We were just moving on, we were getting on with being in government. Because I was in such a leading position, I basically quashed the anger that there was. But probably I wouldn’t have been able to quash your anger’, she adds to Phillips, and flashes a grin.

Our chat comes the day after Phillips’ book launch. The room had been bustling with women, with children bombing around, playing – it seemed no coincidence that the launch came during the school half-term. It was like so many parties everyone has been to; it almost had the feeling of a family get-together. Except this one took place in the speaker’s chambers in the houses of parliament, at the heart of the establishment. Harman was there, and it did not go unmentioned that it felt exactly like the idea of politics she has been fighting for all these years. Did it feel like that? ‘Definitely.’


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell

Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Conor Pope

is online features editor at Four Four Two Magazine

Richard Angell

is director of Progress


  • Where were the Blairite Sisterhood when Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti were being abused and bullied?

  • I often wondered why The Labour Partyal aways talk about equality but do anything about it an now I am enlightened, “It is the ‘difference between us and a lot of Conservative women MPs’, Harman says. ‘They talk about it being a career. Whereas for us it’s a cause and a vocation.’”. Thanks for that Harriet.

  • Hi Greg,

    You’re right, of course – those are really important issues.

    You might be interested to know that, just last month, Harman tabled an amendment to the Article 50 bill asking the government to ensure that they tackle women’s rights in the workplace, domestic violence, and – yes – FGM and trafficking.

    You can read the amendment here:

    Amazing what women can still find time to do even with so much of their schedule taken up congratulating each other on having vaginas, eh?


  • “Harman, for example, is perfectly comfortable casually referencing feminist academics, explaining that Sheila Rowbotham’s book Hidden from History influenced her decision to pen her own memoir, A Woman’s Work.”

    Memoir selling well, is it?
    If she had picked the Conservative Party she could have made PM but instead she is just another also ran.

Sign up to our daily roundup email