Harman v Prescott – Below the belt

Political commentary is not really my thing on this blog, but I just cannot let the very public online spat between Harriet Harman and John Prescott go unremarked. Let me say at the outset that I’m not a member of any political party, although you may discern from this blog that I am generally leftish. I generally have quite a deal of respect for John Prescott and his determination but I am afraid he is not in my good books.

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This begins with Harriet Harman’s interview in The Times on Sunday (also here) . I take the point that Harriet’s turn of phrase that ‘men cannot be left to run things on their own’ sounds pejorative and is foolishly sexist. She does know how to put her foot in her mouth. But let’s look at the bigger picture. It is a fact that the business of politics and governance remains overwhelmingly male dominated and that HAS to change as a matter of urgency. As Harriet says – and this is plainly the thrust of what she says rather than the detail that detractors are homing in on – ‘it’s thoroughly bad to have  a men-only leadership’. The idea is that, even if women in government are outnumbered by men, things are still run in accordance with the principles of equality. To use the lingo this government is ‘striving to be’ an equal opportunities government (aka work in progress).

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So I ask you, does John Prescott’s response on his blog smack of committment to and deep understanding of the importance of substantive equality of opportunity both in government and in the country as a whole? Does it ‘eck. Harriet Harman has stated an obvious and uncomfortable truth, and one which would be a significant vote loser amongst the female electorate were it not for the fact that all the other main parties are similarly terrible at getting women elected. And Prescott reacts by criticising her for doing damage to the party. Prescott’s clumsy attack on the only person prepared to put her head above the parapet on this is extremely unattractive and as a female voter a massive turn off.

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What Prescott completely misses is that Harman is promoting a long needed public debate about this – and one which if embraced could be a positive campaigning line. Male and female members of Parliament alike should be engaging with this constructively to work out how we can redress the balance, how we can eliminate actual and perceived imbalance and male centred policy making, how they can win the trust and votes of women.

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But, says Prescott, the all boys team have been successful, have done important stuff (and by implication this women’s issue is no more than a distraction). Waving your sporting trophies and sneering at what the girls want to talk about by reducing it to pink fluff is schoolyard stuff. It is unsophisticated and unconvincing.

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And to attempt to undermine a woman’s own success by saying she got to the top by being a woman is utterly unimaginative (I am referring here to the significant phrase ‘in theory you were selected on merit not on gender’ which I am disappointed to report my other half finds completely unobjectionable – he is mystified at my wrath). What’s more, it fundamentally misses the point: lets assume that Harriet Harman was in part elected as a result of her committment to equality or to what Prescott may view as ‘women’s issues’ – that is not the same as getting elected because of your gender. A male candidate who was equally able to demonstrate his committment to the same ‘women’s issues would compete on a level playing field. That one remark from Prescott, rather emphasises the reason why we need more women in government. The John Prescott’s of this world don’t even get why there is a problem – he doesn’t understand what Harriet or the rest of us birds are whineing on about. ‘The system works fine’ says Prescott. If the system worked fine John, there would be a representative proportion of women in government. What’s your problem with that?

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John Prescott should take a long hard look at himself and the effect upon the female voter of publicly attacking female colleagues for raising legitimate equality issues, and consider who it is that is damaging the party’s prospects of retaining power at the next election. He may have attracted some unpleasantly misogynistic comments on his blog post (which one rather suspects may reflect his views in rather rawer form than appear on a carefully crafted blog post which produces an uncharacteristically polished result in contrast with the off the cuff Prescott we are used to seeing on telly), but I can tell him that there are more women voters, than misogynists out there, more voters who want to see representative government and true equality than there are voters who want to keep everything as it is or fill a cabinet full of Prescotts.

One thought on “Harman v Prescott – Below the belt

  1. Well said!

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