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Be careful what you wish for

I’m sure that in the right situation – perhaps a private dinner party with friends – Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman is a warm, funny, charismatic lady. However, in public, she increasingly comes across to this observer as an over-serious, prim, hectoring, one-track mind promoter of female ‘equality’.

At the weekend, as they came together on the sofa towards the end of BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, she took Education Secretary Michael Gove to task over his ‘sacking’ of Baroness Sally Morgan, chairman of the schools inspectorate Ofsted.

Not, as I had naturally expected, because of his alleged campaign to get rid of non-partisan government quango heads and replace them with Tory-supporting cronies – an accusation, incidentally, that might have had more weight and momentum had it not been the case that, between 1997 and 2010, the Labour seemed to pack every public committee and quango it could with Labour-supporting equivalents.

Au contraire. Harman berated Gove and the Coalition government for their general lack of progress on the representation of women in public life, not least within the Government itself. It was a similar line of attack to that deployed by Labour leader Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons yesterday.

In the past – I cannot recall specifically whether she repeated these arguments on Sunday morning – Harman has been a strong advocate of both ‘all women’ shortlists and female quotas as means of advancing the ‘equality’ cause in political parties, government posts and City board rooms.

Yesterday I had occasion to travel by overland train into central London yesterday – the opportunity to go further by Tube train was denied me, courtesy of Mr Bob Crow of the RMT – which gave me plenty of time to conduct one of my favourite pastimes, i.e. people-watching.

womenPardon me for risking being branded as a male chauvinist but, in indulging myself thus, what came across to me was the contrast between the female ‘rights’ that Harriet Harman spends much of her time fighting for and the life experiences of the bulk of women in Britain.

No doubt – in terms of sheer numbers – women are under-represented in British public life.

However, when Harriet Harman bangs on about gaining greater ‘equality’ in this regard, de facto she is primarily seeking to advance the cause of full-time, usually middle class, career women like herself.

Alpha-females, if you like.

There are two problems with this.

The first is that, when ‘positive discrimination’ is applied with the intention of rectifying the existing gender imbalance in prominent public positions and company board rooms, inevitably there has to be a tendency for the notion of clinically choosing ‘the best person for the job in each case’ to take a knock.

For example, if there are ten places on a company board, five of which are already occupied by men, then – on a 50% gender equality programme – the remaining five would have to be filled by women. Inevitably, there will be a suspicion that those women selected have been chosen because of their gender, rather than necessarily their qualifications for the job.

The second problem, which I was reminded of during my people-watching yesterday, is that – as, indeed, with men – the vast bulk of women are not Alphas.

Instead, they’re ordinary human beings who (whether by discrimination or choice) don’t have high-powered or particularly demanding jobs, if they have jobs at all.

However, they do have families, they do look after and nurture children, they do care for relatives and others and they do shop, go out, read and have as many other interests in life as any other group of human beings.

It seems to me that Harriet Harman would be better advised to campaign for general ‘equal opportunities’ for women [even I would be in favour of that!], rather than championing some fantasy gender-equal Utopia in which, apparently, good practice and decision-making will only result when 50% of all senior positions are occupied by women.

At the end of the day, surely the key is to try and ensure the best decisions get made, rather than to settle for decisions of uncertain quality, just because they have been reached via some version of a politically-correct forum.

About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts