In a speech on Saturday, the senior Labour politician will claim the Conservative leader is a “drag anchor” on efforts to push forward women’s rights for describing them as a burden on business and voting against the Equality Act.
But Harman, who has been at the forefront of Britain’s feminist movement for decades, will also warn that it is “raining men” at the top of the Labour party, which is embarrassing while the Tory party, the SNP, Greens and even Ukip have female leaders.
Speaking at her party’s women’s conference on Saturday, Harman will argue that even at the height of Labour divisions three decades ago, when hard left groups were kicked out of the party, female politicians stuck together.
“In the 1980s, despite the turmoil in the party with the party split from top to bottom and with predictions we would never govern again, we women across all of the party worked together and made massive progress,” she will say.
“We worked together as women in the cause of women despite our differences over the leadership at that time. And so we must and will now.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Harman put the continued relationships between the women on the left and right of the party down to “sisterly solidarity” that meant unity around the gender equality agenda trumped disagreements about Labour’s direction.
Harman, who has been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, will be making the comments while introducing Angela Rayner, the shadow education and women’s minister, who is a close ally of the party leader.
Harman will describe her colleague as “grounded in the real world and a voice of clarity and principle” and deserving of the full backing of all of Labour’s female MPs.
Addressing an audience that will include Jess Phillips, the MP who chairs the women’s parliamentary Labour party, as well as Diane Abbott, the shadow health secretary, Harman will say that with 100 female MPs, Labour remains the party of and for women and for equality.
But she will add: “Let’s face it, there’s not one of us here who isn’t smarting that while the Tories, SNP, the Greens and even, God help us, Ukip have a woman leader, when it comes to Labour it’s raining men.”
Asked whether she thought the responsibility to change the male-dominated leadership team in the Labour party lay with Corbyn, Harman said the issue was a deeper “systemic” problem that predated the current leadership.
She said Labour had learned the lesson that not being able to attract women’s votes during the 1980s had locked them out of power, so they opted for wholesale changes such as all-women shortlists.
“We went for broke in nailing this problem of women voters thinking we were a male-dominated party and we got an avalanche of women’s votes,” Harman said, pointing to Labour’s 44% lead with women aged 25 to 34 in 2000.
But she said that once Labour cracked the female vote, then “complacency grew up, men were happy to have women’s votes, but not happy to share power”, resulting in a glass ceiling within the party.
“We made all the changes that flagged up to women that we would be there for them, but then things slipped back. Although women were there, men fought for and got control,” she said, arguing that in the struggle for power women had been squeezed out of top positions.
The need to tackle that issue but also not allow Labour’s woes to divide women is urgent, Harman will say, because of the new government.
“We’ve got a new Tory prime minister – and she’s a woman. But like Margaret Thatcher before her, Theresa May is no supporter of women,” she will say.
“When we were pushing for more Labour women MPs, she chased me round TV and radio studios decrying us, joining the men in her party and some in ours who called it ‘political correctness gone mad’.
“And while she’s been in government, she’s voted every time for the cuts to the vital programmes that we brought in when we were in government, like Sure Start centres, and for tax credits for childcare. Theresa May is woman - but she’s no sister.”
A Downing Street source said: “It’s frankly pathetic to see a politician from a party that has never elected a female leader and whose female MPs routinely receive abuse for taking a stance in a leadership election belittling the successes of Britain’s second female prime minister.
“While Theresa May is getting on with building a country that works for everyone, Harriet Harman and the Labour party are too divided to deliver anything for women in Britain.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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