Harriet Harman has said she would have beaten Ed Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership election if she had chosen to stand for the role, and she was struck by how little discussion there was of possible female candidates for the role.
Labour’s former deputy leader said she “definitely would have got it” having been acting leader of the party twice, but there was no sense in the party that she was “leadership material”.
In the 2010 contest, Diane Abbott was the only woman to stand in the race, coming in fifth place after Ed Miliband beat his brother David, followed by Ed Balls and Andy Burnham.
“I think, you know, all the expectation was that one of the young Turks would be leader,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Reflections with Peter Hennessy. “Would it be David Miliband, you know, would it be Ed Balls? There was no sense anywhere, as there often is with women, that I was leadership material.”
Harman, who has been an MP for 35 years, said that whenever she was praised by party members for her performance as acting leader, she still did not truly see herself running for leader.
“I was so relieved not to be cocking the whole thing up that I took it as a great compliment, but I didn’t go that next step and think: ‘They’re asking me why I’m not going for leader. Why aren’t I?’” she said.
“I just never got to that point. And it was clear then, as it turns out, that the party hadn’t taken to David Miliband; they didn’t elect him.
“And they hardly knew Ed Miliband, but they elected him whereas they did know me and they did like and support me. So I think if I’d have stood I definitely would have got it.”
Harman said she was unsure whether she would have made a success of the role. “We never know, but I think I would have got it,” she said.
Harman said she had little admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May, Britain’s two Conservative female prime ministers.
Thatcher was “no sister”, Harman said, and described trying to shield her young baby from the former prime minister due to a “visceral hostility” towards her. May was currently “very much in Thatcher mode”, Harman said.
The veteran feminist campaigner said politicians still had far more work to do on equality, even within her own party, which has never had a permanent female leader.
“We can’t just sit on our laurels and think that it’s all been achieved, because it so evidently hasn’t,” she said, highlighting both domestic violence and affordable childcare.
“If you think of the kind of daily toll of broken ribs and black eyes and punctured lungs of domestic violence, if you think of the weekly toll of women killed by their husbands and former partners, if you think of women tearing their hair out trying to find decent childcare,” she said.
Decision-making in Westminster was still male-dominated, Harman added. “If you look at Labour’s  manifesto, it had more about football supporters and animal rights than it had about women.”
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