Read Harriet Harman's autobiography A Woman's Work. Harman is a feminist who was a minister in the last Labour government. The book starts with her time as an activist, where she used her lawyer's training to give practical assistance as well as campaigning. She then became a Labour MP, one of only 13 women MPs in the House of Commons. She was assisted by some luck in the selection process: the frontrunner got another place after nominations had closed, but assuming it was a lock few strong rivals had applied.
Harman found her first years in Parliament pretty grim. Labour lost election after election: she felt helpless to address her constituents problems without being in power. Her campaign to get more women in Parliament set off intense hostility in her own party. The House of Commons was apparently even more rowdy than today. As a new mother she struggled to balance work and family, especially with the late hours of the Commons at the time.
There were far fewer offices for MPs than there are now... at night...the bars and the canteen would be packed... while the Chamber would be virtually empty. On the occasions when there was some highly controversial business late at night, the Chamber would become full and the MP speaking would have to compete with the sort of hubbub you'd find in a pub just before closing time. I wasn't at ease speaking in the Chamber, but I especially dreaded winding up a debate from the front bench which would involve speaking late at night, when inebriated jeers would be aimed at the earnest points I was trying to make. Drunken late nights in parliament happened all the time. But it was never mentioned in the Chamber. It was 'unparliamentary' even to imply it...In opposition, Harman worked hard as a campaigner. Her chief tactics were to compile league tables to expose problems, and to release data before the weekend when government press officers were not around. She worked very hard to get women-only shortlists for half of Labour candidates, using her contacts with the unions to get them on the programme. She credits this for the massive increase in the number of women in parliament, claiming plausibly that without them, progress would have been imperceptibly slow. When Labour finally took power, Harman became a minister. She seems to have been very focussed on the detail. She is proud of the practical changes she introduced: better childcare, helping mothers into work, passing anti-discrimination laws.
...the quality of the debate and the atmosphere was, inevitably, affected. Most drank in the evening and even if they were not "drunk" they were no longer sober. It became a vicious circle. The later the House was sitting, the more thye would drink. And the more they had drunk, the longer their speeches became. There was not, as yet comprehensive television or radio broadcasting of Parliament... And the press gallery newspaper reporters were not going to say anything against this culture, because most of them were, themselves, part of it. People often remark that the behaviour they now see in the House of Commons is boorish, but it's nothing now compared to what it was then.
It's quite interesting to see an account of government from lower down the ranks from Prime Minister and Chancellor. She has some interesting observations: in opposition you can more easily as a team, but in government rivalries rapidly emerge as the departments compete for money and resources.
Some of the accounts of hostility she encountered from within the Labour party are revealing. Shortly after giving birth, a Labour MP reported her for allegedly smuggling her baby into the Division lobby under her coat, a violation of the rules as the baby is not an MP: it was actually just her fat from recently giving birth. In response to some extra NEC places created and assigned to women only, Mps responded with an "anti-slate" where they deliberately nominated the women they felt to be least capable in order to discredit the idea. And on a balcony at a conference, she overheard Gordon Brown's spin doctor Damian McBride dictating a completely false story to a journalist claiming she had been humiliated in a row with Brown's wife.
Harman is often smeared as a power-hungry party hack, but from the book it comes across that her desire to keep Labour in power was motivated by her grim experiences in opposition. She comes across here as a rare creature in politics: someone genuinely principled, but also politically capable. It's notable that she's still in parliament, she hasn't retired to enjoy a quango or directorship gravy train. Overall, I found the book surprisingly fascinating, and left me feeling much more positive about her.
What I'm Reading 2
Crooked by Austin Grossman is an interesting concept, reimagining Richard Nixon in a Lovecraftian universe where both the Soviets and the Americans were using black magic in the Cold War.
"Long range missiles with hybrid thermonuclear and necromantic payloads. Grafted and crossbred infantry divisions. Strategic alliances with folkloric, extraplanar, and subterranean entities. Field deployment of weaponized paleofauna. Largescale saturation of target areas with invasive fungal and floral xeno organisms. Megadeaths and megaundeaths."
It works pretty well, with a nicely paranoid atmosphere and a great antihero as a self-loathing Nixon. But I would have liked it to break out into more detail and bigger setpieces, rather than staying fairly low-key to the end.
Overall, a good idea well executed.
What I'm Watching
I don't get to go to the theatre these days, but watched the broadcast version of the National Theatre's production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre.
Not as good as being there, but the sound was good and you get some sense of the energy of a live theatre production. Some great performances: Ben Whishaw was great as a too-intellectual Brutus, and Michelle Fairley complemented him as a ruthless Cassius. Somre of the contemporary references seemed a bit blatant, especially the red "Caesar" baseball caps. Overall though, a fast and furious production with good performances all round.
Seemed somehow a bit odd that they changed to "she" and "woman" for Michelle Fairley. I think when I saw Vanessa Redgrave play Prospero at the Globe the text stayed with He, but that was in period robes. With Michell Fairley in contemporary female dress might have seemed even odder to be a He.
I've been moved to another team at work, a biggish team that was combined from two others. Not Scrum Mastering anymore as they're oversupplied. There's more pressure again as we're not so insulated from management whims on this one, I'm having to do some work in the mornings and evenings again.
The 10km race I was booked in to do was cancelled due to weather. Managed to strain a muscle or something on a long solo run, so haven't been able to run much lately. Managed a very very short and slow one on Saturday, will try again soon.
Easter was a bit of a struggle to keep kid entertained in pouring rain and freezing cold, but survived it somehow. Kid seems to have been happy enough once he got around to munching his way through a mountain of chocolate.
Feeling a bit down. Hopefully I'll be able to run again soon and that will help.
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