Grace and Disgrace

By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_

It so happened that the week of Ken Livingstone’s NCC hearing and the outcry that followed I was reading Harriet Harman’s rip-roaring memoir A Woman’s Work. The book is fantastic – I can’t recommend it highly enough. But what struck me reading it in the moment was the very different paths these two Labour grandees, both considered as unacceptable firebrands in their day with Ken the leader of London’s “looney left” and Harriet “Harperson” nearly thrown out of the law society.

In the 1980s I admired both of them enormously. As a girl growing up in a rundown school in a rundown part of London the GLC and the work Livingstone did to improve the lives of ordinary Londoners was a huge part of what has made me so proud of the city I have lived in my whole life. As a young woman interested in politics, Harman was a visible symbol of the fact that women do belong in public life. She was also a noisy advocate for not playing by the boy’s rules but changing the rules so they work for women.

Eventually, they both flourished in what would be considered “establishment” roles as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Mayor of London respectively.

Ken Livingstone may have fought his first campaign as an outsider, but his mayoralty on the most part was largely run along broadly centre-left lines. He worked with New Labour when it benefitted the city he led and criticised them when he disagreed with them. He and Tessa Jowell worked well together to bring the Olympics to London and his response to the 7/7 terror attacks united the city and country behind him.

Harriet, having been through a turbulent time at the beginning of the Labour Government grew in strength and stature as first Solicitor General and then Deputy Leader of the Party and Leader of the House. She pursued a relentlessly feminist agenda based on the women’s movement principles, changing how courts deal with domestic violence and championing the historic Equalities Act.

Neither will again hold high office. That’s a challenging place to be for people who have spent their lives in the spotlight and who feel they have plenty to say on the Labour Party and where it is now. That one is now enjoying her time as a role model and mentor (however uncomfortable she is with the term) for other women while the other has become a literal –  though sadly and shamefully for all concerned not an actual – outcast from the Party show how differently they have approached their new status.

The comparison between these two politicians shows exactly what can and should be done with a reputation built up over many years of service. And exactly how your worst excesses can trash that reputation. Harriet has spoken with grace, grit, wit and the determination to continue fighting an inclusive battle for women’s rights. She knows what her key competences are, what her standard is and how to bear it onwards with the support of the women who owe her a debt as we follow in her wake. Ken keeps mentioning Hitler and refusing to accept how much he has offended a whole community.

Ken Livingstone will never again be taken seriously by anyone serious about the success of the Labour Party. His antics of late are most charitably described as a buffoonish sideshow, more realistically as the sad, sick, racist ramblings of a disgrace who doesn’t know when to shut up.

Harriet Harman on the other hand has so much still to offer the Party and the sisters she has dedicated her life to fighting for. She is the exemplar of grace in her stateswoman approach to her Parliamentary colleagues and to Labour members more widely.

Harriet Harman has known which rules were there to be broken all her life. Ken Livingstone has not the first clue. History has proved Harriet right. Ken is intent on trying and failing to prove history wrong. I look forward with interest to what the next chapter holds for Harriet. I hope Labour closes and finally, belatedly throws the book at Ken Livingstone.


Emma Burnell is a regular columnist for Open Labour


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