‘It’s moved from comedy to tragedy’

First published in Progress magazine

The Labour party still has a long road to walk on women’s equality, Ayesha Hazarika tells Richard Angell

pinkbusrevealed-768x464Having rushed across town, comic-turned-political-adviser (turned comic again) Ayesha Hazarika arrives at King’s Cross station to find her train to Edinburgh, where her first major show since leaving politics is on at the comedy fringe, has been cancelled. After a hectic few days for the performer, she gets a minute to take a seat and reflect.

Glaswegian by birth and upbringing, Hazarika is sure to be a hit. But her message is not just funny, but hard-hitting. I ask if it is best to laugh or cry about the current state of the Labour party? ‘I used to say laugh, in the expectation that at some point it was all going to [get better] … I do normally like to laugh about things, so the fact that even I am struggling to find humour, [even] black humour, in what’s happening is quite something. It’s moved from comedy to tragedy, sadly.’

In the show she majors on her time as an adviser to Harriet Harman, then deputy leader and cabinet minister. But, unlike John Prescott, the title of deputy prime minister was never forthcoming. In July 2014 Harman gave the Speaker’s Lecture in parliament and was damning about her former boss. Was the fuss justified? Hazarika is clear about the consequences: ‘[Not making Harman deputy prime minister] cemented a cultural view in the Labour party that actually women couldn’t be trusted to have those big jobs. They just weren’t right for that level of status.’ [Gordon Brown] didn’t give Harriet all the same rights and status that [that were given to] her male predecessors. I’m sure that’s not what Gordon intended. But we’re seeing the consequences of that now culturally.’

Hazarika left her previous career to become Labour’s equalities adviser in government. ‘I felt like it was almost the lowest of the low jobs in terms of the pecking order, being a special adviser [on the equality bill]. It was kind of being a subject that people slightly rolled their eyes at. It really wasn’t up there in the pantheon of great, important, subjects like home affairs or Treasury or all the big infrastructure things.’ She explains, ‘Initially it was just going to be a consolidation exercise but then Harriet said, “No I want this to be much bigger and bolder.”’

‘I did feel we were ploughing a very lonely furrow on it’, she remembers. ‘We were often meeting more internal opposition than we were external opposition. The Tories and the Daily Mail kept saying everything we were doing was political correctness gone mad. You would expect that. What was difficult was there was a lot of either a sense of everyone being very passive or some people actively saying, “No, no, no. This is all terrible. Why are you doing this? We’ve got enough equality. What is the CBI [Britain’s business lobby] going to say about this, that, and the next thing?”’ But that all changed. ‘Actually, as time has gone on it is now one of the most cherished things that people look back on that the Labour government achieved, particularly because of its timing.’ It was Labour’s very last bill to receive royal assent. ‘The outside world really values the Equality Act. It’s good that Labour has learned to love it as well’, she rejoices. It, however, has gone largely unimplemented by the Tory government that followed.

‘Terrible. Terrible’, she says, shaking with frustration. ‘Clause one of the Equality Act is a revolutionary socialist clause. It basically puts the duty on every public institution or public authority to, in every decision they make, narrow the gap between rich and poor.’ At the time Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee called it ‘socialism in one clause’. ‘It was very controversial, and it was a great clause. Funnily enough the Tories never enacted it. I would suggest if Labour ever gets back into power one of the first things they do should be: enact clause one of the Equality Act.’

What many women had experienced behind the scenes was all laid bare in 2010. ‘Women were so invisible in the 2010 election. People were going, “Where are the women? Where are they?” … the strong women that [Labour] had … weren’t centre-stage.’ She explains, ‘That’s a big part of the show, really, in terms of why the pink bus came about.’

‘Haunted by the experience of the 2010 election campaign’ and the fact that ‘even with Ed [Miliband] in the run-up to the 2015 general election it was still very much men in charge’, Harman was determined that Labour could not have a ‘men-only campaign again’.

‘We had to have some expression of the fact that this campaign is not just about men’s votes, it is about women’s votes as well’, explains Hazarika. ‘What normally happens in a traditional campaign is you have one dead afternoon or morning slot given to you in the grid to launch the women’s manifesto.’ She recalls how Harman thought, “We’ve got to do something which is visible, interesting, gets us cut-through, and is possibly controversial”.’ The idea of the pink bus was born.

Did it live up to expectations? ‘I actually thought it was going to be a much bigger pink bus … a pink battlebus.’ She insists Harman did not ‘set out [for] it to be a huge, huge bus’, as Prescott had had in previous general elections, ‘because she thought that might put people off’. The then deputy leader ‘was absolutely clear from the start that she wanted a bus and wanted it to be pink.’ It was not all plain sailing. ‘In the beginning, there were lots of us that were like, “Oh, I’m not sure about this, because of all the controversy that would come from the colour pink.”’ But Harman was proved right. ‘It got so much coverage people actually thought there were fleets of them. Sometimes we would be around and people would say, “Oh yeah, I saw one of the fleets of buses, like in the south-west.” And we were like, “No, no. There’s literally just one bus that’s driving around a lot”.’

Hazarika explains that at the end of a long day, when planning for government, they would joke that when Harman ‘became deputy prime minister that she should demand an upgrade’. What had become affectionately known as ‘Harriet’s chariot’ should soon become her very own ‘Air Force One sort of thing … a bright pink plane. We were going to call it Harriet’s SuffraJet.’

Harman’s time as deputy leader, and Hazarika’s as an adviser, came to an abrupt end as members elected an all-male team to head up the Labour party as well as the mayoral candidacies in London and Bristol. The imagery was stark.

Hazarika is clear she ‘would like to see a rule change’ so this does not happen again. But it is ‘not 100 per cent straightforward, but it’s got to be possible to do. Maybe you could have two deputy leaders so you always have some sort of mix. There’s different ways of cutting it’. In addition, the party constitution needs a ‘commitment that [of] the top four jobs – leader, chancellor, home and foreign – two will always be held by a woman. Then, obviously there’s the commitment to a 50-50 parliamentary party, and a 50-50 shadow cabinet. But I also think you should have a commitment to 50-50 senior jobs across even the adviser level’, an issue she highlighted when she guest-edited Progress in March. Why? ‘The strategy and the direction of travel is actually set by those very, very, very senior advisers and strategists. [They] have got an incredible amount of influence over the party and the messages that the party’s sending, [and on] the policy and the culture. That’s why I think it’s so important to make sure there is a gender balance in those discussions.’

Her forthright opinions mean that, like all women in public life, she gets the troll onslaught following her appearances on television. How does she deal with it? Sometimes she ‘ignore[s] it’, sometimes she replies and then has to ‘stop because you’re not having rational debate with people’. ‘Sometimes I try to use humour’. Looking down at her phone she laughs and shows a tweet calling for her to be ‘deselected’. ‘Well, I think that might be quite tricky’. But some are more sinister. She shows me another: ‘Do you realise you are muslamic’ [sic], it reads. ‘It’s, like, yes I’m aware of that, thanks.’ ‘They want it to have a chilling effect on you’, she explains. ‘I am robust and quite thick-skinned, most of the time. But, I have to say, sometimes it gets to you. Especially when people tweet at you in the night.’ It can have more effect on those around her. ‘My best friend, who is not in politics … she looks at my Twitter stuff and she’s said to me “Maybe take a step back”.’ She won’t.

It is finally time to get her train and make the journey to the festival. The people in Edinburgh have a good show ahead of them. They will, regrettably, be laughing at Labour. Instead, Labour should be listening to the successful comic.

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Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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