A New Parliamentary Institution

A New Parliamentary Institution? The Mother of the House & the Retirement of the Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP

Published: 2 July 2024

By Professor Sarah Childs

She did not mention it herself; but it was as Mother of the House that the Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP was called to open the Valedictory debate, on the 24th of May 2024, by Madam Deputy Speaker, Dame Rosie Winterton. The UK’s second woman Prime Minister and fellow retiree, the Rt Hon Theresa May, MP who followed Harman, mentioned this role explicitly, stating: ‘it is indeed a great pleasure to follow the speech of the Mother of the House’. Labour’s Lucy Powell MP in winding up the debate again called attention to how the Mother of the House had been a ‘political mother to many of us’. 

There is no such thing as the Mother of the House on paper, nor indeed is there a Father of the House in Standing Orders. Yet the longest continuously serving  Member of the Commons (and who is not a Minister), has become widely known, not as the Elder of the House, but as its Father. Their sole formal duty is to take the Chair of the House for the election of the Speaker (Kelly and Priddy 2019, 7-8). No woman MP has to-date been the longest continuously serving MP, in itself a legacy of women’s historic under-representation in the House.  

The first use of the title Mother of the House dates to 1920, when Noel Billing MP spoke of Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in the Commons the previous year; Astor herself used it in 1945 as did Harman for the first time in 2015. But it is the intervention by then Prime Minister, Theresa May in June 2017 when the idea of a Mother of the House really took hold. Having welcomed Kenneth Clarke, as the Father of the House, May makes a clear, gendered intervention: 

It may not surprise my right hon. and learned Friend that I intend to be difficult today and break with tradition by welcoming not only him as the Father of the House, but the returning Mother of the House. (emphasis added, https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-06-13/debates/EC97CC8B-CEAB-4D1D-8AEE-12D83E9E0253/ElectionOfSpeaker.) 

May’s naming of Harman as the Mother of the House in the Commons Chamber was not pre-meditated, but she most definitely wanted to recognize Harman’s record as the longest continuously serving woman in the Commons.[1] She also called attention to Harman’s longstanding advocacy of women’s political representation.

In becoming Mother of the House, Harman deployed this title on her Commons stationery and in her Twitter handle, and made claims in its name in numerous parliamentary debates and in the media. In Harman, the Mother of the House is undoubtedly a feminist: in first claiming the role, Harman had critiqued rule by fathers (patriarchy) in favour of rule by mothers and fathers. And she would take her feminist role seriously to improve the lives of women in society as well as in parliament. In respect of the former, and following the high profile murder by a serving police officer of a young woman, Sarah Everard during the Covid-19 pandemic, Harman demanded that the Conservative ‘Govt must now agree to work cross-party to make new laws to keep women safe’; and with fellow women MPs she ‘pledge(d) support for Afghan women MPs’ in the face of the ‘Taliban takeover’. In respect of the latter, she would play a leading role in the introduction of proxy voting for MPs on babyleave, at first a temporary and later a permanent change to Standing Orders in 2019 and 2020, respectively. It was during this 2016-19 campaign for proxy voting that references to the Mother of the House became normalized.

In The Good Parliament Report (2016), I recommended auditing gendered nomenclature and queried the use of masculinized terms, implying that the Father of the House was an outdated relic, reflective of the historic exclusion of women from the UK Parliament. Today, I am less sure. Harriet Harman entered the House of Commons committed to acting for women and on a feminist agenda. And she did so throughout her career at Westminster. Yet as Mother of the House, Harman gained unprecedented authority and legitimacy, speaking not just as an individual on behalf of women MPs and making feminist claims for women, but speaking as the representative of women MPs – in their name - for feminist ends. 

With her retirement, what of the institution Harman made real? Institutions are widely acknowledged to be associated with sanctions. In this case, the institution of the Mother of the House is dependent on the extent to which the next occupier fulfils, and is regarded as fulfilling, the expectations created thus far. On July 5th, all other things being equal, and despite the inelegance of her selection (to put it mildly), the mantle of Mother of the House passes to the Rt Hon Diane Abbott MP, the first black woman MP ever elected in 1987. In her own recent words on the steps of Hackney Town Hall, Abbot spoke of her role as an advocate of some 40 years on race, gender, and gay rights; speaking up for equalities. Whether the Mother of the House constitutes but a temporary institution is then an empirical question for the next parliament. 

 

[1] Personal conversation with the Rt Hon Theresa May MP. 

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