Not only is Harriet Harman Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the House, one of her other key roles is to occasionally face the bear pit of PMQs. Sarah Mackinlay and Will Robbins find out how she copes
With no less than five different hats, Harriet Harman can appear a bit strident. She is living in a man’s world with several huge jobs. She is determined, prepared, and able to stand up to criticism, which is just as well because there is a lot of it. Is she then a modern-day Wonder Woman?
One of her tasks is to fill in for the Prime Minister at PMQs on the odd occasion he can’t make it. It is a totally unforgiving environment. The swirling pit of snarling dogs baring their teeth ready to pounce if you show so much as a flicker of weakness, is a beastly spectacle - and this is only a slight exaggeration!
Harman herself describes it as a “gladiatorial thing. It’s banked up on both sides and you’re in a sort of pit, and the thing is packed full. And it’s also so very noisy. I think it’s got so noisy now that a lot of backbenchers can’t hear the questions”. She says it has become “dysfunctional”.
So she doesn’t get nervous? “Basically, I decided not to be nervous, because I thought that, if I was, I would be so nervous that it would be horrible. So I just decided not to be. It’s not Helmand Province, you’re not risking your life in there, it’s only MPs and actually I’ve been there longer than most of them,” she adds.
“And I think what we’re doing in government is pretty much along the right tracks, so why should I be fearful of it? I think things are better for my constituents now. So I have a feeling that, while you [referring to William Hague] might be great at PMQs, you weren’t that great in government.”
Total Politics ponders on the notion that there needs to be greater discipline, not expecting to hear a declaration from the Leader of the House admitting that she is also guilty of the raucous behaviour she condemns. “I do think it’s too shouty. But, having said that, since I was doing it myself I had to go along with it, because otherwise they’d [the opposition] say I’d wimped out, so I kind of rather sold out, I’m afraid, on my principles. They were all saying that I was going to be a total flop and I was determined not to be so I did it in the usual terms.”
At the time of writing, she had just announced her concern over the arrest of the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green, and the way police had raided his parliamentary and constituency offices and home. There were “very big constitutional principles that needed to be safeguarded”, Harman said, including the right of MPs to get on with their job without interference from the law.
Sitting in her plush office the day after Parliament has been prorogued, the building is calm, and eerily silent, yet her office remains a bustling machine. The atmosphere here is a far cry from the hostility she often faces in the chamber. Outside her room is a team of busy young workers, hurriedly preparing things for her. She is in a very powerful position and her opulent office echoes this, but it also has smatterings of her down-to-earth and approachable character. For example, the giant pink and white polka dot pencil case sitting on her huge oak desk is not how Total Politics imagined the second-in-command to the Prime Minister would carry her writing instruments.
She seems relaxed, and not just because Total Politics is on her turf, but because she is relaxed in her role. It was a big slog to get to this position. She doesn’t deny it was hard work: “It’s a big thing to struggle to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, with five other people, four of them in the cabinet when I wasn’t. It’s a big competition to be Deputy Leader, and I put a lot in. So I wasn’t then going to decide that I didn’t like doing it. If you put effort in to something then you should relish it when you get to do it. So I do enjoy doing it and it’s a great privilege and an opportunity.”
It’s been a difficult year, both personally and politically. First her blog was hacked into and several things published in her name, including a post which claimed she was going to join the Tory Party. Talking of the unfortunate episode she is at first angry, but then concedes that in retrospect she could have made it more difficult for them. “Somebody bloody hacked in to it!” she exclaims. “But I think that’s because my password was ‘Harriet Harman’. I didn’t challenge myself with anything that I could forget, and I’m afraid that somebody then wrote lots of daft stuff on it.”
A woeful summer for Brown and the Labour Party followed, and two members of Fathers 4 Justice, dressed as Batman and Spiderman, scaled her semi-detached home in Herne Hill, south London as a protest. The incident on June 8 2008 left both her and husband Jack Dromey distressed. Giving evidence at the subsequent trial at City of Westminster Magistrates Court he said: “There was a heavy thumping just above me which led me to conclude to my horror that somebody was trying to break into our house.
“I’ve lived in that house for 31 years, I love the house. We’ve brought our kids up in the house. We’re proud of the house. Our home was invaded, that was a matter of alarm and continuing distress. It’s an experience we would never wish to go through again.”
Harriet reveals a more human side when talking of the incident. Even today she is still visibly angry: “I don’t think that in any way shape or form they were justified in climbing on to my roof. No way! Anyway, they have been tried and one of them has been sent to prison, so with any luck I don’t think I’ll have any more on my roof.”
While this was going on she was busily working away in her post as Leader of the House of Commons. She is criticised by opposition members for being one of the most partisan leaders of the House. She admits she enjoys a lot of control and ensures that bills she believes are important find their way into the legislative programme.
When we’ve got a new Equality Bill coming forward, I can make sure that it doesn’t suffer any accidents on its way in to the legislative programme. I don’t have to ask the Leader of the House ‘please find space for the Equality Bill’. It is this kind of thing that has caused some problems in the past.”
There are other benefits. She is able to take a more strategic approach to government: “The great thing about being Leader of the House is that you can see across the whole landscape.”
Topical debates (timetabled every Thursday), were introduced by her predecessor Jack Straw. They were an attempt to ensure that a wide variety of subjects are debated - and not just topics favoured by the government. But opposition colleagues argue that - while they may be topical in theory - in reality the decision about what to debate rests with the Leader of the House. They are especially critical of Harman who they say chooses subjects of interest to the government. Despite the criticism, Harriet insists she looks for subjects that haven’t been discussed. She says: “There have been arguments that we should have a committee [choosing topics for debate] but then it would be a committee in the proportions of the house and we’d be in a majority anyway. I have picked a number of debates that have been challenging and have been difficult, where the opposition has asked for them. You don’t want the situation where something is a ragingly big issue but you don’t have the chance to debate it.”
Does she reject the claim that she is a partisan Leader of the House? “The thing about Leader of the House is that they are always a member of the cabinet and they’re always elected on a party ticket, so actually, you are partisan.
“But that doesn’t mean you cannot at the same time promote the importance of the House and make sure other cabinet ministers are coming to the house to give statements. They will come forward to do topical debates, so actually that is my job; to make sure that ministers do come to parliament to make statements.”
A quick flip of the hat and we continue with a chat about one of her other roles, as Women and Equality Minister. Her next political ambition, she says, is to have a strong Equality Bill that really takes things forward. “We’ve still got a long way to go on equal pay. We’ve still got a situation where people struggle to manage to go out to work and look after their children. We’ve got to have more child care, longer maternity leave, help people care for older relatives as well. So my ambition is to see through all those things I’ve been working on for many years.”
While there is still a long way to go on the equality agenda, hasn’t life for women in politics improved since Harriet started out in her political career? And, party politics aside, how significant was Margaret Thatcher in moving things forward? “I think that she... [long pause] I think that she stopped people saying that a woman can’t do it. The very fact that a woman had been Prime Minister, it stopped people saying that a woman could never do it.
“But it gave a lot of misogynists an opportunity to say ‘look how ghastly it is when you have a woman as Prime Minister’. But my main criticism of her is that she was not there to change things, she was just there to do it on men’s terms. And therefore all those things like maternity pay and leave, helping people balance going out to work; she made a point of not looking to issues that particularly helped women in women’s very changing lives.” The all-male cabinet that followed her departure simply fuelled the argument that life for women did not improve under Thatcher’s premiership.
With Harriet, party politics can never be put to one side. Despite trying to acknowledge the part Thatcher played in women’s lives she clearly struggles to see this as a progressive period for women. “The other thing about Margaret Thatcher which I have to find completely objectionable was that she was a Tory.” She pauses. “So at the end of the day that’s all I’ve got to say about her.”
Harman feels a great sense of obligation to take things forward - to improve the lives of women and encourage them to enter politics. Asked what she thinks she can do, and how she’ll go about achieving it, she is resolute: “I’m in politics as a woman to do things for other women, and to change the way things are done...except for perhaps selling out on Prime Minister’s questions. I’ll agree on that! I plead guilty on that.”
Even in her early days in Parliament, women were top of her agenda. She ensured that the significance of women grew by setting up the Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Group in 1982. The men felt threatened and the misogynists asked questions. She remembers holding a meeting with women in the press lobby and the male members going absolutely hysterical.
Despite making these advancements, and with five women in Brown’s cabinet (six including Margaret Beckett who sits in on cabinet meetings), there is much to be done. She criticises, for example, the reporting of politics which, she says “is still largely from a male-dominated parliament, transmitted through an even more male-dominated lobby to the outside world”.
She has worked with Gordon Brown since 1983, was his deputy for a period when the party was in opposition. She says she is an “admirer of his work”. So what is their relationship really like - are there ever tensions? They must have found a way of making it work? “Long standing, is how I think I would describe my relationship with the Prime Minister...We come at things from different directions but we see things in the same way.
“There’s a bit of a division of labour, the causes and the issues that I take up tend to be a different part of the landscape from the causes and issues that he takes up, but they mesh well together and the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.”
Anyone who puts themselves forward to be the second in command surely harbours ambitions for the big job? “When I got elected a year or so ago, my election pitch was that I was going to be a loyal and supportive deputy to Gordon, so that’s my manifesto and that’s what I’ve been and will continue to do,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.
Last thing that made you laugh?
Oh God! The one where they had hard bodies...Burn After Reading. I laughed all the way through that.
Last book you read?
The Northern Clemency, by somebody or another that was on the Booker short list. [It was by Philip Hensher]
Which superhero would you be?
What’s on your iPod at the moment?
Oh God I don’t have an iPod! I absolutely have not got an iPod. I’m still in the zone of old technology I’m afraid.
Sarah Palin or Margaret Thatcher?
Sarah Palin. I think. Yeah, definitely.
Favourite woman in the media?
Joan Bakewell. She’s our age tsar. We had a good laugh about the fact we have an equality tsar. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
To do my blog, inspired by you!
Your favourite dish?