This article is from the June 2014 issue of Total Politics

Harriet Harman, Britain’s longest-serving female MP, is considering how her artistic tastes have changed over the years. “I find... that increasingly I am liking the more challenging as I mature,” the 63-year-old freely admits.

She’s reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah – “Oh my God, brilliant” – and, with less enthusiasm, Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – “I haven’t quite sort of got into it” – but when it comes to sound and stage, Harriet Harman is branching out.

“In music now, my tastes are much more what you might regard as sophisticated, even though there’s some things where people might struggle to hear a tune. I’m getting more into that. The same with theatre. I like the frontiers now where they’re really breaking new ground. I liked that Samuel Beckett play [Happy Days] at the Young Vic. It was absolutely incredible. Mind you – difficult or what…”

Let’s hope Harriet Harman’s passion for the challenging extends to politics. Because ‘difficult or what’ rather nicely sums up the political landscape faced by Harman’s party, too. Having seen Labour gain and lose its Newness after 13 years in government, after over three decades as an MP she is back in opposition, serving for a leader who once worked as her researcher and watching on as Labour fails to establish a convincing poll lead over an unpopular government.  Earlier this year she also endured a particularly bruising run-in with the tabloid press – more of which later.

As for the politics, Harman has experienced worse. Arriving at Westminster following a by-election in 1982, Harman saw Michael Foot drag the party to a calamitous defeat a year later, watched on as Neil Kinnock struggled to make a breakthrough at successive elections, and then took a front row seat in the Cabinet as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair fought their way through the New Labour years. Harman could be forgiven if she sought some light relief in the culture brief, a position she has held since 2011. But being Harriet Harman, who doubles up her duties with being deputy leader of the Labour Party, that is the last thing she is doing.

Instead Harman is preparing to take the fight to the government over its approach to arts and culture. And with Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller reshuffled and resigned respectively, the DCMS is now on to its third secretary of state in four years in the shape of Sajid Javid [See interview on page 36]. Harman is unimpressed.

“This government is a bit of a curse to the people on DCMS,” is her assessment of the coalition’s handling of the culture department. “What’s happened since the coalition got in is really a kind of creative crisis.”

Harman’s main anger is directed at a lack of direction from the top. Budget cuts, at the DCMS and for local authorities, has meant a slashing of arts and culture spending since 2010 and that, Harman argues, will eventually have knock-on effects for Britain’s cultural creativity.

“We are doing incredibly well, and globally this is recognised, on music, literature, film, theatre, fine art – but that was built on the kind of talent pool and opportunities created over previous decades,” she states. “The big worry now is, it’s no good rolling up at the awards… actually you’ve got to sustain that, and it’s falling off a cliff. They have not committed to the understanding that this is important for individuals, for communities, for the economy, and it’s also got to have public policy backing. They make the arts vulnerable to the idea that they are only there for the people at the top, the elite. You have to actively widen access. We think it’s really important. People often forget that Labour is bread and roses, and this is the roses part: the cultural entitlement as well as the economic entitlement.  When we came in in 1997 we had a very big offer – free museums and galleries. That was the symbolic policy which led through that we were going to treble the budget of the Arts Council, that we were going to have creative partnerships, that we were going to have loads of council investment. We had a big raising and extending. “

Before artists and actors everywhere give a standing ovation to that type of declaration, there’s an obvious question: how would a future government fund it all over again? 2015 will not be the year for free giveaways.

“Those were the big bold offers of its time. What we’re determined to do is have a big, bold creative offer of this time,” Harman insists, though she admits that “it won’t be based on more money.”

But to concentrate solely on the economic benefits of the arts, says Harman, is wrong. “When you see it as a human right, important for community identity or economic growth, it’s all of those things – you’ve still got to have the basis of public policy support for it to be sustained into the future.”

She sketches out a commitment for “every child having an entitlement to creativity as part of their education – the money that is invested in the arts, through the Arts Council, through the DCMS, through local authorities, has to be leveraged to deliver for all”, but for now, with a consultation ongoing, this is a policy script without a clear ending. Harman’s vision is yet to be finalised, but she is bullish about its potential. “We know it’s absolutely possible to do that but you have to be clear in what your objectives are and make sure that everything that is happening has that in its sights: whether it’s the small drama group or the big national portfolio organisations, whether it’s the school, whether it’s Ofsted, that they all have got this within their sights. Then this clear strategy will deliver, even in straitened times.”

But how can that approach, admirable though it is, be enforced? Spending on the arts is not a statutory obligation for local authorities, who currently spend more than central government on arts and culture. Harman stresses that Labour manifestos in the recent London council elections have been “really encouraging – it’s quite striking how they believe that they’ve got a responsibility and an obligation, and are very proudly putting forward what they’re going to do about arts and culture.”

And that, she says, is a notable change of emphasis. “There was a stage where you might not have found that in Labour councils. To show they’re Labour it would be about housing and social services, but it’s very clear that sense that Labour recognises the importance of creativity, of regeneration, and for the arts as part of education is right entrenched there. All around London there are fantastic offers in there as pledges. It’s very difficult being non-statutory, being in competition in difficult times against the statutory portfolios.”

As making arts spending statutory at a local level is not going to happen, Harman explains how Labour has created a ‘creative councillors network’ to bring council leads on culture together.

“When a council gets behind the arts and culture in their area it makes an enormous difference. Really councils do need to have a cultural and creative strategy. There’s a lot there in the system to be brought together but there is no leadership. Jeremy Hunt never met the councillors, Maria Miller never did, [communities secretary] Eric Pickles wouldn’t meet the councillors delivering on arts because, well, he wouldn’t. You do have to have good leadership to engender it and that’s what we will be offering in our manifesto. Ed is very, very committed to this and actually believes one of the reasons why we need to be in government is because of arts and culture.”

For now, Harriet Harman is reserving judgment on Sajid Javid – “The challenge is there for him, but he’s only got a year” – but is scathing about his predecessors. While Maria Miller will be remembered for steering through the equal marriage legislation, Harman stresses that that was part of her equalities brief, and as for Jeremy Hunt, she wonders if “anybody remembers what he actually did in DCMS, aside from fail to resign over Leveson which he flipping well should have done.”

Though stumped at first, I remember the new local television network. That was a Jeremy Hunt initiative wasn’t it?

“Well... and where is that precisely in terms of delivery, in terms of outcome?” Harman asks, unimpressed. But surely the MP for Camberwell and Peckham tunes in to London Live for all the latest news and views from the capital?

“Well, we’ll see, good luck to London Live” she replies, a little more positive about the project. “However, London Live is not the entire country. Let’s see, but certainly in loads of areas it’s evident what has gone into but not very evident as to what has come out of it. I wish them well, those of them who are doing it, but you had to take a little while working out and trying to remember local TV.”

If Channel 8 is having teething problems, further up the dial some full-on surgery is required. Due to ill health, Chris Patten recently stood down as chairman of the BBC Trust, leaving Auntie parentless just as it gears up for the gruelling process of reviewing its charter.

Reflecting on a “very important appointment at a very critical time for the BBC”, Harman confirms that she has written to Sajid Javid, who will have the final say on Patten’s successor. “It’s one of those appointments that needs to be done not on a party political basis, and therefore a big responsibility falls on him to act in the public interest, not in a partisan way, so we’ve written to him to urge him not to behave like that.”

As for the wider process of charter review, Harman admits that the entire future of the trust model is up for debate. “What is the framework of the trust? How are the people appointed? Should there be a trust? What is the division between the regulatory functions of the trust and the executive functions of the board? All of these things really ought to be looked at in the proper process of charter review, not plucked out.”

Is the licence fee also up for review? Yes, Harman admits, the review is an “opportunity to re-examine” the BBC’s funding model, but not if at the risk of the BBC, which is “not to be undervalued and undermined. The BBC is for everyone,” she argues. “What we are absolutely not up for is a kind of ideological attack on the BBC because it is a public sector broadcaster. The fact that it is a large public sector broadcaster is one of its most important attributes. That must be protected and we are absolutely unambiguous about that. There is an opportunity to consider change but in the context of very strong support.”

But there is, she agrees, no sacred cow status for the licence fee is. “The licence fee is a means to an end, it’s not an end to itself. If there’s a better way to have universal... and a measure of independence from government in terms of the finance, if there a better way of doing that, let’s hear about it. We haven’t found it in the past; we might do in the future. Let’s see. It’s not easy to see what would be better than the licence fee but that doesn’t mean it actually shouldn’t be looked at.”

As for the print media, Harman, like Javid, is distancing herself from the post-Leveson squabble over press regulation. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has been derided by victims group Hacked Off and, so far, rejected by papers like the Financial Times and The Guardian, but Harman insists that “it’s not for any of us to say IPSO is a good thing or bad thing. We step back from the issue of who joins what regulator, or whether they join any regulator, we just say we need a system of recognition to be set up so they can open up for business and so a regulator can come forward and say ‘we could be recognised’.”

It sounds, for now, like all politicians are agreed that the post-Leveson world is not one they need to occupy, even though Harman is a politician with personal experience of the press at is most aggressive. Earlier this year the Daily Mail went on the assault, accusing her of having links to a group called the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) during her time on the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s.

“It was a process of actually rebutting the allegations that were made and being quite firm and clear about what was being alleged that was not true,” is all she says of what must have been a difficult few weeks. “It simply wasn’t true that I had been an apologist for paedophilia. It’s important to say that firmly.”

Her answer reads more like a written statement, but when asked whether she expects parts of the press to turn on her in the run-up to the general election, Harman’s reply is revealing. She’s never had an overly easy relationship with some sections of the media, with her commitment to the feminist cause seeing the ‘Harriet Harperson’ tag stick, and she’s brace for more.

“I think that basically there have been many waves of accusations and things thrown at me in the past from various quarters of the press, but unfortunately my memory is not good enough to remember all the grievances I’ve got,” Harman declares of her less-than-friendly press relations. “I’ve just got a general impression and there’s nothing that makes me think that won’t happen in the future. Since it’s been going on for about 30 years, I can’t imagine it stopping now. I know what matters to my constituents, they don’t. I’m elected by my constituents to speak up for them, they aren’t. So I will fight their corner and fight their causes.”

Normally so measured, and after 32 years as a politician, well-rehearsed, it’s rare to see Harman stray – though only just – into emotional territory. But then the feminist fight is one she’s been at the forefront of since entering parliament.

She can’t be impressed then, when she hears about women MPs complaining about the rowdy atmosphere at prime minister’s questions, or when she sees a growing number deciding to quit parliament all together.

“Even if PMQs is rowdy you’ve just got to stand up for your constituents. That’s what your solemn commitment to them is,” she argues when asked about its high testosterone levels. “A lot of people just think why are we all just shouting at each other and spending time just arguing amongst ourselves rather than trying to address their problems. There is that, but I think it’s important, instead of just walking away from it, to work together to try and change it to improve things.”

So is she surprised that a growing number of Tory women, successful in previous careers, are calling time on Parliament after just one term – or in the case of Louise Mensch, half a term?

“No, I’m not surprised at all,” is her blunt reply. “One of the things that has been pathetic is the attempt by the Tories to somehow compare the Labour women who are standing down with the Tory women. Their women who are standing down have only just arrived in 2010 and now they’re going, where the Labour women are people like Ann Clywd who has been here for 30 years!”

Arguing that the “feminist tradition is on the left, not the right”, Tory women, she says, have found themselves “marginalised by the hierarchy – the Tory hierarchy are looking down their nose at them – but without a feminist ideology which allows them to feel that their cause is to fight it.”

Except, for one. “Unless they’re Nadine Dorries, who is prepared to stand up and call it out and fight.” Otherwise, she says, Tory women are showing that “they don’t have an ideological framework with which to withstand it, so they just think ‘sod this, I’m off.”

Tory women may be fleeing, but Harriet Harman is going nowhere. If she holds her seat – and with a 17,000 majority, that’s more or less a given – then Harman will still be in Parliament as she approaches her 70th birthday. But will she be back in government?

Asked why Labour has failed to establish an unassailable lead in the opinion polls, or why Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, scores so badly in personal approval ratings, her eyes narrow. What you don’t get from a Harriet Harman interview, ever, is straying off message.

“Yes, opinion polls do go up and down. We’ll go forward to 2015 in a very determined and motivated way,” is her response to the poll ratings as she tells me that instead of “the idea of asking us why are we doing so terribly badly, you should ask the others why they have lost 2000 councillors? We’ve got 2000 new councillors in elections since 2010.”

But as the economy turns, won’t Labour’s drum-bashing about the “cost of living crisis” begin to sound increasingly off beat? “What people say to me, what our candidates say to me, what our party activists say to me, is that ‘freeze the bill’ and ‘the cost of living crisis’ is very resonant. It’s resonant, it resonates. That’s what’s happening,” Harman replies. “It’s true that there are wider economic issues but let’s not forget that lots of people want the sense that the people in political parties have some idea of what is going on in their lives. In the post expenses chasm that opened up between politicians and people that is very important.”

Let’s look ahead to a post-election world. What if Labour top the 2015 poll, but without enough seats to form a majority government? Would Harman be prepared to work with Nick Clegg? She refuses to take part in any “post-match analysis…we’re not in the short campaign yet”, but it’s clear she’s no fan of the Liberal Democrats. “With every week that goes by there is another time where they have voted with the Tories against what they have promised. We don’t see that much of them – we see them across the chamber, we don’t see them in the division lobby because they are voting with the Tories, opposing the freeze on fuel bills, trebling tuition fees, voting for the bedroom tax. The nearer it gets to the election the nearer they are to being held to account for what they have done to support the Tories.”

And the Liberal Democrats, in the form of Labour’s Uncredible Shrinking Man broadcast, are firmly under fire. But the film went down badly in plenty of quarters, with its portrayal of a clipped-accented Tory party sneering at the NHS and noting the inability of disabled people to “fight back” deemed as crude and misjudged.

“Well, I don’t know what quarter I am supposed to have been in,” Harman snaps. “I was in Great Yarmouth earlier this week. People do have a sense of what we are seeing, about the fact that, sure it might be encouraging that there’s an economic recovery but has it come to my door? It hasn’t. Those arguments are very important and resonant out there in terms of the people that are going to be voting. A critique of our party election broadcast? I mean honestly, I can’t engage with that really.”

The Uncredible Shrinking Man won’t be winning any plaudits for its political subtlety, but it did, if nothing else, show a little flair and creativity. But the world of arts and culture will be rather more encouraged to hear that while the ink is yet to dry on Labour’s arts policy, it at least has one. Whether it will be heard or not, as the economy hogs the limelight in 2015, is another matter.

She may have developed an appetite for a challenging cultural diet, but Harriet Harman will soon have to stomach what will be a very challenging general election.

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