About a year ago I met Harriet Harman at a party. I was the only Tory there. I was introduced to her, but barely got a grunt in return. Charming, I thought. Tribalism gone mad. Yet she’s always fascinated me. Yes, she’s tribal, but she’s also a survivor, a trooper. She’s easily caricatured as a feminist harridan, but there’s more to Harriet Harman than that. Many have underestimated her and lived to regret it. Read on and find out if I did...
ID: How are you enjoying the shadow international development job?
HH: It’s really great. I’ve got a big diaspora community in my constituency so I’m one of the few MPs where my constituents are happy for me to go to Africa as often as I like because that’s their continent of origin. It’s very connected into my constituency. It’s very connected into women’s issues as well because there have been endless goings-on about women’s empowerment and how crucial it is to development. Rhetoric is not matched by action.
It’s quite an interesting situation at the moment because, on the key aid promise of 0.7 per cent by 2013, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have followed our lead and we are all in the same place on that. There’s a high degree of scepticism among the public so it’s quite curious that the political parties are in the same place. Most people want to see an opposition party kicking the government’s backside, but I don’t need to be doing that, which is good.
From your dealings with government ministers on this issue, Andrew Mitchell in particular, do you think that they really do get it, or is their commitment skin deep?
When David Cameron made the commitment, it was not anything he’d ever campaigned on before – or indeed ever said anything about before. Therefore it looked like it was a tactical thing to detoxify the Tory party. Andrew Mitchell is clearly very committed to an aid budget and the promise being kept, but it’s a Tory way of doing it. I keep saying to him that I’m his best friend in Parliament. All his backbenchers are against him, nearly all the cabinet is against him except for the prime minister – and having the prime minister on your side isn’t enough if you’ve got the Daily Mail, all your backbenchers and three-quarters of the cabinet against you. I’m quite tribal about things, but actually the issue is more important. When Andrew Mitchell gets the argument right, I will fully support him.
And of course you’ve renewed your partnership with Alan Duncan, which we're all delighted about.
Actually it’s quite possible for the leader of the House and the shadow to go so flipping pompous that it’s absolutely unbearable. Alan Duncan and I had an implicit pact that we would not be pompous farts doing that job. Both of us thought it was important.
You really seemed to enjoy being leader of the House.
I did enjoy it. Over the years I’d done a lot of campaigning all around the country but the House and chamber had never been my primary focus. It’s a bit like being a pit pony when you’re the leader of the House. You never see the light of day. You go in there when the cleaners are leaving and you leave when the only people there are the security people.
When you hear that you’ve got to do PMQs do you get an empty feeling in your stomach, or do you relish the thought of it?
It’s a formidable challenge because your own side wants you do to well. They won’t want to leave the chamber with their heads low. They’ll want to leave the chamber thinking ‘we put our argument across’. You’re the front of house and so there’s a lot of pressure. There was an additional pressure on me because everybody said I was going to be rubbish.
Did you resent that? You were up against William Hague who is always thought to be brilliant at these things. If I was you I would have said, ‘Hang on a bit, I’ve been around a bit. I can hold my own in these situations.’ Why do the commentators automatically say that Hague is going to win?
I suppose Hague has got a particular House pleasing style and has got very sharp humour. And he did do well against Tony Blair so he had a bit of a reputation ahead of him.
There were a couple of times, I can remember, where everyone thought you’d bested him. When you walk out of the chamber after that, what are you feeling?
No sense of euphoria?
It’s basically relief. Tony Blair said that even right up to the end of doing PMQs, it still created apprehension. It is a quite unique kind of pressure, and I think Ed’s doing incredibly well at it.
I do, I absolutely do.
Do you think he’s actually found Cameron’s weakness now?
He seems to have found that if he goes after Cameron on a point of detail he can get him because Cameron’s not a details man.
But it’s getting the right detail. If he asks something on detail that’s not relevant to anything, people would think that he’s lost the plot. People
remember Tony Blair doing PMQs in his heyday and they don’t realise that there were times when he couldn’t get things past John Major. So I think
of where he is. He is leader of an opposition now that was heavily defeated. He’s giving very confident, assured and committed performances.
How do you think people see you as a politician?
If you spend your time thinking about how people see you, you become introverted. Haven’t I got to spend my time thinking about what people’s
problems are and what we should be doing about them? It’s actually not about me, it’s about them.
I think people see you as quite a tribal politician but with a sense of humour. You can use humour to get a point across...
That’s interesting. I’ve always been described as humourless – a humourless feminist.
Feminist maybe. In the last few years you’ve changed. You can afford to be a bit more yourself, and a bit less of the sort of identikit politician who’s climbing the greasy pole.
You go through a pain barrier. When you arrive in Parliament, you think everyone knows more than you. Then you realise that it’s not about knowing things, it’s what you believe in and what you’ve come to Parliament to say is as valid as what anybody else says. So it’s about getting the confidence of going through the pain barrier and thinking that if people criticise you, so be it.
Do you think it’s because you’ve got as far as you could? If you wanted to be the leader of the Labour Party, you’d have stood in 2010,
presumably. Once you’ve got to the peak of your ambition you relax a bit more.
I think I was quite relaxed in the deputy leadership contest. Well, ‘relaxed’ is an odd way to describe an absolutely massively arduous campaign all
around the country. But I don’t think I was ducking or weaving or trying to be something I wasn’t.
Why didn’t you stand for leader in 2010?
Because after Gordon left, I felt that the job was to hold things together in the immediate aftermath. There wasn’t anybody else who could do that because nobody else was elected. It could have been potentially quite an uncertain period. So if somebody from the cabinet had been picked, they wouldn’t have had any more authority than anybody else. I was the only person who was elected. So I was the only person to do that, and you can’t do that and run for leader.
There are certainly quite a few Labour women that I spoke to that felt you let them down by not standing. You actually would have stood a good chance of winning.
Everybody’s got to make their decision about what they think is best for the party and best for themselves at the time. I’ve not had a shred of doubt
at any stage, I’ve had no twinges. You do sometimes wonder if you made a decision not to do something whether you’ll have a twinge and think… Having had a period of being acting leader, it makes you very insightful about what it is to lead. Very insightful. But, actually, it hasn’t made me want to take the party forward to the next general election.
That sounds as though there’s a bit of self-doubt there – as though you wonder if you had it in you to be leader.
The truth is that nobody knows what they’re up to until they get the chance to do it. Some people outperform what’s expected of them and what they would expect for themselves and some people don’t. So I don’t think you can make that judgement sensibly in advance. You’ve just got to think, ‘Am I up for doing this?’ And then do your best when you are doing it.
You have ruffled John Prescott’s feathers on Twitter. You said, ‘89 years of Labour leader and deputy. 84 years men-only. Time for rule change.’
Yes, that was me.
John Prescott then tweeted, ‘Stop complaining and start campaigning on the BIG issues for Labour. The last men-only leadership was voted in by women and men.’ So you’ve got a bit of a way to go to convince the John Prescotts of this world that there should always be a woman in the leadership.
We can’t have a men-only leadership in the party and then say we are committed to equality in the 21st century. It is just not okay any more. I don’t think women in this country are prepared to just have a situation where men make all the decisions and women have to put their case forward to men. That is last century politics. I know that is still what the Tories are doing, but it’s not right. There has to be a partnership of men and women. That whole thing of Cameron saying, ‘Calm down, dear’…
But that was a joke! I don’t know a single person outside the Westminster village that took it for anything other than a take-off of Michael Winner...
No, it’s patronising and it’s condescending. Women feel strongly about something and then they are patronised. All it does is make them angry. So the idea of women having to put their case to men and men then making the decisions, absolutely not.
So you’d like to form the leadership election system where there’s a woman and a man? A leader and a running mate. Yes, definitely.
Whichever way you look at it, Ed Miliband was elected because of the union vote. Do you think the voting system on the leadership election needs to at least be looked at again?
Well, it is being looked at as part of the review that Ed Miliband has asked Peter Hain to do. The thing that I’m actually campaigning on is making sure that we don’t fall back to an all-male leadership. Otherwise I’ve got to be here until I’m 95 and that’s too long. You’ve got to be making sure that you entrench progress behind you not just be a blip and then back to the men-only business as usual.
What did you see in Ed Miliband when you took him on as your researcher?
Very hard working… a really good person. Not a bone of cynicism in his body. And very committed and good values. Not at all a wheeling-dealing type.
Does it make you feel a bit old when your former researcher is now leader?
No, not at all! Yvette Cooper was my researcher. I will be basically recruiting incredibly bright, young people as I do. But then Gordon Brown would be like…
… filching them off!
Yeah. No, it doesn’t make me feel old at all.
Tony Blair, in his memoirs, alleges that you were always Gordon Brown’s choice for deputy leader. Is that true?
If you read Peter Watt’s memoir [former general secretary of the Labour Party], it basically says that Gordon Brown was mortified when I got elected. All I know is that I didn’t ask for Gordon Brown’s support. But I said that I would be a good deputy to go with a Gordon Brown prime minister. I didn’t ask for his support and, as far as I know, I didn’t get it. But I don’t think it would have been appropriate for him because he would have to work with whoever the party elected. No, I didn’t notice any support.
How did you find those three years? From all the accounts you read, it was a fairly bruising time. Were you constantly having rows with Gordon Brown as everybody else seems to have been?
I’ve worked with Gordon Brown since the 1980s, so we didn’t have a new relationship in 2007. We had a long-standing relationship including
a period when I’d been his deputy. It was a very, very tough period. But I admired how he was very calm and determined over dealing with the global financial crisis, which was a hell of a threat and could have been much worse in terms of business bankruptcies and jobs going.
Anthony Seldon’s account [in Brown at 10] accuses you of a plot to get rid of him in early 2010. You were on holiday somewhere in Suffolk. What’s the truth in that?
I’ve said I was not involved in a plot. All the way along, I remember there was one particular thing when – I think it was one of the summers when I was standing in when Gordon was on holiday for a very brief period – there was this amazing cartoon of me like Lady Macbeth with a bloody dagger in my hand. It was just…
You’ve got that in the loo now, have you?
No! There was a lot of discontent around at the time and obviously people talked to me about their concerns. As deputy leader, it is my job to listen to what people have got to say. But there was no coup.
You didn’t think you gave anyone the impression that you would have supported a coup?
No. But I do remember waking up one day and hearing on the radio ‘the deputy leader of the Labour Party, she has done in the prime minister and
taken over and…’ I was half asleep and I thought, ‘God, have I done that. God, I’m prime minister…’.
A nation rejoices!
Oh, God! But they were talking about Julia Gillard ousting Kevin Rudd in Australia!
When you hear yourself called Harriet Harperson, how do you react?
I don’t mind at all. I’m not bothered about it. There is sometimes a fine line between being a caricature and being a consistent campaigner. I am on the vanguardist side of feminism in that. It’s not my fault, it’s just not enough people agree with me, otherwise I’d be mainstream. I’d be happy to be mainstream just so long as everybody else can flipping-well catch up. But, I’m still vanguardist. So I suppose that is what people are commenting on. If they are denigrating tackling domestic violence, women having an equal say, then I don’t agree with them.
Who were your role models and mentors when you were thinking about a political career?
It was not really easy to have a role model, in that, there were hardly any women in Parliament – only three per cent. There were no women who had young children at all. Ann Taylor lost her seat. Helene Hayman lost her seat. The truth was I was really doing it on my own, trying to find my
own way. It was really great when more women arrived. I spent a lot of years being supported by lots of women and the women’s movement
outside the House of Commons. But in the House of Common I was pretty much a lone voice. I see it’s much better for young women now to have
other women in the same situation as them.
Did you ever regard Margaret Thatcher as any kind of female role model?
No, because it’s an ideological thing. She was beating the men at their own game. She was not being a feminist; she was doing it despite being a woman. I was doing because I was a woman. It was just completely different.
Have you ever had a conversation with Margaret Thatcher?
I just thought it might be entertaining if you had.
She was too busy being prime minister.
A lot of Labour MPs used to go and have little chats with her.
You mean Frank Field.
Did he? No?!
I was being against everything that she stood for.
Talking of Frank Field, when you left the government in 1998…
Ok, I was being kind.
Yes, you were axed. How did that feel? Pretty humiliating, presumably? And did you immediately think, ‘right, I am coming back’?
No, because there was no pattern for anyone to come back. Once you were axed, you were axed. I remember a day or so after I had been sacked, I
was walking down a street with local party members in Peckham. I was knocking on doors and someone said: “Oh, it’s great you can come down because we know how busy you are what with you being in the cabinet.” And I said: “You know I am not in the cabinet, because I have just been sacked.” nd they said: “Yes, yes, but you know what we mean.” I thought that for me it’s like an enormous change. But for them, who’s in and who’s not in the cabinet, it’s not such an issue. I thought I will just have to get on with it. I have seen people being bitter and thinking that nothing was their responsibility and it was everybody else’s fault. That’s just really unproductive and I didn’t want to be like that. I wasn’t going round gnashing my teeth blaming everybody else. Not for a bit, anyway!
Why didn’t you have an all-women shortlist in the seat your husband [ Jack Dromey] fought, Birmingham Erdington?
Because even with my good offices we haven’t got 100 per cent all-women shortlists. There are still men in the Labour Party that are able to stand for Parliament, you know!
What advice did you give to your husband when he was elected? Keep away from me?
I didn’t give him any advice at all, because he is very experienced and has been representing people in the Labour movement for many years. He doesn’t need any advice from me.
What makes you cry?
I can watch Emmerdale and I am off...
Let me think. [Whispers to assistant] What is the answer to that one? [Laughter. Assistant suggests children or family.] No, that makes me determined to get good international development for children. I am not elected to be crying my eyes out. I am elected to do things. If you were about to have cardiac surgery you wouldn’t want to see your surgeon crying his or her eyes out, you want them to be on it. So I want to be on it rather than wringing my hands.
Your favourite country that you have ever visited?
My favourite country is England. I love being able to go all over the place and to knock on people’s doors and be incredibly nosey.
What was the first record you ever bought?
I am sure it was the Beatles. I think it was Please Please Me or something like that. Or was it Michael Jackson?
Something you wish you had known at 16?
I didn’t know anything at 16.
Who is your political hero?
Michelle Bachelet. She is the fabulous former President of Chile. She was a paediatrician, her father was killed, she was tortured. She left – you’re
only allowed to do one term – with 85 per cent popularity ratings.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Listening to my Adele CD. That sounds so terribly tame.
Favourite TV show as a child?
I wasn’t really allowed to watch much TV. This was the olden days where there was one TV in the house and it only had two channels.