Harman: 'You can’t be a Conservative and a feminist'

Written by Amber Elliott on 7 August 2012 in Interview
The deputy opposition leader has had a tough few years, following numerous broadsides levelled at her by a critical press. Yet, as she reaches 30 years in Parliament, is she any wiser on how to handle the media? Will Harriet Harman ever come in from the cold? Amber Elliott finds out in an exclusive interview

This article is from the August issue of Total Politics

Three people are chucking balloons at Harriet Harman while Frank Sinatra croons in the background.

It’s an unusual way to spend an afternoon – but Labour’s deputy leader seems unfazed.

Just yards from Ed Miliband’s office, we’re snapping Harman for our cover photoshoot. It’s her 30th year in Parliament – and our 50th issue. We’re celebrating with gold balloons and cake.

“Denis Healey said you should do everything to make a photo a more memorable visual experience,” says Harman.

“He posed next to a pig. He had these huge, bushy eyebrows and this red face, and he put his head right next to this pig. When it was pointed out that people would say he looked like the pig, Healey replied: ‘That’s why I’m doing it’.”

She looks down at the balloons. “These don’t look Lib Dem yellow, do they?”

The shadow culture secretary is not what you expect. In print, she comes across as self-contained, guarded and serious. The Harman I meet certainly has those qualities, but she’s also eating profiteroles and talking openly about her drug-taking past. (The two incidents are unrelated…)

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna recently admitted that he had “smoked soft drugs”. And now the Labour deputy leader joins Umunna, Alistair Darling and Barack Obama in ‘fessing up about marijuana.

“In the mists of time, I kind of remember a joint being passed around,” she explains, as we sip lattes in her messy office before the photoshoot. “I was never part of the druggie culture. Not that many people were when I was at uni. Alcohol, rather than drugs.”

Harman is also refreshingly open about her upbringing. She attended the fee-paying public St Paul’s Girls’ School, her uncle was Lord Longford and her father was a Harley Street physician. Could it be that Harriet Harman is – shock horror – posh?

She leans in conspiratorially. “Yeah, I think I am… I’m definitely on the posh side of things. But I’m not landed gentry if you want to get into the detailed socio-economics. Not ‘Sam Cam’ posh.”

With that in mind, does she think Nadine Dorries’ criticism of Cameron and Osborne as “two arrogant posh boys” was fair?
“I’ll leave that to Nadine, who definitely says it how she sees it,” replies Harman.

There is, however, a cautious side to Harman – the bit of her that has spent decades attempting not to offend or say anything that could be lifted out of context. She doesn’t like the big, open-ended questions like, “What’s your biggest fear?”

“I tend to… kind of…,” she flounders. “It’s so big, I tend to blank it out.” She pauses. “No, I don’t think I’ve got huge fears. I’ve got hopes, and ambitions, but not massive fears.” She plays with her chunky necklace. It’s a nervous gesture.

The deputy Labour leader is most comfortable on home turf: politics.

As the shadow culture, media and sport secretary, she recently appeared before the Leveson inquiry, a judge-led investigation into the workings of the media. With Labour leader Ed Miliband, she called for the sacking of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt over his role in the controversial News Corporation bid for BSkyB.

How did she rate her performance? “To actually arrive at the point of being able to confront problems which had been there for decades,” –- she sighs with relief – “It’s such a cathartic moment. We couldn’t have hoped for more in the way that Leveson has conducted the inquiry and Robert Jay has forensically investigated.”

Harman denies that it’s a “Westminster village thing”. “It’s very fundamental for democracy,” she says (note: not just fundamental, but “very fundamental”).

“There’s been a deep, underlying knowledge that the Murdochs were too powerful. That made them invincible, a sense of invincibility that the press complaints system was absolutely toothless and that gave newspapers a sense of impunity.” It is explained with such dramatic flair that it sounds like the beginning of a Spider-Man movie.

She continues: “It was the problem that couldn’t be addressed – the challenge that couldn’t be made. The hacking scandal, especially the Milly Dowler revelation, made that moment available.”

With such high stakes in play, what can Leveson achieve? “I hope we’ll prevent monopolistic concentration of media ownership, and [gain] a proper complaints system which is recognised in law, so that it’s got teeth.”

The Leveson appearance wasn’t Harman’s first encounter with the law. She began a legal career with Brent Law Centre in the late 1970s, and while employed by the National Council for Civil Liberties, she was found in contempt of court. She took the case to the European Court of Human Rights and argued successfully that the prosecution had breached her right to freedom of expression.

So, appearing for 30 minutes before Leveson really isn’t that nerve-racking, by comparison? “Not really,” she admits. “As a newly qualified solicitor, where you’ve slogged your way through your training contract, you’ve got your certificate, and suddenly you get this thunderbolt of a contempt prosecution – that’s really nerve-racking.”

Her ECHR case was called Harman v United Kingdom. At times, it’s also an apt name for her persona in the tabloids. Choice examples from newspaper cuttings include, “Harriet Harman was back again… pass the earplugs”, “Britain’s most deluded woman?” and “Harperson says sorry (again)”.

Surely part of her zeal to reform the media must have something to do with her own press?

“After 30 years-plus of being in public life, it’s quite difficult to step back and have a sense of perspective,” she says.

“I felt that the price to be paid of being out there is that you get criticised. It has gone with the territory. You can keep your head below the radar. You can just go along and, if you make no change, nobody’s going to criticise you. You could be a public figure, not doing anything, and lead a quiet-ish life.

“But if you’re saying there are too many men in Parliament and not enough women – poof – it goes off. If you say that childcare is essential: ‘What? You’re saying that women shouldn’t stay home and look after the children?’ If you’re saying there should be bigger priority for sexual offence investigations: ‘Are you saying all men are rapists?’ Every time you put something forward, those who feel threatened are galvanised. But you have to stick at it. That’s how change happens.”

Her latest stance to be derided in the press was her call for Hunt’s resignation just 25 minutes after 163 pages of evidence had been made public. She admitted she’d already made up her mind about him. “There was no point not saying it how I saw it,” she explains.

“The evidence had been unfolding the whole morning, and it was plain. I don’t want to play games with this sort of thing. You just have to be straightforward.”

Surely the point was that she was perceived to be playing games by not having read the evidence?

She continues: “Hunt’s breached the ministerial code, and to keep him in the cabinet is just an absolute discredit to Cameron… I don’t think that’s good for the department, because he’s a lame duck.”

The Labour MP fears that events could affect the department – nicknamed the ‘Ministry of Fun’ – as well as Hunt’s reputation. “I hope that what the government won’t do is solve the Hunt problem by abolishing the department after the Olympics,” she explains. “There’s real concern about that. Even before Hunt was having problems, that was very much on the ‘slimming down government’ agenda.”

How does she get on with Hunt? “Not quite so well since I called for his resignation, actually.” She laughs, guiltily.

There’s a sharp edge to Harman. She may be old enough to collect her Freedom Pass, but she’s not mellowed much. ‘Harridan Harperson’ still lurks beneath the surface. Is she tribal? “Sometimes I am, sometimes not,” she replies. There’s a pause. “But, mostly I am.”

She explains: “My constituents did not elect me into Parliament to have a good relationship with the Tories, who were in Thatcher’s government making their life a misery. So I felt like I should frown when I saw Tories – and I did. But when I was leader of the House, that was not my job any more. So I became much less tribal.” She winces slightly. “But, yes, scratch the surface, and I definitely am tribal.”

This manifests in some very strong political statements. At a Fabian conference a few weeks ago, Harman was quoted as saying that reaching out to Liberal Democrats was “wrong-headed”, a “disastrous political message” and “suggests a lack of confidence”.

She doesn’t backtrack when I put the quotes to her now. “We want to be in government with an overall majority. Why should we want to fall short of that and anticipate rejection?” She stares fixedly.

So we can presume she’s against a Lib-Lab pact then. Unfortunately, Ed Miliband may not have got that memo. Back in December 2010, he was openly inviting Lib Dems to join the Labour policy review. He has since ruled out working with Nick Clegg, but not the party itself.

“We should be thinking about our plans for being in government and delivering on a Labour manifesto – and if the Lib Dems want to support what we’re bringing forward in government, then they can,” says Harman. “But criticising them out of one side of your mouth and cosying up to them on the other… I don’t like that sort of politics. They can agree with us if they want.”

Is that her approach to the 2015 general election? “I want us to win the next general election – it’s a big political ambition, to be in a one-term coalition – and then I want to be deputy prime minister in the new Labour government. That would be my ambition.”

There have been rumours that Harman will stand down as deputy leader after the next election. “I want us to get into government,” she replies, simply.

We’re back to guarded. Her arms are crossed, and there’s a tight smile on her face. It’s like interviewing Fifty Shades of Harman – and I’m on the colder end of the spectrum. We’ve covered political ambition… what about personal ambition?

The shadow culture secretary smiles politely. “My personal ambition is to be deputy prime minister. It’s the same as my political ambition. I’m not wanting to be an opera singer or run the 100 metres.”


After 30 years in Parliament, Harman has relaxed the line between personal and political a little. She never used to talk about her kids, to the extent where she was guarded about the most basic of personal questions. Now, she’ll talk about them (they’re grown up), but still takes little joy in personality politics. For example, she finds Twitter difficult to pitch. “I try and keep [my tweets] boring,” she admits.

And she’s still precious about divulging information about her other half, Jack Dromey, who won a seat that used to be an all-women’s shortlist. Dromey’s parliamentary office is next door to Harman’s. (His nameplate is scrawled on in biro in the corridor.) “It’s very companionable,” she chirps.

“We’ve always been close politically. It’s quite interesting to see how confident he is in the chamber. It took me about 20 years to get to be as confident as he obviously feels.”

I push for more detail about their domestic set-up. Who’s the better cook? “Oh, me!” she responds with a snort.

That’s as much as I’m getting, So we turn back to politics – and why she didn’t stand in 2010’s leadership election.

Harman leans back in her chair. “I’ll never forget when Ken Clarke said, ‘Any MP who says they don’t want to be leader of their party is a liar.’ And I thought, ‘How odd. I don’t want to be leader.’ It’s just not been my ambition to lead the Labour Party. I’ve always known that. I don’t have a forensic explanation for why I don’t. It’s just one of the things I know.”

Given that, it must have been strange to lead the party for 137 days in the wilderness between Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Her eyes open wide. “Very demanding, a huge responsibility,” she nods.

“There were a load of MPs who had never not been in government, and a whole load of new MPs, and I wanted them to feel that we could go forward.
“I had to do the very best job I could, which included them not having to hang their heads in shame at Prime Minister’s Questions.”

It’s almost a maternal statement. Indeed, after so many years behind Parliament’s gothic walls, Harman is – whisper it – somewhat of an old hand. She’s 62, but has aged well. “Lots of make-up and photographs taken from a distance,” she laughs, by way of an explanation.

She’s been elected for so long, she’s had both the younger Miliband and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper work as lowly researchers for her. “They are doing an incredible job,” she says.

And when they worked for her? “Both were absolutely dedicated and committed, just really decent and exceptional.”

Is she a mentor to them, a motherly figure who spits on her hanky to wipe smudges from Miliband’s face? “No, no, no!” she exclaims. “Absolutely not. Ed’s the boss now. He’s taken on the leadership mantle. He’s not my former special adviser any more. He is the leader of the party.”

She has some impressive legacies, despite never gunning for Labour’s top position. One factoid is that she’s the longest continuously-serving female MP.

When Harman first entered the House, women made up just three per cent of the Commons. “I had some very isolated, lonely, often miserable years,” she admits. “Most women MPs were much older than me. I was the only one in the whole of the Commons who had children.”

And friendship with male colleagues was off the cards. “I’d just been going from one floor to another in a lift with one of my colleagues, and a whole load of MPs – men, obviously – were standing there when then lift doors opened. They all went, ‘Oooh!’ I just thought, ‘This is awful’.”

The Labour deputy leader describes herself as a “frontline feminist”, which, I think, means she’s pretty hard-nosed about it. How does she feel about young women who can’t identify with gender politics?

“Many women who set off thinking that they can contribute to things outside as well as inside the home have their hopes challenged when they find their partner doesn’t share looking after the children, or taking equal responsibility,” she says. “Then they get to be feminists later on.”

Her brand of feminism is rather strict, and certainly not all-inclusive.

“If you’re actually political, you can’t be a Conservative and a feminist,” she claims, “because it’s all about equality and fairness. It’s not about the Tories, who are ‘The devil take the hindmost’, and ‘Stand on your own two feet’. Ultimately, delivering for women in this country – in equality, childcare, helping with the elderly, maternity pay and leave – is Labour’s mission, not the Tories’.”

Theresa May often talks about feminism though. “Does she?” Harman’s voice rises an octave in surprise. I quote from a Total Politics interview with the home secretary, in which she defined herself as a feminist, saying: “To me, it’s about ensuring there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity.”

“Ahh!” Harman shrieks as though I’ve dangled a dead mouse in front of her. “It must be fashionable…

“Basically, it’s amazing for her now to say she’s a feminist. For years she dogged my path, following me round TV and radio studios, criticising what we were arguing for – political correctness and a burden on business and everything. On all the big issues she’s been on the wrong side. I suppose we should all believe in redemption, but, my goodness me, she would never lead an argument for equality.”

What would the sisterhood make of that outburst? Contrarily, Harman is less scathing about the Daily Mail’s Samantha Brick, who has become somewhat of a hate figure for other women.

“I feel quite sorry for her,” says Harman. “I wonder whether or not she unleashed upon herself a kind of storm, which then was whipped up against her… I wonder what she thinks about what she’s said now?

"It’s two things: it’s about women fighting other women, and it’s about focusing on women’s looks. We’ve always fought against the idea of a focus on women’s appearance. Feminism is a creed of women’s solidarity.”

I resist the urge to point back to her comments about May. We turn to female stereotypes. What’s her worst habit? “Probably very bad driving,” she admits. “But that’s terrible, because it’s letting the side down, isn’t it?”

Sadly, the most burn-your-bra-hairy-feminist thing Harman’s ever done is rather tame. “The things I’ve done have become conventional wisdom, so I’m now plotting my next unreasonable demand!” She chuckles. “Today’s unreasonable demand is tomorrow’s conventional wisdom. Soon I’ll find flipping Theresa May’s agreeing with it.”

She thinks a little more. “Arguing that there should be 50/50 men and women in the cabinet – that women in the country expect men and women to share decision-making. I’m just old enough to remember when girls were told that if a man said something, it was more likely to be true than if a woman said something. And more likely to be important.

“You had to be careful not to look too intelligent, because that was two clever by half, and you’d never get a husband… You know, we’re still not that far away from all of that.”

Harman has no special plans for celebrating her 30 years in Parliament, but there’s plenty to tell the grandkids one day.

Her personal highlight has been being part of the Labour team that took the party “out of the absolute wilderness”, as she puts it. The other was being elected as deputy leader, especially as she was the underdog. “I should’ve bet some money on myself.” She grins. “At one stage, I was at 22–1, or something.”

There have also been low points. The worst was being sacked as social security secretary in 1998 by Tony Blair. “In government – blink of an eye – out again,” she summarises. “I know it’s terrible to say, but it was very character-building.

"If you’re in that high a public fall you have to be characterful, otherwise…” – she pauses – “… it can really disintegrate you.”

For a moment, she looks upset. Then she shakes her head and that polite, tight smile returns. “Basically, I decided not to let it get to me.”
Talking of Blair, what does she make of his return to Labour politics?

She shrugs: “As a former prime minister, it’s very difficult to think of what you do – it’s something that’s baffled them over the years. Obviously, it’s been a particular issue for him because he’s still in his prime… I haven’t got a word to say against him.”

What about the elusive Gordon Brown? Harman worked with him from the 1980s – and denied encouraging a coup against him at the end of 2009. Surely she has something to say about him? “It’s difficult,” she replies delicately, “because Gordon had been an immensely influential shadow chancellor. He was absolutely central as chancellor for 10 years, and then prime minister. That’s a long time to then be on the backbenches and still relatively youthful.”

It’s cautiously put, although Harman doesn’t recognise it.

“I don’t think I’m particularly cautious or particularly tactical,” she says. “I quite often lead with my chin, which is why I’ve courted a lot of controversy.”

After three decades, no regrets at all? “I actually think it’s self-indulgent to keep on looking over your shoulder, regretting, because you have things to do.”

Je ne regrette rien: it sums her up well (perhaps better than it did Norman Lamont).

And even if it’s not true, and she ends days with eyes raw from crying and a lump in her throat, she would not admit it now.

That would be a sign of weakness. Perhaps that’s  the impact of growing up in a man’s world – show no fear, have no regrets, never get personal.

She may let you throw a balloon at her head – or admit to smoking wacky-backy – but don’t expect Harriet Harman to let you in.

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