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Thursday 27th September 2012 | 20:06
WORDS: PAUL WAUGH AND SAM MACRORY
Harriet Harman is both smiling and wincing. The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party is recalling the latest episode of The Thick of It, pained by the uncanny accuracy of some of the plotlines.
“Some of it is a little bit accurate. I feel sure everybody else is laughing like a drain and I’m kind of cringing,” she confesses.
Harman loves the Nicola Murray character, the harassed fictional Leader of the Opposition who often has some sardonic putdowns for the Westminster alpha males around her. “She’s brilliant, the actress who plays her. It’s very clever. But it’s a bit like a busman’s holiday watching that.”
She may be deadly serious about her politics, but no one can say the former Cabinet minister lacks a sense of humour. Right now she’s in her Commons office, working with her aide (and former stand-up comedian) Ayesha Hazarika on the gags that have become a feature of her rallying, end-of-conference speech.
In recent months, of course, many Labour MPs think The Thick of It has appeared more like a documentary than a satire. Ed Miliband himself put the word ‘Omnishambles’ (aimed originally at Nicola Murray by Malcom Tucker) in the Hansard record after the Budget earlier this year. The recent government reshuffle has added yet more comedic fodder.
However, Harman says that the infighting of the Coalition has broken out of the Westminster Village and is being picked up by voters. “It’s just a shambles with them all fighting. I was very struck when I was in Corby a couple of weeks ago where Andy Sawford is doing a big questionnaire to all the constituents. There was a lorry driver in the café of Morrison’s and one the questions was ‘how would you describe the government?’ And what was really interesting was his first word was ‘unstable’. There is a moment at which people think ‘this [infighting] is a problem, because they’re focusing on themselves not us.’”
Harman says Labour is heading to conference in “very resolute and determined” mood. Labour councillors, elected in May’s local elections, and a coherent shadow ministerial team, themselves paired with one of the 30 new candidates picked to fight a marginal seat, are contributing to the high spirits.
She says Ed Miliband’s first hand-picked Shadow Cabinet is “firing on all cylinders”. The contrast with the Government’s recently reshuffled ranks is clear, she claims.
“I’ve never seen such a... venting from the people who thought they should have been appointed and the people who were let go. It showed the divisions – they’re all pulling in different directions. That impedes good effective government actually, and the public spot that.”
She describes Justine Greening and Andrew Lansley as having been “parked” at International Development and in the Commons Leader post and predicts “disaster” will follow Jeremy Hunt’s appointment as Health Secretary. She also raises an eyebrow at the return of David Laws. “All of that stuff he [Cameron] talked about clean government, doing things differently, rebuilding trust. David Laws is back in...”
Not surprisingly, Harman is also unimpressed that there are now six government departments, including the Treasury, with no female ministers.
“What does that say to women in this country? ‘We think you’ve got nothing to contribute.’ To have whole departments where there are women-voice free zones because, oh look, the men are dealing with these departments, it’s just not ok.”
But it isn’t just women that Harman is worried about. She believes that the Government is failing to represent the whole country. “The Tories are not able to do that because they don’t have representation in Scotland to speak of, hardly any in Wales, very little in the north” she argues, pointing to Labour’s resurgence in councils across the South of England as proof of her own party’s nationwide appeal.
And David Cameron, she adds, has given up on parts of the country. “I think it was very telling when [Rotherham MP] Denis Macshane asked Cameron something and mentioned Rotherham, and Cameron said ‘oh well, the time anybody thinks anything positive about the Tories in Rotherham hell will freeze over.’ We would never say, ‘the time anybody wants to be Labour in Guildford hell would freeze over’. It’s about... a commitment that if you are going to be Prime Minister, you are going to be the Government, you have to do it for the whole country. I think it was Cameron’s Mitt Romney moment. It was, absolutely. I was so struck by that.”
As Shadow Culture Secretary, Ms Harman’s big policy brief will come very much alive this autumn with the publication of the Leveson report.
“It’s really important that nobody tries to get political advantage out of it because once we do that then you allow the press to play divide and rule and you are back where you are started. It absolutely depends on good faith, working together between Ed, Cameron, me and Maria Miller and Nick Clegg, and also to have a reasonable and sensible and fair discussion with the press. If we don’t get that sense of working together then we will have business as usual.”
She sees legislation as essential for real change. “The only way you can do that is having legislation which empowers an independent complaints system which should be independent of Parliament, independent of the press. I think it should be as narrow as possible. I don’t think it should go into pre-publication issues or any general or wider governance issues. It just needs to be able to say you got it wrong here, you need to do an apology because we’ve got the legal standing.”
And if they refuse? “Well, then I think you commute it into a fine and you get that enforced in a court, a county court or High Court. The court doesn’t set the fine, but it enforces it like a debt.”
One surprise area at the Leveson Inquiry turned out to be the judge’s insistence on quizzing Sun editor Dominic Mohan about the ethics of Page 3 girls. Following calls from women’s groups, Mohan was recalled to explain why the practice should continue. The paper’s use of Page 3 was, quite literally, in the dock for the first time.
Harman says we’re seeing a generational shift on this issue. “I don’t think it is a question of banning it. I don’t think Leveson or anybody else is going to get into the issue of banning content or making it unlawful. But I think that there’s a new generation of younger women saying ‘this is not on, we don’t agree with this and you should stop doing it’.
“It is anachronistic, it’s completely backward-looking and it’s time it was got rid of,” she says. To prove her point, she reveals she will be signing a new internet petition to axe Page 3. “I’m going to sign the petition and back up those women who’ve put this forward on Twitter.”
Harman, who opens conference with a special women’s conference that has proved a big hit with the party since it was trialled in 2010, is unrepentant about the need for all-women shortlists to boost the number of female MPs. “It’s the only thing that works.”
That said, she admits that the process is “controversial”, no more so perhaps than when her husband Jack Dromey found himself selected to stand in Birmingham Erdington, a seat previously earmarked for an all women’s shortlist.
“I wasn’t actually involved in whether it was or wasn’t going to be... because Jack was going for a seat I basically stood right back from that process,” Harman protests, before launching a defence of her husband’s route to Westminster. “We’ve never argued that there should be 100 per cent women’s shortlists. There’s always going to be some open shortlists – rightly so, we want people from a range of backgrounds. It’s a very easy [pot] shot for people to make but you only have to see what Jack is doing in Parliament to see that he’s terrific.”
Talking of women in Parliament, what does Harman make of Louise Mensch’s decision to blame the demands of bringing up her children on her decision to quit after two-and-a-half years as an MP? “Generally speaking, my view is, and I hold this in a general way, that you make a promise to your constituency when you stand for election. You say, please vote for me and I will represent you for the next five years – and that is quite an important promise”, says Harman, reluctant to be drawn into Mensch’s reasons for relocating to New York to live with her husband.
But having spent three decades as an MP with children, and as someone who has campaigned to make life easier for other working mothers, does Harman think that Mensch has damaged the cause?
“It’s difficult to combine being a mother and working – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an MP, it doesn’t matter what your job is,” she replies, cautiously. However, it’s clear that she feels Mensch has neglected her duty. “The thing about women MPs is that we need to be in here fighting to make it easier, or at least more manageable, for other women, fighting for those services like childcare, making sure that we maintain and extend maternity pay and leave. It’s important for women in the country to know that there are women in Parliament who understand that it’s difficult to juggle work and family and who will, because they’ve got that understanding, be determined to help make the change. And you can do that in Parliament in a way that you can’t if you’re in America.” She adds, pointedly: “In New York, for example...”
As for her own future, she has a blunt reply for those who ask if she could still one day be Labour leader. “A lot of people say ‘I’ll never say never’. But I’ve always said ‘never’. I just haven’t managed to get any traction for it! Some say: ‘She’s ruled it out? She must be going for it now!’ Actually my ambition is to be Deputy Prime Minister and it is not yet achieved. It needs to be achieved in 2015.”
When asked if one day she’d like to be Mayor of London, she replies: “Don’t be too hurried to write me off to somewhere else please! I’m just getting into my stride. I’m not quite ready to be shuffled off somewhere.”
Harman says that she’s like many women of her generation, mothers who broke the mould by going to work and who are now breaking new ground with their children having left home. Older women will be a key target at the next election and the 62-year-old Camberwell and Peckham MP insists she is like millions of others in her position.
When it comes to relaxing away from politics, she says she’s an utterly normal telly and cooking addict. “I do what everybody else of my age likes to do, I can see from the marketing ads I get sent. They know I like to be cooking and watching the Great British Bake Off and they know that I like to go out walking, I’m an absolute stereotype for my demographic,” she says. “I watch telly all the time. I go to concerts, I’m not a workaholic obsessive at all.”
As for books, she is even in touch with the zeitgeist of Fifty Shades of Grey, the book that has become a women’s fiction phenomenon. “I have read it, at least I’ve read three quarters of it,” she says. Laughing, she adds: “I read it for ‘research purposes’…. It’s become one of those things where you have to read it to find out whether anybody else has read it. She’s no JK Rowling though.”
As for whether the book is feminist or not, Harman has a deadpan response: “I take the view that really women are probably more interested in a man who knows how to unstack the dishwasher rather than tie them to the bed. But the blockbuster that reveals that has yet to be written.” And with that, she’s off to write her conference speech. Back in the thick of it, armed with possibly her latest laughter line…
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