Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House.

Interview with local news reporter Owen Sheppard

Southwark_News.png 

As we sit and talk in her office, it’s hard not to be distracted by the view behind her: Big Ben and Parliament Square, with the Thames flanking Portcullis House.

Little about this view has changed since the 66-year-old was elected in a 1982 by-election, the year before Margaret Thatcher won her second general election. But needless to say, she has been through plenty, so too has her constituency of Camberwell and Peckham, and more recently, so has her party.

To open, I ask Harriet to reflect on the defining moments of 2016, a year that will deserve a rather large number of pages for its chapter in the history books – not least for Brexit.

She defends what Leave campaigners labelled as the Remainers’ “project fear” campaigning. “Ending our trade relationship with Europe and going into no man’s land, having a situation where things cost more because of imports against the value of the pound,” those things, she says, were not fearmongering, but “sensible concerns”.

“I’m very disappointed that having played my part and campaigned – even [after] going out on a bus with the Conservative prime minister – that we lost.”

And for his gamble, Harriet claims that David Cameron will “go down in history as a PM who has done a terrible disservice to the country” for that referendum, which rather than being characterised by sovereignty and economics, became “just about immigration”.

 Harriet-Harman-with-David-Cameron.jpg

Then she turns on Trump. The property mogul’s shock victory in the US Presidential election has “legitimised the idea that you can be nasty, bigoted, selfish, xenophobic, tax-dodging, misogynistic”.

“It’s celebrating prejudice, and the sort of prejudice that has consequences,” she says.

“The reason we used to protest against homophobia was because it produced gay bashing: violence against lesbian and gay people. And misogyny is used as part of a culture of domestic violence. There is a relationship between what people think and what they say.

“So things have not gone well,” she says with an ironic laugh, “it’s been getting worse”.

And what about the vote in Parliament, that will authorise the government to trigger Article 50, and officially commence our departure from the EU?

As the News reported last week, Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle has vowed to vote against it. And Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes will do the same, unless the government presents a “detailed Brexit proposal” or has held a general election.

But Harriet is reluctant to commit while “the nature” of the Brexit proposal is still unknown. “We just have no idea,” she tells me. “I’ll have to tell you closer to the time. I don’t know what ‘it’ is at the moment, or what the government is going to put forward.”

Unlike many of her counterparts, as well as the Liberal Democrats, Harriet doesn’t expect the prime minister to call an early general election.

“I think Theresa May will be spooked by what happened in America,” Harriet says. “She will be being spooked by what is happening in France… I think she would be afraid to have a general election in the current climate.”

Even despite the Tories’ mammoth thirteen per cent lead in the recent YouGov opinion polls?

“But I think… she has a majority – albeit only ten – but she has got the office of PM and I think she is the kind of person who wants to avoid uncertainty. To plunge the country into an election with all that uncertainty… people would think ‘she’s got the job, why doesn’t she get on with it?’.

“She could find herself being blamed for all sorts of things and out on her ear. Cameron thought he was sitting pretty, he made a stupid decision on a referendum, and he was out. [Theresa] will think, ‘I’m sitting in No. 10, I’ll stay here.’”

What has also defined her year has been the unprecedented transformation of the Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn increasing his majority in September with a second leadership election.

Harriet stated her support for leadership candidate Owen Smith MP, but refrained from criticising Corbyn anywhere near as harshly as her colleagues.

Owen_Smith.jpg 

How does she reconcile Labour’s new identity as the expressly left-wing party, when for the last 21 years, the party for which she was deputy leader, and twice interim leader, had been centrist?

At first she describes the left-to-right scale of politics as too reductive, an “unhelpful construct”.

“If you look at [French presidential candidate] Marine Le Pen, she is xenophobic… but she wants a high minimum wage and plenty of regulation to protect people at work. Does that make her left or right wing?

“Certainly, in order to get elected you’ve got to get a majority… the question at any given time is how you can win enough support to get into government.

“For us in the 1990s, we had tonnes of support in Scotland, Wales, the north, but we had to win [Tory safe seats] in Hastings, Crawley, Gloucester…  and we did.

“You have got to think about what can inspire people to believe you have a better solution that than other side. It will be different things at different times. You cannot stick with any particular formula.”

Somewhat knocking the thunder out of Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonell’s socialism, Harriet says the economic policies they are putting forward have “not much changed from when Ed Miliband was leader, or from Gordon Brown”. Their rule of thumb being: “You borrow to invest, but you don’t borrow for current expenditure.”

And rather than focus on internal struggles and “indoctrinal correctness” (be that Blairite or Socialist) she says Labour’s politics has “got to relate to the outside world” and “focus on issues we hear on the doorstep”.

“The important thing is, if people are asked the question: ‘what is Labour most focused on, internal power struggles or my problems?’ the answer has got to be that if we want people’s votes, people have got to believe that they are our priority, not our own struggles.”

Does Corbyn bear any other similarities with his New Labour predecessors?

Tony Blair’s former cabinet members have commented that he would scarcely discuss policy with them in detail, instead keeping the big decisions to his “inner sanctum” of advisors, Alastair Campbell, his wife, and for a time, not even Gordon Brown.

 Blair_Aylesbury.jpg

Corbyn’s inner sanctum, meanwhile, could be said to include loyalists Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, McDonnell, and his head of communications, Seamus Milne. And it was allegedly Corbyn’s lack of communication skills that led his rebelling shadow cabinet earlier this year to say he wasn’t fit to lead.

“But I think that is what is said about all leaders, in all parties,” Harriet counters, “that they don’t listen enough.

“It is the case, that the best way to get your leadership right is to listen to as wide a group as possible. It actually helps you make the right decisions.

“One of the difficulties of being the PM is that you have to make so many decisions all the time. But it’s less the case in opposition because you’re not actually doing anything.”

And does Harriet speak very often with the party leader? The answer is a swift “no”.

“I’m not in the shadow cabinet,” she says. “I am a backbencher now so I am getting on with my work in the constituency and I am chairing the Joint Committee on Human Rights.”

However, a stark contrast between Corbyn’s Labour and that of Blair’s is their engagement with the media, or the “days of spin” as the leader puts it.

The Labour Party has always been disadvantaged by a mostly right-wing press. But Blair succeeded in courting The Sun, once he could convince the tabloid they would be backing the sure winner. Ed Miliband also tried to engage with the Daily Mail, Telegraph and others.

But Corbyn seems defeatist in trying to engage with the press. So what should Labour do to get its side of the story heard?

“I think the media landscape is very different now to how it was in 1995 and ’96,” she says.

“But I still think because the media and the broadsheets are influential, it’s important to try to win the argument with them, however [intake of breath] in vain that might seem. It’s still important to try, because we feel we have an argument: that Labour is good for the whole of Britain. So we shouldn’t be too selective about who we say it to. We should have the courage of our convictions.”

Harriet flatly refuses to answer when I ask who might make for a strong Labour leader in future, because you “can’t go into the next election if we’re not set on winning”.

“So what about in ten years?” I ask.

Though she avoids naming names, she does say: “I know of people who look at [MPs] and say ‘they’ve got leadership qualities’. [But] I think it’s idle speculation in a way. A week can be a long time in politics, let alone a year.

“But having said it’s idle speculation… I have got the names in my head, but I’m not going to mention them. Everybody has got to work as hard as they can, and people like me have got to be as supportive as they can to everybody else, and then you need the right person at the right time.”

That “right person” – it has been suggested many a time – could well have been Harriet herself. So I ask her, why didn’t she run for leader?

 Jeremy-Corbyn-by-Garry-Knight.jpg

“Because [in 2007] I had become deputy leader, and that was… quite a big thing. And I was interim-leader twice… I just felt like I had done my bit.

“I have added it up and I think I was on the front bench for 28 years. If you look at other older people in politics they are usually people who have not spent a lot of time on the front bench. It’s not just age, it’s your political lifespan. I’ve been having my political lifespan since the early 1980s.

“People did say it to me [that I should have run for leader]. Sometimes… I feel like they’re being supportive and complimentary, but I do wonder whether they mean it. But people do still say that. But… I had done my bit. That was my definite thought.”

The burning question now then, when does Harriet plan to stand down, like so many of her former Blair and Brown cabinet members (only nine of whom are still MPs)?

It’s a question that Harriet has clearly been asked before, but nonetheless, she says it’s “far too early to say”.

“I never answer that question, and I never have done. We have a process, and no one says anything until that process starts. That’s just the way we do it. I have made a commitment to the people who voted for me in 2015 that I will be their MP and that’s what I’m doing, and I’m getting on with it.”

To cIose, I ask what have been her highs and lows of working for Camberwell and Peckham.

The answer is emotional, but again, she’s nailing down an argument that has been central to the internal debates within Labour: that without power, you can’t help anyone.

One was the alarming waiting lists for surgery at local hospitals. She recalls a cardiologist at Guy’s Hospital in the early ‘90s estimating the number of people who would die needing heart surgery, because they couldn’t be treated quickly enough.

“The highs, I think, was when we started to open children’s centres in every neighbourhood. When I first started as an MP, literally you could only get a nursery place if your child was at risk or if they were at risk of abuse at home.

“Being able to see kids playing and learning, and seeing mums going out to work. The whole spread out of children’s centres was a brilliant thing to see. And it’s heart breaking now to see [the government] cutting back.”

You can view the article in Southwark News here

The Labour Party will place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better.

Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site.

To find out more about these cookies, see our privacy notice. Use of this site confirms your acceptance of these cookies.