Harriet Harman

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

Peckham Pioneer

House Magazine, June 2006

Profile: Harriet Harman talks to Edward Davie

I was born in London in 1950. My father was a doctor at St Thomas's Hospital and my mother qualified as a barrister but didn't practise because in those days women mostly didn't work unless their husband couldn't support the family. Later she qualified as a solicitor, more or less at the same time as I did.

I did politics at York for my degree even though I was heading into law. I didn’t want to do law at University, but I had no plans to be a politician at that stage – even though I’d spent a fair amount of my childhood stuffing election addresses into envelopes for my mother who stood as a Liberal candidate in Joe Grimmond’s heyday.

After I qualified as a solicitor, I was a legal officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty, for four years. My boss there was Patricia Hewitt and it was a great organisation to be involved and a very exciting and interesting time. It taught me how to construct an argument that convinced people of a particular case and that you could make a difference.

I was elected to represent Peckham in 1982 - a constituency that has changed remarkably over the years and a really exciting place to be involved in.

I was given my first frontbench role within two years but, to be honest, it was less to do with a meteoric rise and more to do with the fact that there were very few Labour MPs around in those days, so it was all hands on deck.

It's very different from these days when we have a very large and diverse Parliamentary Labour Party and a dynamic group of young and talented MPs.

When Neil Kinnock called me in to offer me a job I was tempted to turn it down because I had been feeling really ill and was finding it hard being a new MP with a baby. Patricia Hewitt, who was working for Neil at the time, persuaded me to do it. The following week I found out I was pregnant and that's why I was feeling ill - so there I was on the frontbench; a new MP with one baby and another on the way. I just had to put my shoulder to the wheel.

The Commons and the Labour Party are virtually unrecognisable from when I was elected. There were 10 female Labour MPs in 1982, now we have 96, which I am incredibly proud of and pleased about. They make all the difference to the Commons, not just as the public face of Labour in parliament but also in terms of setting the agenda. I was laughed at when my first question to the Prime Minister was about after school clubs, well, that has all changed now. It's also great to have people in the PLP with names like Shahid, Sadiq and Parmjit - as Britain has changed so parliament is changing.

When I first arrived in the Commons a lot of the older MPs told me to keep my head down and spend years learning the rules before doing anything.

But women like Judith Hart and Barbara Castle guided and advised me and both of them said that I should get in there and make waves because I wasn't elected by constituents to keep my head down. With new MPs I try to instil that sense of changing things.

It's been great for me to see people like Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, who used to work in my office when we were in opposition, now not only in parliament themselves but working as ministers. I think those of us who have been in parliament a long time are obliged to help the new members and tell them that they should not knuckle-under to learn and obey the rules but change them.

Because there has been a lot of criticism of politicians and parliament it's easy for us to lose sight of the fact that it's a privilege to be an MP and it is an honourable profession. I think there is more that we can, and should, be doing to turn outwards and show people what a good job parliament does. We need to find more innovative ways of getting people involved in parliament's work and vice versa.

It was disappointing to lose my job as social security secretary but I learnt an awful lot on the backbenches because I had actually spent very little time as a backbencher in opposition. I wouldn't have chosen to have been sacked, but it was very good for me to spend three years on the backbenches. Politics is about ups and downs, it's not a smooth course at all and I would rather be a backbencher in Government than a frontbencher in opposition because of what you can do for your constituents. Camberwell and Peckham wasn’t even on the map when the Tories were in Government.

I was criticised for choosing to send one of my children to a grammar school outside my constituency. You are criticised for all sorts of things in your public and private life as a politician and it goes with the territory. Some of the criticisms are fair and you have to recognise that you have made mistakes and learn from them and some of the criticisms are unfair and all you can do is grit your teeth. Politics is a rough old trade as Alan Watkins describes it.

One of those rough periods has been the whole row over the loans for peerages issue. The loans should not have been kept secret from the national executive of the Labour Party and the treasurer of the party, my husband, Jack Dromey. I think what Jack did was right.

Patricia Hewitt and I wrote an article in Tribune saying there should always be a woman in Labour’s leadership team. We are committed to the principle of equality, we want women outside of politics to see politics as not just about men and we want to ensure that politics delivers for women. That is best guaranteed if women are at all levels of the Parliamentary Labour Party including the top team. There is a new focus on that now because of the potential vacancies for the leader and the deputy leader. I am raising the principle, but although people have asked me about it, I won’t say yet whether I will run for deputy leader – that will have to wait until there is a vacancy.

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