The interview with Harriet Harman in this week’s New Statesman has caught our eye for a number of reasons.
First up, someone needs to tell Harman that she shouldn’t be purchasing a “catering-sized tin of Nescafé” for the office. Doesn’t she know about the background of Nestlé?
Harman kicks off the interview with what the NS calls a “poke in the eye” for undeclared runners like Straw, Johnson and just possibly her local rival Tessa Jowell, declaring, “If you dare not stand, or you’re calculating on other people’s support, you don’t believe in yourself.” This is her riposte to the nightmare that Team Harman has every night: a surprise bid from Jowell or (less likely) Hazel Blears.
The main news value of the interview, though, is her views on the veil. Harman spoke at a meeting of London Young Labour last weekend, and according to our sources, she was coy about the issue, asking the audience what they thought and expressing the fairly sensible view that Muslim women have so far been absent from the whole debate.
Now she seems to have decided which way the wind is blowing, declaring that she would like to see the veil gone from British society entirely and launching a ferocious defence of Jack Straw.
She pauses to note that it would have better come from a Muslim woman but goes on to express some pretty tough views of her own – not least that women who wear the veil are unable to get a driving license or passport, let alone work or stand for Parliament. She concludes that women in the veil cannot be “fully included” in society.
This is pretty heavy stuff from a minister once considered so PC that irreverent MPs referred to her as Harriet Harperson. We’d love to be a fly on the wall when she nexts visits a mosque.
She successfully turned much of the interview around the key messages that are the basis of her campaign strategy – we must win the next election; we need a female Deputy PM to Brown to do that.
You can expect her to relentlessly plug those key points in the months ahead and as a strategy it has merits – a simple line that differentiates her from others.
Of the likely runners, only Cruddas has an obvious answer, in that he does not want to be DPM, thus leaving it perfectly feasible for the number two in government to be a southern woman or whoever else Brown chooses as his Deputy Prime Minister. Hain, Johnson, et al will be forced to say that we don’t need a woman in the job, we need me.
But there are other tensions and contradictions in Harman’s position that will be problematic, and some of these cracks emerge between the lines of the interview.
Firstly, it will be noted that despite the NS spin that she is the government’s “long time champion” of women, Harman’s earlier ministerial career included such feminist triumphs as cheerfully following the orders of her male superiors and slashing lone parent benefit.
Secondly, the sometimes slightly cringeworthy contest to see who can grab Gordon’s coat-tails tightest will concern many of those in the labour movement who believe the next leader needs a deputy who will be more in touch with the mood outside Whitehall, more inclined to stick up for backbench and membership opinion and more likely to focus on changing the way the party works so we have a healthy democracy and a strong campaigning presence.
This is the territory that Cruddas is staking out as his own and (with a bit less credibility but probably more publicity) Hain may try to move in too. Which leaves Harman trying to simultaneously reiterate just how close she is to Gordon while showing independent thought; and acknowledging the problems the party faces while, as a serving minister, being extremely limited in what she can actually advocate.
So, she unveils to the NS a plan to extend maternity leave and compel employers to allow flexible working for carers. But would Gordon do it? She makes the extraordinary claim that “Whenever I’ve told him something needs to be part of his politics, he’s done it.” The NS makes the uncomfortable conclusion that she’s already cleared this scheme with Brown. Very independent.
Meanwhile, she wants the public to have more of a say over foreign policy, and previously made the rather bizarre suggestion that Deputy Prime Minister Harman would invite people in to Dorneywood to discuss it. But this is as close as she will get to disagreeing with any aspect of actual foreign policy – instead she makes the curious statement, “I’ll leave it to others to make the case for and against.”
She then acknowledges the scale of the party’s problems: “our membership is halved, the financies are in trouble, and you don’t want to be forced into the arms of a handful of millionaires … We’ve got to invite back the people who have left the party.”
But her only solutions seem to be tinkering with (uncosted) plans for discount membership. The NS bizarrely asks “who better than Harman to re-engage the disenchanted?” Perhaps we’re just cynics at The Daily, but we suspect that they might want rather more than an invitation from Harriet Harman and a couple of quid off.