Harriet Harman Interview: 'Today's Unreasonable Demand Is Tomorrow's Conventional Wisdom'

Back in 1993, the then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Labour's Harriet Harman, hired a new 23-year-old researcher called Ed Miliband to work on her team. On the latter's very first week on the job, he was tasked by the more senior aides in her office with the all-important job of finding Harman's missing coat.

Twelve years later, what does Harman admire most about her researcher-turned-leader?

"That he is not cynical,” she says, almost instantly. "He hasn’t got a cynical bone in his body.

"He is somebody who believes in things and wants things to be better for people. He’s not in it for himself. All the things that people don’t like about politicians, that they're in it for themselves… he is the opposite of all that."

I meet Labour's deputy leader, and Miliband's 'Number 2', in her corner office in Portcullis House, overlooking Parliament Square, as she prepares to launch the party’s 'Woman to Woman' tour of the country and embark on her eighth general election campaign.

The 64-year-old Harman, who has been the member of parliament for Camberwell and Peckham since her 1982 by-election victory, looks and sounds excited, energised, enthused.

"Unite [the union] has provided us with a driver and blow me down they’ve managed to find a woman with one of these [special] licenses,” she says smiling, before adding, with only a hint of sarcasm: "We’ve had lots of doctrinal discussions, such as: should we be alright with a male driver?"

Has there been any discussion of the colour of her vehicle, I ask? Isn’t driving around in a pink van a bit patronizing? A bit clichéd?

"Well it doesn’t have big eyelashes on the front,” she shoots back at me. "We don’t care. Actually it’s got to look like itself. Because it’s new; it’s different."

This it the van in which Harman plans to tour the country

The deputy Labour leader is focused on (obsessed with?) the campaign for equality; it is the cause that animates her politics and which has come to define her as a public figure.

The 'Woman to Woman' tour - described by Labour spinners as the party's "biggest ever women’s campaign" - is the brainchild of Harman, who serves as both shadow deputy prime minister and shadow culture secretary, and Gloria De Piero, shadow minister for women and equalities and one of the party's rising stars.

"What is driving us to do this," explains Harman, "is there’s a general fall in turnout as part of people’s disaffection [with politics] and there’s an even bigger fall amongst women; it’s an accelerated decline amongst women."

She reminds me that 9.1 million women did not vote in 2010 - compared to 8 million men. "We’re saying, 'Don’t be part of the missing millions.'"

Harman’s message to disillusioned female voters is as simple as it is blunt: "We’re women. We’re inside the system. But we’re trying to change it. We want to be mobilizing with you, on your behalf.

"This is the biggest dividing line between women in the Tory Party and women in the Labour Party. The Tories want to hoover up lots of women’s votes so they can get into power [and] be a Tory government. We want to get women’s votes so Labour can be in power [and] we can deliver for women."

For Labour’s deputy leader, it’s a "two-way" relationship, "demonstrating that women are on our mind as politicians and we are focused on and interested in their lives. Because most women think politics has nothing to do with their lives."

It is the aggressive, masculine style of politics that turns women off perhaps? The shouting and heckling at Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday lunchtime?

"Well…" She pauses. "I think there’s that. I think that if the proportions were reversed in terms of the House of Commons, being four-to-one women, I think its inconceivable the atmosphere could be like it is is in Prime Minister’s Questions. But how much is it women watching PMQs forensically?" She's not so sure, preferring to highlight how politics consists mostly of "men talking about other men to men and arguing with men about men. And half the population are women."

What's her view of David Cameron then? Feminists have knocked the prime minister for his 'calm down, dear' asides and his much-discussed refusal to wear a 'This is what a feminist looks like' campaign T-shirt. Does Harman think the PM is a misogynist?

She sighs. "I’m not sure whether a name-called label is how we’re going to make progress on this. I certainly think that what his government represents for women is a stalling of progress and a turning of the clock back and if they were to get in again [that] would be even more the case."

Harman wearing a 'This is what a feminist looks like' T-shirt at PMQs

Is she saying it'll be even worse for the women of Britain under a second-term Cameron government?

"I fear a second term [for women]," she replies. "Oh definitely."

Given her passionate, very genuine and long-standing advocacy on behalf of women in politics, does she believe that the next Labour leader, ideally, should be a woman?

She dodges my question. "We’re a balanced team in the leadership, in that we have a man and a woman [at] the top. We have a balanced team in the shadow cabinet. We’ve made huge strides but we’re still male-dominated in the parliamentary Labour Party so we’ve still got further to go."

But it must worry her that the Tories - in the form of Theresa May, the home secretary - could have a second female leader before Labour has even had its first?

"Erm.. well.. I do think that we are striving to be a balanced team delivering for women. And men. The point is for gender not to be an issue because across the team you’ve got a [gender] balance."

So, in a gender-balanced team, there's no need for a woman at the top? Ever?

She crosses her arms defensively. "Well, our top person is Ed Miliband and I’m not looking beyond that. Sorry about that. I’m just not. It’s a bit difficult to discuss it in theory."

Is it? Couldn't she say, in theory, that it'd be nice for the next prime minister or Labour leader after Ed Miliband to be a woman?

"Well, I wouldn’t love to see a woman prime minister if [she were] like Margaret Thatcher. I distinctly did not love seeing Margaret Thatcher."

She may not want to look beyond Ed Miliband but how about looking beyond Boris Johnson. Wouldn't it be a massive step forward if the next mayor of London were a woman?

"Or a black or Asian person," she counters, echoing the recent call made by Labour MP Margaret Hodge who quit the race for the party's mayoral nomination because, the latter declared, "the time is right for us to have a non-white mayor".

Harman explains that she wants politics to be "more diverse and more representative. Our institutions are supposed to be representative."

However, "the first thing is to have a Labour mayor so we can have a bit of progress and social justice within a dynamic economy. I am not at this point picking our London mayoral candidate."

Well, why isn't she standing herself? She has been a London Labour MP for more than three decades and would bring more high-level government experience to the job than any other potential mayoral candidate bar Tessa Jowell, the former culture secretary and Olympics minister.

"I want to be member of parliament for Camberwell and Peckham," Harman tells me. "And I would like to be in a Labour government with a majority."

Harman campaigning in the Peckham by-election with Roy Hattersley in 1982

Would she be deputy prime minister in that Labour government, I wonder? Harman suggested in a speech in 2014 that Gordon Brown didn't make her deputy prime minister in 2007 - a post previously filled by John Prescott - because she was a woman.

"Well, I am shadow deputy prime minister now," comes the not-so-illuminating reply.

I ask again. There's an awkward pause. "Well, I’m deputy prime minister. I mean shadow deputy prime minister. Well, it's down to the prime minister of the day to decide what he does."

Has she discussed what her role and job title in government would be with Miliband?

"Honestly," she says with a big laugh, "I’m not discussing any of that."

But she has discussed it before, hasn't she, when she criticised Brown?

"Oh that’s true. I was looking back."

The deputy Labour leader is normally on the receiving end of criticism - much of it unwarranted, excessive and, yes, misogynistic. Right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have long mocked and caricatured her as 'Harriet Harperson' and constantly belittle her campaigns for gender equality and greater diversity.

What's it like being Harriet Harman, always under attack from the right?

She leans back in her chair. "It is like being somebody who is trying to be part of a movement which is trying to bring about change when there are lot of people who don’t want to see that change happen.

"I could lead a quiet life but actually that wouldn’t be bringing about any change. And I would rather endure the brickbats than endure the injustice and unfairness that’s out there." There's a pause. "It would be nice if you could strive for change and not have personal disparagement."

Harman, rather impressively, doesn't seem to let the attacks get under her skin. She is remarkably self-confident, self-assured and proud of her achievements in public life so far. "I do notice," she tells me, "that a lot of things that I have argued for and which were regarded as strident harpyism are now conventional wisdom agreed by everybody. The CBI organised virtual lynch mobs when I was proposing the national minimum wage [in the 1990s] and now everybody agrees with that. So, basically, I take a bit of satisfaction that today’s unreasonable demand is tomorrow's conventional wisdom."

I meet Harman almost exactly a year after the Daily Mail accused Harman and her husband Jack Dromey, who is also a Labour MP and shadow minister for policing, of being "apologists for paedophiles" due to the links between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) - Harman's former employer - and paedophile lobbyists in the 1970s.

What did she make of that tawdry episode, with all the awful smears and over-the-top accusations?

"Well, it was outrageous and calculated and it was wrong. It was absolutely wrong."

Harman's past links with the NCCL were used to smear her in 2014

The shadow deputy prime minister reminds me of how, when she was solicitor general in the last Labour government, she repeatedly challenged the court of appeal over "unduly lenient" sentencing of child sex offenders. As for the Mail's attack on her, she says, "I am kind of assuming that a lot of people see it for what it is which is a cynical attack by the Daily Mail but I don't think they have any boundaries."

Why don't they? "They think anything goes when they're having a go at Labour."

So what does she think of Paul Dacre? Harman's former leader, Gordon Brown, once praised the Mail boss as "an editor of great distinction and someone of very great personal warmth". I'm assuming she has a lower opinion of Dacre than he did.

"I've never met him," she declares, before turning to her special adviser Ayesha Hazarika seated nearby to ask: "Have I met [Dacre]?" Hazarika shakes her head.

What would Harman say to him if she ever did meet him? "Nothing I haven’t said publicly."

I can think of few other politicians who have been subjected so relentlessly to such wild smears and constant caricatures. Does she ever allow the media attacks on her character, her appearance, her past, to get her down? Upset her?

"I've made a choice. I'd rather it be an easier pathway to progress and I certainly feel exasperated and frustrated by the length of time it takes to get even small steps towards equality. However, I’ve made a choice to do this because it needs people to step forward, and women have made choices to step forward in the past and open doors.

"You can’t just leave it other people."

The likes of Dacre might not want you to know it but Harman has had a long and distinguished political career. She served in both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's cabinets; was elected Labour's deputy leader in 2007; and stood in for Brown at Prime Minister's Questions, becoming the first ever Labour female minister to do so.

In May 2010, Harman was appointed to Labour's negotiating team to help try and secure a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. What lessons for 2015 have Labour frontbenchers like her learned from the failure of those negotiations in 2010?

The shadow culture secretary makes a face. "What happened last time, I wouldn’t call it 'negotiations'. I think that’s overstating [it]."

Why? "Because the numbers didn’t work out. It’s a big rewriting of history that somehow if we’d have done more thinking [about coalition] in advance, things would have worked out differently.

"Us plus the Lib Dems did not produce a majority. And the Lib Dems were quite clear that they were going to go with the people who had the most MPs. Which was not us. Which was the Tories. So, yes, we sat in a room. But 'negotiations' would be overstating it because basically.. the real negotiations were between the Lib Dems and the Tories. It was a dead duck, basically."

This time round, explains Labour's deputy leader, "it's really important not be distracted by the notion of post-election negotiations. And I think people say it's going to be close. Actually nobody knows. It's uncertain."

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of a Labour-SNP coalition in the event of another hung parliament. First, shadow chancellor Ed Balls ruled out a coalition with the Scottish nationalists; then, Labour's election coordinator Douglas Alexander refused to rule it out. Where does Harman stand on this issue?

The deputy leader gives a safety-first answer: "We will deal with whatever the result is when it happens. But we are not looking over our shoulder, second-guessing the voters, trying to align our policies with what might suit the Lib Dems or anyone else. We’re aligning our politics to suit the people of this country. And that’s what our focus has got to be."

I ask again. Is she ruling out a post-election coalition with the SNP?

"Well, I’m just basically saying that we are not going into this thinking of a coalition with anybody. Because we’re trying to win an overall majority and I think its really important that we keep that focus because people don’t want to think that we are offering them a programme but somehow it’s a programme that is not about them, it's about second guessing some other party that we can ally with."

I'll take that as a 'no' then. I move onto the Lib Dems. Didn't she once call them "Tory accomplices"? Will it therefore be difficult to sit in a coalition government with Nick Clegg and co?

Harman has no interest in withdrawing her earlier remarks. "They are accomplices in a Tory government. They absolutely have colluded with them and have been willing partners in all sorts of things that are making things worse for people.. like the bedroom tax. That’s a statement of fact."

She continues: "Basically, we will decide what to do should the occasion require it - if it's not an overall [Labour] majority."

But can Ed Miliband pull off a Labour majority? Four and a half years into his leadership, and the Leader of the Opposition has yet to cut through to the British electorate. His personal poll ratings are dire, he is locked in a war of words with a variety of business bosses and, only a few months ago, Miliband found himself in the midst of a destabilising leadership crisis.

Harman is, characteristically, loyal and quick to defend her leader. "I don’t agree that he was having a leadership crisis," she says, in as convincing a tone as she can muster. "He has been very focused on what he wants to do. It's always been Labour's case that we support business in terms of its important role in creating jobs and creating prosperity but we want businesses to be responsible citizens who pay their taxes.. .pay the minimum wage." What Miliband is saying on business, argues his deputy, "is absolutely right and reflects Labour values".

Harman is a loyal deputy to her leader and former researcher

Has the Opposition, however, gone too far in its denunciations of big business? Can it afford to go into another general election without the support of any major business leaders?

Harman tells me the recent attacks by former M&S boss Stuart Rose and Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire were "probably" coordinated by the Tories but says "it's down to us to respond and argue that we, of course, support business, we support jobs in the private sector, and that's one of the principal reasons why we don’t want there to be a referendum on the European Union.

"We are setting out our case that what we’re doing is in the interests of a flourishing economy and in the interests of business. But that doesn’t mean that we have to say we’re happy with the energy market as it's currently structured. No, we’re not. And we think its not good for consumers and not good for other businesses that are ripped off by energy companies, as it’s a big bill for them."

I return to my earlier, unanswered question: why hasn't Miliband cut through to the voters? "Well, he has," she says in response. "Actually we’ve been winning council seats across the whole period of Ed Miliband’s leadership.. It was never going to be easy to be Leader of the Opposition when you have been roundly kicked out of government but he has led us to a position where we are in contention. He always knew it was going to be very hard."

What about the claim that Miliband doesn't pass the 'blink test', where voters close their eyes and try and imagine the Labour leader standing, as PM, on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street?

She shrugs. "That is often the case with leaders of the opposition."

Really? What about Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election?

"I think those were very exceptional circumstances."

How about David Cameron prior to the 2010 election?

"Well, nobody thinks very much of Cameron as prime minister right now. He is the prime minister and still not looking that prime ministerial to many people. So I don’t think that’s a fair comparison."

Harman points out that Miliband "has been making the political weather which, from opposition, in your first term, is unprecedented. So, basically, the Tories didn't want the NHS on the agenda. It is. They didn’t want the cost of living on the agenda. It absolutely is. They are having to respond to the force of what he has put on the political agenda."

Yet the paradox of Ed Miliband's leadership is that his very real and tangible achievements - from dominating the debate on living standards to taking on Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking - haven't translated into positive poll ratings. Meanwhile, his critics inside the Labour Party line up to kick him, loudly and publicly. In recent weeks, Blairite ex-cabinet ministers such as Alan Milburn, John Hutton and Peter Mandelson have grabbed headlines by criticising Miliband's NHS and tax policies, provoking Harman's predecessor as deputy Labour leader, John Prescott, to denounce them as "Tory collaborators". What does Harman make of these interventions from the New Labour flag-carriers ?

She leans forward and stares at me intently. "Nobody made Alan Milburn leave parliament. He could have stayed on as a Labour MP and been part of the team. It was his choice to go. The same with John Hutton. It was his choice to go.. They've stepped aside, okay that’s their choice for them to do that, but actually [they should] support the team that is fighting for social progress in this country."

Harman then issues this scathing message to the likes of Milburn and Hutton: "Don’t become an unhelpful commentator, using your position as a former person in a Labour cabinet."

Former cabinet minister John Hutton is an 'unhelpful commentator', says Harman

Labour's deputy leader is a shrewd and experienced political operator, who clearly isn't afraid of picking fights. So what does she think motivates Miliband's Blairite critics? Do they really want to see, as Prescott suggests, the re-election of a Cameron-led government?

"I don’t know," she sighs. "I think people sometimes can't resist a sort of moment of being back in the frame. But they chose not to be in the struggle. They chose that. So basically.. they should focus on what they chose to do. Not dip in with comments when we are heading to a general election."

She continues: "I hope you won't see me doing that at anytime in the near future." She checks herself. "Not that I’m stepping aside from the struggle."

I don't doubt that for a second.