Why I want to see the veil gone from Britain

Harriet Harman talks to Mary Riddell about equality for Muslim women, why Gordon Brown will back her

Even by House of Commons standards, Harriet Harman's meeting room is a temple of masculine austerity. There are only two personalised items: the first is a catering-sized tin of Nescafé; the second an impressionist poster labelled "Van Gogh in Arles". It is an unlikely launch pad for a feminised revolution in British politics, but its occupant aspires to nothing less.

In Harman's view, a fourth-term Labour victory may depend on a woman becoming deputy leader of the party. Or, more specifically, her. She had no qualms about announcing her can didacy. "I just thought: 'Oh, sod it,' and went ahead." The old Harman might not have been so direct, either in her language or in her disdain for the coyness of rivals still prevaricating over whether to run.

"If you dare not stand, or you're calculating on other people's support, you don't believe in yourself." While this may sound like a poke in the eye for any undeclared hopeful, Harman has made clear that back-stabbing will be no part of her campaign. She is simply asserting an in dependence which includes separating herself from Gordon Brown.

"I'm absolutely not on a ticket with Gordon. I support him, but I'm trying to get elected in my own right. Gordon is such a towering figure, and I'm his ally, so it would be easy for it to look as if I was just his assistant. I've been his deputy before [as chief secretary to the Treasury], so I know I can do that. But I've also got to be able to challenge him if I think he's wrong."

What issues might they differ on? None occurs to her, which suggests that, on policy, you could not put an Arctic Monkeys CD between them. Presumably Brown would be delighted if she were chosen? "I think Gordon should be pleased if I get elected, [partly] because he wants to win the fourth term." Survival is her mantra and trump card. She does not actually say that a Labour government led by two men would lose the next election, but she makes clear that she thinks herself crucial to victory.

"Scottish men from trades unions were coming up to me at conference and saying: 'We think you and Gordon are the best chance.' That wasn't anti-Peter Hain [who has declared], or Alan Johnson or Jack Straw. It was about [winning]. One marginal MP said: 'I want you and Gordon campaigning in my high street.'"

No hiding place

But Harman is no one's docile sidekick. She has, I think, changed a lot. Although a Harman answer to a question can still resemble a Samuel Beckett monologue, she has acquired a leader's boldness. On Islamic dress, for example, she makes Jack Straw's remarks on the niqab seem minor quibbles. Harman would prefer to see the veil gone from British society. "Because I want women to be fully included. If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it."

She is concerned about "the young women whose mothers fought against the veil, and who now see their daughters taking it up as a symbol of their fervent commitment to their religion". Does she think young women are being radicalised in the same way as young men? "It [the niqab] is about radicalisation and solidarity with community. But I don't want people to show solidarity by [wearing] something that prevents them taking their full role as women in society."

The abolition debate, she says, should be led by Muslim women, but there are none in the Commons. "You get there [to veil-free societies] by mobilising so that it doesn't seem anti- Islam . . . How can you stand as an MP when men's faces are on posters, and voters can't see yours? How can you [live an equal life] if you can't get a driving licence or a passport? The veil is an obstacle to women's participation, on equal terms, in society."

So, unlike most senior Labour colleagues, she is right behind Jack Straw? "It [his intervention] would have been better if he was a Muslim woman. I can see what backlash it has caused. But I think we just have to make the case." She also defends her rival against charges of blatant electioneering. "I find it quite depressing to hear people impugn Jack Straw's motives. I take things at face value. A lot of second-guessing goes on in this place. Life's too short."

There are many similar hints of an uneasy atmosphere at the heart of government. "There is still a lot of testosteronal stuff; it's still male-dominated. Women have changed things, and we're light years ahead of the Tories, but the culture still has a long way to go."

When Harman asked her first PM's question, about after-school groups, she was jeered from Tory and Labour benches alike. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to protect victims of domestic violence and promote women's rights and needs. As part of her ongoing battle to open up the family, she wants children as young as six to give evidence about their wishes in messy divorce cases. "Allowing children a voice in court is imperative," she says. "It is a no-brainer."

More broadly, she wants women to get maternity pay for a year instead of the current six months. In a ground-breaking change of policy, she also advocates new laws to compel employers to let parents and those caring for adults work flexible hours. People with young and disabled children are now entitled to have their requests on flexibility "taken seriously".

That, Harman says, is not good enough. "Decisions that should be being made by parents are being made, by default, by employers. We have to put the power back. You don't do it by pointing at good practice. It's too important to leave to a handful of companies while others don't see why they should be bothered." So she wants to take the highly controversial route of legis lation. "Absolutely. You have to shift the burden of proof. The onus would be on employers to prove why it [a work schedule chosen by a parent] wasn't possible." Would Gordon do it? "Gordon is like a Hoover, always pulling stuff in. Whenever I've told him something needs to be part of his politics, he's done it. I feel unlikely to be disappointed in this. Why would he not understand?"

Because of the howls of protest from business? "But we've been there before. I remember the CBI in a hue and cry against us on the minimum wage, saying there would be mass unemployment." Even so, the fact that Harman plans such a seismic shift, evidently with Brown's backing, sets a bold marker on the post-Blair social landscape.

On foreign policy, she wants the public to have a stake. Think "Your Foreign Policy", as in your schools, or your hospitals, or, for that matter, Your M&S. Should we have gone to war on Iraq? "Looking at it from where we are now, it's a very difficult situation," she says. Would she have voted in favour if she knew then what she knows now? "I'm not going to do hypothetical. I'll leave it to others to make the case for and against."

This does not seem a keen endorsement. Nor does she sound happy that sending more troops to Afghanistan early this year was announced to a sparsely filled Commons chamber by John Reid. "That's part of the tradition that foreign policy is too secret, or too complex, or that people don't care. So it has to be left to a small group of ministers and ambassadors."

While Harman is vague as to how the Foreign Office is to embrace the public, she is precise on other topics. A constitutional affairs minister, she wants a written constitution. "I do think the challenge of writing things down would help. Working out where we are and where we need to go forward would be a very good process."

On jail overcrowding, she backs the Lord Chief Justice, who has called for more community sentences. On party funding, she has a closer interest than most ministers in the cash-for-peerages scandal. Her husband, Jack Dromey, is the Lab our Party treasurer who announced that he knew nothing of loans totalling millions of pounds before the 2005 election.

Should Labour be schmoozing billionaires? "It's not a bad thing to have business people support Labour. But our party membership has halved, the finances are in trouble, and you don't want to be forced into the arms of a handful of millionaires, because people wonder what [rich donors] are buying. We've got to invite back the people who have left the party."

And who better than Harman to re-engage the disenchanted? She sees herself as vital to victory, and she may be right. Could women, who propelled this government into power, lose the next general election for Labour? "It would be inexcusable if we allowed that to happen. An absolute crime," she says. "Women hold the key to No 10." And so might their long-time champion, Harriet Harman.