Interview: Harriet Harman

The constitutional affairs minister warns colleagues that they can't be a "little bit against discri

Harriet Harman is a militant in the "lilac revolution". She has even coloured her new website lilac in preparation. Her campaign for Labour's deputy leadership is infused with what once would have been called political correctness, but has now entered the mainstream: the fight for women's equality, gay rights and anti-racism. "With Ségolène Royal in France, Hillary Clinton in America, the first woman president in Liberia, another woman in Chile, politics is changing for ever. The idea that you have men talking about equality for women, those days are gone. It's a very significant moment for somebody like me who fought for this and seeing people agree. The spirit of our times is equality," she says.

Harman uses the current Channel 4 race controversy to illustrate her point: "I think it is significant that 40,000 people rang in to complain about Celebrity Big Brother." She cites a Bangladeshi friend from east London who faced open hostility in the supermarket after the events of 9/11. "In that same supermarket now, she's got people coming up to her and apologising, saying: 'Actually we don't think that's all right.'"

That same spirit, she says, infuses a new public attitude to sexuality, which is why the government has introduced civil partnerships and rules to outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services. This has brought it into collision with the Catholic Church, which believes its adoption services should be able to deny children to gay couples. As the constitutional affairs minister responsible for the new regulations, Harman is resolute. She quashes talk of a compromise said to be backed by the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, a Catholic. "We will stay true to our commitment in tackling sexual discrimination in terms of sexual orientation," Harman says. She adds, in a tart rebuke to colleagues: "You can either be against discrimination or you can allow for it. You can't be a little bit against discrimination." She insists she would not budge on the regulations.

Whether the Labour Party is ready to be painted lilac is another matter. Harman has made gender a major issue in the election. She points to polling evidence that puts her well ahead of the other four (male) candidates with the public. (Other polls put Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn in the lead.) Harman knows from experience that elements of the party remain brutish. As social security secretary in Tony Blair's first cabinet she was undermined by colleagues and special advisers. The campaign culminated in the Prime Minister's decision to sack her in 1998. After a long period on the back benches, she returned to prominence as the first woman solicitor general after the 2001 election and in 2005 became a minister of state in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. If she succeeds in her latest battle, it will mark one of the most remarkable comebacks of the new Labour era. She is still bruised by the experience. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody. I don't want to sound like one of those people in Hello! magazine," she says, "but you do learn when you get a knock back."

Apart from the equality agenda, the only other time Harman becomes passionate is about spin. "I did think it was important to be disciplined, loyal, unfragmented and clear [at the beginning]. But I've always found spin abhorrent, because it's duplicitous. It's like pulling the wool over people's eyes. It's wrong in principle and it's also wrong because people end up not trusting you."

For all this condemnation, however, for all this talk of a new openness, Harman often comes across as cautious and wooden. Time and again we ask her to say what she really thinks, to say what she and Gordon Brown would actually do - you never know, to take some risks. When we raise, in passing, the strong media coverage Peter Hain received for his interview with us last week, Harman's body language suggests a combination of disdain and possibly fear. On those big issues about which Hain spoke with such frankness, she is all evasiveness: yes, the Bush administration is not quite her cup of tea, but let's talk about the Democrats; yes, it was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but parliament voted for war in Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction . . .

Her own plan

Like Hain, Harman has a four-point plan of her own - her "four points for a fourth term". These focus on public trust, which she concedes has been undermined by the fallout from Iraq and the "cash for honours" scandal. Everyone in Labour, she says, should focus on the following imperatives: never to take for granted the government's achievements; to be sharper in the critique of the Conservatives; to push forward the policy debate; and to rebuild the party.

Only once or twice does she come close to outlining a policy agenda. She believes, for example, that working parents should be allowed to work more flexible hours to avoid "shift parenting". At present, employers are obliged to consider proposals for flexible working arrangements but not obliged to act on them. "You could shift the onus of proof on to the employer to say why they couldn't do it," she suggests. "With the Factory Acts we didn't exhort mill owners to stop employing children, we legislated against it. Because we didn't agree with poverty pay we didn't exhort employers not to pay below a certain level. I don't think you should pass laws unless they are necessary but if they are necessary we shouldn't shrink away from them because there's a big social imperative here." She hastens to add that this is not a policy commitment.

She talks earnestly about the culture of "remittances", whereby immigrants in Britain send money back to their families in their country of origin. "They work often in two or three jobs. They work incredibly hard, they're low-paid, they pay their taxes, they bring up their children and they are the welfare state for their village in Africa." Harman points to the injustice of such poor people paying what are in effect development grants out of taxed income with large charges for international money transfers on top. So does this mean she is proposing some sort of tax relief for them? "Well, I'm not going to say anything about that, no."

On Labour's human-rights record she is similarly hesitant. As a former head of the National Council for Civil Liberties, the forerunner of today's Liberty, she might be expected to have concerns about her government's draconian anti-terrorism legislation, antisocial behaviour legislation or proposed limits to the Freedom of Information Act. Her response is off-the-shelf new Labour. It comes down to the Human Rights Act. "The government has got a responsibility to keep people safe, but we have put the mechanisms in to make sure that if the government does overstep the mark and parliament oversteps the mark by agreeing to something that the government has put forward, then there is a remedy. So I think we have the right checks and balances." The rationale strikes us as bizarre. In effect, ministers are under no obligation to calibrate their actions against the civil-liberties consequences, because the Human Rights Act is there to do it for them. But what about the immediate effect of state actions, and the ethics?

No criticism

Where she does depart from the government line (or rather the Blairite line), is over the issue of the cash-for-honours scandal and its implication for the future of party funding. Harman's husband, Jack Dromey, is deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He also happens to be the Labour Party treasurer and the man who blew the lid on the secret system of loans set up by Blair's inner circle in advance of the 2005 election, so it is perhaps not surprising that she has strong feelings on the subject. Harman does not join some of her cabinet colleagues in condemning the police approach to the criminal investigation, particularly its dawn knock on the door to Blair's senior aide Ruth Turner. "I think the police have to go about their investigation as they see fit," she says. "They've got to be fair in how they treat people, and whatever the circumstances people have, they've got to deal with them equally. The police have their job to do and they've got to do it. That's what everyone would expect them to do. That's very important."

As for the scandal itself: "I think it has undermined public confidence and trust, and it has dismayed party members. Tony Blair did say that he took the view that it was wrong that the party wasn't told and I think he was right to say that." She supports changes to the law to make future loans disclosable, but is adamant that any cap on future donations should not apply to the trade unions. "I can't understand why some people purport not to be able to tell the difference between 800,000 members of the Transport and General Workers' Union and one millionaire," she says.

The union link, she suggests, should not be loosened further, as some around Blair suggest, but enhanced. "We need to make sure that we work with the trade unions to make sure that more branches are affiliated to local Labour parties. Obviously unions are very important at election time, not just with financial donations, but with people coming out and helping. But actually we need to make it a living link."

In many ways Harriet Harman is the obvious foil to Gordon Brown, not just because she is a woman, but because of other qualities she would bring to the job, such as her record on family issues and the sympathy she has with party members and the wider public. Her lilac revolution indeed chimes with the spirit of the times, as David Cameron has been so quick to realise. But in order for her to reach the political pinnacle she seeks, she needs to be as assertive as she would wish other women to be.

Harriet Harman: The CV

Born 30 July 1950, London
1974 Employed as a solicitor at Brent Law Centre
1981 Found guilty of contempt for disclosing Home Office documents exposing prison "control units". Later cleared
1982 Elected MP, one of only ten Labour women in the Commons
1984 Appointed to Labour's front bench. Succession of posts over next decade
1996 Attracts criticism from Labour ranks for sending her children to selective state schools
1997 Appointed secretary of state for social security and minister for women
1998 Abruptly sacked in Blair's first reshuffle following high-profile disputes with fellow minister Frank Field
2001 Appointed solicitor general, the first woman to hold the title
March 2004 Describes Gordon Brown as prime minister on BBC's Question Time
2005 Appointed minister for justice at the Department for Constitutional Affairs
March 2006 Her husband, Jack Dromey, Labour's treasurer, says he is kept in the dark about loans. Harman gives up ministerial responsibility for party funding to avoid conflict of interest
September 2006 Announces bid to run for Labour deputy leadership
Research by Sophie Pearce

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change