In her new role as acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman has just delivered a typically pugnacious speech at the first PLP meeting of the new term. She told the assembled MPs and peers that they had a duty to “challenge and harry” the Tories “every step of the way”, urging them to “throw off any sense of loss or mourning”. Harman added: “The Tories want to see themselves popping champagne corks in the City, chin up, all cheerful. The SNP want to be strutting down these corridors, they want to see us be miserable and downcast, we are not going to give them that pleasure.”
Turning to the forthcoming leadership contest, she declared that those running for election “must be part of our attack team”. After much criticism of Labour’s laxity in 2010, which many believe allowed the Tories to define the terms of economic debate, Harman’s message was that there must be no repeat. She told MPs that candidates must use “every single interview, every single thing that they say” not only to “show why they would be the best leader or deputy” but to “land one on the Tories with the air time they’ve got”. There are, however, some who will question whether attacking the Tories (who, it bears repeating, won a majority) is the priority after such a terrible defeat.
In her most notable line, Harman warned the party: “We are not commentators, we are campaigners for the next Labour government” (one of Lynton Crosby’s favourite dictums). And in an appeal to avoid bloodletting, she told Labour: “We must look deep into our souls, but we mustn’t open our veins”.
On the timetable for the leadership election, which will be determined by the NEC on Wednesday, Harman outlined three options: a short contest ending on 31 July, a longer one concluding after the summer recess in September, and an extended one with hustings held at the party conference (as in the case of 2005). The view among MPs is that the second is the likeliest option (there were audible boos from Committee Room 14 when the third was mentioned). By having a leader in place before the conference opens, Labour hopes to avoid the fraught aftermath of the 2010 contest. In a reminder that the party still hasn’t come to love Peter Mandelson (as Tony Blair once hoped it would), there was loud applause when, responding to his warnings over the leadership voting system, Harman said: “You don’t need to listen to Peter Mandelson, he is not properly factually informed”. She confirmed that the contest would take place under the new one-member-one-vote model agreed last year.