Harriet Harman is determined to use her time as Labour’s acting leader to do more than merely mind the shop. She wants to move the party to what she regards as a more politically and economically credible position. This is causing tensions with others at the top of Labour. At the most recent shadow cabinet meeting, Andy Burnham warned against offering too little opposition to austerity, prompting Harman to reply: “But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election.” Burnham, in the words of one shadow cabinet member, “winced” in response and was not defended by any of his supporters.
When asked about the exchange on The Sunday Politics, Harman’s response was revealing: “I do say to all those people who are going to be voting in the leadership election, think not who you like and who makes you feel comfortable – think who actually will be able to reach out to the public and actually listen to the public and give them confidence, so that we can have a better result next time than we did last time. The point is not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with, the point is to have somebody who can command the confidence of the country and that’s what they should have in their mind. There’s no point doing choice in a disappointed rage, we’ve got to be doing choice for the future.”
Her answer sounded like a rejection of Burnham, the frontrunner, who has frequently been attacked as “the comfort zone” candidate and as “continuity Miliband”. It could even be interpreted as an endorsement of Liz Kendall (“not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with”), who is trailing in fourth place having adopted the toughest line of any of the contenders on the deficit and welfare. Harman will not formally endorse any candidate but by making her views so clear, she has intervened decisively in the debate.
Labour’s acting leader also used the interview to announce that the party would not oppose the reduced household benefit cap (£23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere) or the two-child limit on tax credits. “We won’t oppose the welfare bill, we won’t oppose the household benefit cap, I mean, for example, what they’ve brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children. What we’ve got to do is listen to what people round the country said to us and recognise that we didn’t get elected – again … They want us to listen to their concerns and we’ve got to recognise why it is that the Tories are in government and not us, not because people love the Tories particularly but because they didn’t trust us on the economy and benefits. We have to listen to that and respond.”
Update: An aide to Harman emphasises that she made the same points in her speech at the outset of the leadership contest and that her words should not be interpreted as favourable or disfavourable to any candidate.