Plenty of Labour MPs have been unhappy with Harriet Harman’s conduct as acting leader, most notably her decision to abstain over the welfare reform bill. But she was given a warm send-off at tonight’s Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, her last in the position. Thunderous applause and woops were heard outside the door of Committee Room 14.
John Cryer, the PLP chair, praised Harman as part of the team that got Labour back into government and cited the huge increase in the number of female Labour MPs (44 per cent) as her legacy. Margaret Hodge, her close friend, also praised her work on gender issues and reminded colleagues that when Harman questioned Margaret Thatcher on childcare provision at PMQs in 1982 she wasn’t just sneered at by Tories but also by “many on our own side”. She hailed Harman as a “fearless” champion of “unfashionable causes”.
In her own address, Harman started by saying it would be “weird” not to be on the frontbench having served since 1984 and thanked her bosses: Michael Meacher, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown among them. She praised Neil Kinnock for his bravery in appointing a young and untested woman, John Smith for bringing her back after she lost in the shadow cabinet elections, and Tony Blair for “being very nice” even when he fired her.
Most notably, Harman said that she would be “very supportive” of the next leader and would not “breathe down their neck the whole time”, adding that if she did people should remind her of her words. She said she would be “very loyal” and not vote against the whip and said that Labour MPs had to “come together” to get back into power. She also emphasised the need to “bridge the gap” between the party and the wider public, one that most MPs believe will grow even greater if Jeremy Corbyn wins.
Before tonight’s meeting, there was speculation that MPs would move to resurrect shadow cabinet elections by demanding a vote next Monday. But in the event, just three MPs spoke in favour of them (with three against) and no one called for a vote. This ends any doubt that Corbyn, assuming he wins, will appoint his own team as soon as possible after his election.