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21 October 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:18am

Harriet Harman on death threats, becoming prime minister and her run for speaker

Ailbhe Rea meets the former deputy leader and cabinet minister. 

By Ailbhe Rea

When people in parliament discuss Harriet Harman’s run for speaker, there are two common themes. The first is huge respect and affection for the “Mother of the House”, the longest-serving female MP, and former deputy leader of the Labour Party. Female staffers from all parties say they are “Team Harriet, obviously”; many Conservative women MPs have backed her publicly, and even more do in private. The second theme, however, is astonishment that Harman would even want the job.

It used to be the case that you couldn’t read Harman’s name in a right-wing newspaper without seeing it accompanied by the phrase “left-wing feminist firebrand”: she has been a pioneering, reforming politician since her first election to the Commons in 1982, a veteran campaigner whose views on most issues are well known. One MP suggests that Harman simply hasn’t realised what she would be giving up as speaker, no longer able to speak up on the dominant issues of the day. 

When I sit down with Harman in her office in Westminster, I ask if she worries, having been a senior Labour politician for decades, that she is too much of a known quantity for the role of an impartial speaker. 

She doesn’t appear delighted with the question. She gives a lengthy reply, pointing to times she commanded cross-party support as solicitor general and leader of the house, and argues that her experience of government means she will know when ministers are “simply trying to do their job” and when they are “just taking the mick”. And anyway, “partisanship is not on a sliding scale depending on how high up you’ve been.” 

Later, an off-hand comment provides a better answer to my question: “I would be a reforming speaker, which I always have been.” Her pedigree as a reformer is, in her view, an asset. 

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This is “an incredibly difficult political moment,” Harman explains. “I’ve never seen the opinion of parliament in the country so low. I’ve never seen the relationship between parliament and government so bad… It’s a very, very big task for the next speaker.” She expresses her worry about the “dangerous situation” we might soon find ourselves in. “If parliament loses the trust and confidence of the public, that allows right-wing extremism to grow.” The need for reform is urgent. 

Harman’s first proposed reform is of the role of the speaker itself, “one of the last unreformed areas of power.” To add accountability, she would implement a speaker’s conference, “so people don’t have to just be told, ‘I am a wise and benevolent person, trust me, and anyway you elected me and you can’t change my decision short of getting rid of me altogether’,” she laughs. 

Secondly, Harman argues that a broader cultural change in parliament would result from electing a woman to the chair. She is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Laura Cox report into bullying in parliament: “having been a young woman in a male hierarchy, admittedly that was not recently, I know [how it feels]. I have walked in those shoes. You just don’t forget that.” 

In passing, Harman mentions her own experience of death threats, a subject she rarely speaks about. In the 1980s, she was subject to a decade of harrassment by a former prisoner who became obsessed with her, culminating in court proceedings after he told doctors he fantasised about killing her. (The case was later dropped after doctors declined to give evidence against him.) “For years I said nothing to anybody,” she tells me. “I thought ‘it will only make things worse’, ‘I don’t want to look like a victim’, ‘I want people to think I’m strong, not somebody who’s quaking in the face of death threats’, ‘I want people to think I’m strong to sort their problems out, not struggling with mine’.” She is unsentimental, but it is painful to listen to. “I think now there are still many women MPs suffering threats and harassment who are not saying anything. I think it is massively under-reported.”

I wonder if Harman’s campaign for the speakership is due in part to unfulfilled ambition, or a sense of unfulfilled potential. She served as acting leader of the Labour Party twice, after both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, but never stood for leader, something which she told the Guardian in 2017 that she regrets. (“I should have stepped forward and it is a bit of a mystery to me why I didn’t.”) But when I ask her about those possible regrets, it’s as though that interview never happened.

“Well I think we were very bruised after an election defeat both after 2010 and in 2015. My immediate, instinctive response was that my duty at that point was not to go ‘I can lead this party!’ but to make sure there was a party for someone to lead.”

We go back and forth, me asking if, after seeing herself doing the job, and doing it well, did it not occur to her that she would like to be in the role permanently? What does she think when people suggest she underestimated herself by not going for leader? Surely the second time, post-Miliband, she could have run? 

Every time it’s the same answer, only more passionate, as she emphasises the “psychological shock” of being “an election-winning party, a party of government, and then suddenly we were kicked out”. 

We move on. “Your name is often floated as a possible leader of a Government of National Unity,” I say. Barely do I have the words out before she leaps to emphasise how unlikely a GNU would be. But does a part of her think she would like that job? She replies with the amusement and weariness of someone worn out by GNU-speculation. 

“No. I’m not secretly at night with my fingers crossed hoping [for] that. Definitely not. I’m very concerned about the state of our country and the state of our politics. That’s one of the reasons I’ve put myself forward for speaker. That’s where my best contribution could be.” 

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