British Labour Politician
Born 1950

The Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham since 1982, Harriet Harman is currently the Deputy Leader and Chair of the Labour Party as well as being the Leader of the House of Commons and the Minister for Women.

Early life and background

Harriet Ruth Harman was born on the 30th July 1950, being the third of four daughters born to John Bishop Harman (1907-1994) and his wife Anna Charlotte Malcolm Spicer. Harriet was born into a securely upper middle class background, her mother qualified as a barrister although she didn't practise, whilst her father was a Harley Street consultant and himself the son of the noted ophthalmologist Nathaniel Bishop Harman (1869-1945). Her profiles like to mention the fact that her aunt Elizabeth Harman married the 7th Earl of Longford and became better known as the author Elizabeth Longford, whilst failing to mention that her grandmother Katherine Chamberlain (1874-1960) was from the famous Birmingham political family of Chamberlain and that she is therefore related to the former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and old Imperial Joe. (One must presume that being related to the architect of appeasement isn't good press for a prospective Labour politician.)

Harriet was educated at St Paul's Girls' School in London and the University of York, where she read politics. She subsequently chose law as a career, and after qualifying as a solicitor began working for the Brent Law Centre in 1974. It was there that Harriet acted as the advisor to the Grunwick Strike Committee and met her future husband, a trade union official named Jack Dromey. During her time at Brent she became proud of the fact that she acted for certain local residents in a noise nuisance case against a local company represented by a certain Michael Howard.

She left the Brent Law Centre in 1978 and became legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (the NCCL, now known as Liberty) where she worked for another future Labour politician Patricia Hewitt who was general secretary at the time. There Harriet was responsible for winning a notable landmark case under the Sex Discrimination Act which established that it was illegal to treat part-time staff different from full-time staff, but suffered a setback in 1983 when she was prosecuted by the Home Office for contempt of court for allowing a journalist access to certain legal documents. Although initially convicted of criminal contempt she was later acquitted on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Perhaps more interestingly, as was later established, both she and Patricia Hewitt were under surveillance throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s by MI5 who regarded them both as suspected "communist sympathisers".

Political career - opposition

As a radical campaigning lawyer Harriet was naturally a member of the Labour Party and keen to transfer her talents to the political stage. Her opportunity came with the death of Harry Lambourne, the member for Peckham on the 21st August 1982, and Harriet was selected as the candidate for one of the safest Labour seats in the country. She was duly returned at the by-election held on the 28th October 1982, when she came out ahead of Dick Taverne for the SDP-Liberal Alliance and a young Conservative hopeful named John Redwood.

Within two years of her election to the House of Commons she joined Labour’s front bench, being appointed as Shadow Minister for Social Services by Neil Kinnock in 1984. Three years later she switched to Health where she remained until the 1992 General Election. When Kinnock resigned in the aftermath of yet another election defeat and was replaced by John Smith she joined the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1992, whilst also getting herself elected to the National Executive Committee in the following year. Following Smith's unexpected death in 1994, she remained a member of the shadow cabinet under Tony Blair and was successively Shadow Secretary of State for Employment (1994-95), Health (1995-96), and Social Security (1996-97).

Political career - in government

After Labour's victory in the 1997 General Election, Harriet found herself appointed the Secretary of State for Social Security. Blair's New Labour government promised a new approach to the whole question of the Welfare State and thus much was expected of her, but sadly little was delivered. There were public squabbles with her junior minister, Frank Field (known collectively as 'Handbag and Brains') and in particular her New Deal for Lone Parents seemed to many traditional Labour supporters as nothing more than a package of benefit cuts camouflaged with a little new age rhetoric. It soon became perfectly clear that she could not cope with the demands of office and and 'Hapless Harriet' found herself humiliatingly dumped at the very first opportunity in 1998.

However unlike other ministers who were similarly discarded during the course of Blair's ten years in power, Harriet remained steadfast in her support for the New Labour project and refused to criticise the government. She simply retired to the backbenches where she campaigned on variety of what she regarded as 'women's issues', such as work-life balance, the perceived 'pay gap' between the sexes, domestic violence and people trafficking. Indeed such was her dedication to the cause of political correctness that she earned herself the nickname of 'Harriet Harperson'. Nevertheless her impressive loyalty was eventually rewarded and following the 2001 General Election she returned to office, only this time to the comparatively lowly position of Solicitor General.

Her performance as the first ever female Solicitor General was regarded as solid and competent and she might have expected promotion sooner had she not deeply embarrassed the government when she was caught doing 99mph on the M4 in 2003. As it was she had to wait until after 2005 General Election she was appointed a Minister of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) on 9th May 2005.

At the DCA (as the former Lord Chancellor's Department had been relabelled) her responsibilities included such things as constitutional reform and electoral administration; responsibilities that she felt obliged to relinquish on the 16th March 2006 during the Cash for Peerages row in order to avoid any conflict of interest. In this case the conflict arose from the fact that her husband Jack Dromey was Treasurer of the Labour Party, and became openly critical of some aspects of Downing Street's approach to the issue, if only because no one there had been telling him what was going on. Nevertheless Harriet soldiered on with her reduced brief and when the Department for Constitutional Affairs later took over some of the former responsibilities of the Home Office on the 9th May 2007, she continued with the same role at the renamed Ministry of Justice.

The Deputy Leader

Harriet had a long history of campaigning for women's rights within the Labour Party, being in favour of such things as; women only seats on the National Executive Committee, women only seats on the shadow cabinet and women only shortlists for winnable constituencies. She was also vocal in her opinion that since the Labour Party was undoubtedly going to have a man named Gordon Brown as its next leader, then in the interests of gender equality it should really have a woman as its next deputy leader, preferably one named Harriet.

It came as no surprise therefore when Harriet put her name forward as a candidate for the deputy leadership, although it caused a great deal of surprise when she turned out as the actual winner of the contest, edging out the hot favourite Alan Johnson in the final round of voting by the wafer thin margin of 50.43% to 49.56% on the 24th June 2007. In the event the deputy leadership contest turned out to be a fight between the MPs choice (Alan Johnson) the union's choice (John Cruddas) and Harriet herself as the choice of the party members - the secret of Harriet's success was to appear sufficiently left wing to attract more votes from the former supporters of third placed John Cruddas than her final opponent managed. But sadly for Harriet no sooner had she been elected deputy leader than she found herself in trouble.

During the deputy leadership campaign she appeared on a special Newsnight programme together with the other five candidates. During the course of the debate John Cruddas expressed the view that the Labour Party should apologise to the British people for misleading them over the Iraq War, as part of a process of "general reconciliation". The voice of Harriet Harman can then clearly be heard saying "Yes I agree with that". Come the day after the election, journalists very naturally asked the new Deputy Leader when such an apology would be forthcoming, only to find Harriet denying that she had ever promised such a thing. "I have not said I will press for a public apology from the government or the Labour Party" she said, explaining that earlier statment should not be taken to mean that she actually agreed with any of Cruddas's specific views, but only that she agreed in general with the sentiments expressed.

As her Liberal Democrat counterpart Vince Cable pointed out "Harriet Harman faces a serious problem of credibility". The problem for Harriet is that during her deputy leadership campaign she said a great number of things that were both critical of the government of Tony Blair and implied that the Party should now adopt more left-wing policies. Such views are of course anathema to the 'business friendly' policy of Prime Minister Brown, and it is therefore very likely that Harriet will be spending a lot of time explaining away the apparent contradictton between her campaign comments and actual government policy.

What the Future holds

During her Deputy Leadership campaign Harriet made a great deal of her ability to work with Gordon Brown and claimed to be a supporter of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer- (there was the famous televised 'gaffe' in 2004 when she referred to him as "Prime Minister Brown") - she is not, and never has been, a member of the Brownite political circle. Informed opinion has it that Brown does not hold Harriet in high regard, a view shared by many. The Times quoted one Cabinet Minister saying that "I would sooner leave the country than watch her deputise for Gordon at Prime Minister’s Questions."

Fortunately the amonymous Cabinet Minister concerned can breathe a sigh of relief as there is absolutely no danger of Gordon Brown giving Harriet any more authority than he has to. Thus although Harriet is (theoretically speaking) number two in the Labour Party hierarchy, she has not been appointed to the office of Deputy Prime Minister (unlike her predecessor John Prescott) and has to be content with being the Minister for Women and Leader of the House of Commons. This is presumably a disapointment as as she apparently wanted to be Secretary of State for the Family.

Harriet is regarded as being a 'middle class moderniser' and 'the Comeback Kid' who has recovered from her earlier failures. To her supporters there is an advantage in the government having "someone English who can also appeal to women" as deputy leader in contrast to the gruff Scottish maleness of the Prime Minister. Her detractors however note that she was indeed utterly hopeless as a cabinet minister and that much of her career since that time has simply been an example of unprincipled self-promotion. Her Labour colleague Gwyneth Dunwoody once described her one of those "women who were of the opinion that they had a God given right to be amongst the chosen" and indeed whenever Harriet opens her mouth to argue for women's rights there is always a sense in which she has one specific woman in mind.


As noted above Harriet Harman is married to the trade union official Jack Dromey but has retained her maiden name at least for her political career. She has two sons, and one daughter. Her hobbies include music, walking, cooking, gardening and shopping, whilst she is also the author of three largely unreadable books on the topic of justice and gender issues.


SOURCES

  • Profile: Harriet Harman, Guardian Unlimited, June 25, 2007 http://politics.guardian.co.uk/deputyleader/story/0,,2110845,00.html
  • Tania Branigan, Well-heeled champion of the poor who fought her way back to the top, The Guardian June 25, 2007 http://politics.guardian.co.uk/deputyleader/story/0,,2110656,00.html
  • Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/harman.htm
  • Profile: Harriet Harman 24 June 2007 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5350450.stm
  • Brendan Carlin, Feminist who rose from her political grave, 26/06/2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml
  • Harman genealogy taken from http://www.greywall.demon.co.uk/genealogy/WynnHall/archy.html
  • The Google cache of her old website (www.harrietharman.labour.co.uk) provided more useful information, in particular an article, Profile: Harriet Harman talks to Edward Davie reproduced from the Peckham Pioneer of June 2006.

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