Exclusive: Harriet Harman’s message to the gay community
Justice Minister Harriet Harman has something she wants to say to the gay community, particularly those who grew up during the Blair years.
“Young people, remember! Remember! Be afraid!”
Hoodies, perhaps? Terrorism? The threat of a nude Keith Chegwin returning to our television screens?
No – the resurgent Conservative party.
“I just want to say to those people that can’t remember what it was like under the Tory party, they absolutely represent that dark part of politics which is quite comfortable with discrimination, with prejudice, and so it’s like a warning.
“This is a dangerous moment.”
In this six-way race for Deputy Leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman is often touted as the Brownite candidate.
A former civil rights lawyer, she had a short and turbulent Cabinet career at the start of the Blair decade, and later returned to government as Solicitor General and now as a Justice minister.
That’s a good place to start actually. She has of late been subtly critical of the style of Presidential government under Tony Blair.
The sort of government where the press pack knows the contents of the next policy announcement before Parliament, before the Cabinet, hell, even before the ministers in a department.
The poor civil servants probably only find out what they will be doing at work for the next few months from the free papers handed out at London tube stations. Or indeed where their office is or what it is called.
A case in point – the Lord Chancellor, Ms Harman’s superior at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, recently revealed that he found out that the department was being renamed and reconfigured from, er, The Sunday Telegraph.
And he used to be Tony Blair’s flatmate – God knows how he treats Cabinet colleagues he doesn’t like.
Harriet, trooper that she is, concedes that she too found out from the papers that when she went into work the next day she would be a Justice minister and not a Constitutional Affairs minister.
“It’s been discussed for a long time, the question of changing the boundaries of what used to be the Lord Chancellors Department and the Home Office.
“When I was legal officer at the NCCL we used to argue for a ministry for justice.
“It is not that people have not though through the detail but as to where I found out – yes, the Sunday papers.”
For those of you not au fait with the acronym, NCCL is, or rather was, the National Council for Civil Liberties. They changed the name to Liberty. Acronyms are so last century.
So Harriet Harman, 56, MP for the inner London constituency of Camberwell and Peckham, lawyer, campaigner, feminist, gay rights advocate, former scourge of the establishment, is now a member of a government trying to bang Islamic suspects up for three months without charge.
An administration full of lawyers who seem to have lost their respect for the law, some have argued.
Ms Harman, not surprisingly, disagrees. The climate is different these days:
“When I was at Liberty one of the things we argued for was a Human Rights Act and we actually now have that certainty, that if the government or Parliament oversteps the mark in terms of breaching an individual’s human rights, then the courts are immediately there to ensure their rights are respected.
“That is not how it was before, you had to go to Europe, and it would take seven years, so actually we have done a lot to entrench new rights. I have been Solicitor General and now a Justice minister I see the change that the HRA has brought about.”
But it is not all Shami-bashing.
“I think that Liberty plays a very important role but it’s a different role from our role (at NCCL).”
Human rights, for gay people are, unfortunately, still a big issue, particularly for our friends in Poland and Latvia.
Gay rights marches being banned. Teletubbies being accused of promoting gayness to the under-threes.
Ms Harman seems an appropriate person to ask what can be done to help our gay brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe.
“We should take, very strongly, a human rights perspective.
“It is people’s right to demonstrate, right not to be discriminated against, the right to have family life, which is protected in the European convention, and therefore this is not a question of diplomacy or European policy.
“It is about our commitment to people’s human rights wherever they are.”
It is a this point in our meeting, held in the ghostly calm of a House of Commons on its mid-term break, that Harriet feels moved to speak out.
“I have got something I want to say!
“While we have still got a long way to go in this country, in terms of homophobia and homophobic crime and discrimination, we must never lose sight of how far we have come and take it for granted such that we feel that we can take the risk of a Tory government.
“The fact is the Tories are now agreeing with us, but we have got to remember that it was Labour who fought against Section 28, fought for civil partnerships and fought for a right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation.
“What we did is said ‘we are in government, we want to be in government to do these things.’
“The Tories argued against to begin with. We had taken a strong lead, we have changed the weather, and the Tories come on our ground.
“Without Labour being in government we would have still been in the climate that the Tories left us with ten years ago.”
A recent poll for PinkNews.co.uk bears out her concerns. 534 of our readers took part in a poll in May.
Asked how they would vote if a general election were called immediately, and given the choice between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Lib Dem leader Sir Ming Campbell, 40% selected Campbell, 33% Cameron just 27% Gordon Brown.
“The Tories have not really changed, they just want to win power, so therefore they are saying the latest thing they think people want to hear,” continues Ms Harman.
“Outside, the Tory party is the same old nasty party. They have licensed David Cameron to say things that they hope will make him popular with groups who previously wouldn’t have been seen dead having any dealings with the Tory party.
“This is a dangerous moment for people lulled into a false sense of security. A Labour government is the only way we can be sure this agenda is safe where we are, let alone moving forward.”
At this point I feel moved to point out that there is a widespread perception among gay people that Gordon Brown has a problem with the gay rights agenda, albeit just a perception. As the Brownite candidate, Ms Harman first tries to go wide:
“But this is about the party, it is a question of who stands where, and the Labour party is firmly committed to the agenda of gay rights.
“The Tory party is firmly opposed to it. They are biting their tongues because they have allowed Cameron licence.
“They have bet the shop on this basically. They are allowing him to say anything because they want to get into power.
“This is not about the inclinations or the preparedness of Cameron, this is about the Labour party and the Tory party and we are the party that believes in equality and that will fight against prejudice and discrimination.
So I try again. “You are the candidate closest to Gordon Brown – is he as committed to the equality agenda as Tony Blair was?” I ask.
“I am sure he will be. Absolutely. In terms of his work as Chancellor of the Exchequer, it has not brought him front of house into these debates.
“Not least because he had to be relatively circumscribed in what he did to avoid the two leaders problem.
“If ever he came out on something then it would be like ‘oh is this different to Tony Blair, is he saying more or less than Tony Blair.’
“Because he was such a huge figure in the Treasury he had to be more circumscribed in what he said, and indeed Tony Blair still is the Prime Minister.
“I would want to reassure people that Gordon is very much part of Labour’s equality agenda.”
Still, David Cameron has spoken in favour of civil partnerships, backed the slow trickle of Tory representatives out of the closet, and seems to be making the right noises.
The effect of all this is most notable with the younger gay population. Ten years is a long time to be in government.
Anyone born before 1985 would be hard pressed to even remember Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.
In our poll, 51% of respondents who were too young to vote in the last election rated David Cameron as the best leader of our country, hence Ms Harman’s warning to gay youth that he is a dangerous man.
“David Cameron is saying what people want to hear, he looks as though he is the appeal to modernity, because he is relatively new, don’t be fooled.
“He will say anything that you want him to say there but there is the question of where are his roots.
“My roots, going back 30 years, we are used to facing the howls of the Tories and the lynch mob of the right wing for even making these arguments and that is where we come from.
“We steeled in that, it is part of our politics. It’s about consistency and belief and what your politics is made of.”
So will a new Brown government usher in a new style, and how will it take on the Tory threat and their appealing new leader?
“We have got to bear in mind that, without over-stating it, the Tories are once again a threat, in a way that Iain Duncan Smith wasn’t, William Hague wasn’t and Michael Howard wasn’t either.
“We have got to give him the benefit of actually taking apart his proposals.
“We have to be forensic in how we expose Cameron.
“For example, when he said that thing that he was going to support marriage. That was like a dog-whistle call to bits of the Tory party.
“Then, when pressed, it was, ‘oh if you are on your third marriage, you still get the tax relief, but if you have lived together as a couple and brought up your children together but never married, you don’t.’
“So what sort of signal does that send? So then he was challenged ‘well what about civil partnerships?’
“‘OK, no they can’t get the tax relief’ he said. ‘Oh, but if they have children, they can.’
“Whereas if you are married, you get it irrespective of whether you have children.
“What we have got to do with Cameron is actually expose the fact that there is no commitment, no principles, and no practical policies.”
In our interviews with the candidates for Deputy Leader, we have heard of their plans and aspirations for the role.
Is it a campaigning job? A conduit between the party and the Prime Minister? A Cabinet role?
Ms Harman starts with an obvious assertion: “The job involves making absolutely sure that Labour wins a fourth term. All of these things that we care about, we can’t do anything about if we are not in government.
“The polls show very clearly that it is me plus Gordon which gives Labour the best chance for us to win a fourth term.”
The poll in question is featured prominently on her campaign literature.
YouGov polled 2,000 people, though it is not made clear who commissioned the survey.
“If you add together Gordon and all the other candidates and you ask the voters who is most likely to make you feel inclined to vote Labour, across the board, the answer is: me and Gordon. Particularly with swing voters, who are not certain whether or not to vote Labour, and particularly with women voters.”
The other candidates fare less well in this snapshot of voter sentiment.
Hilary Benn, very much the quiet one in this race, comes in second (12% with swing voters and 10% with women.) Among women, no one else polls above 7%
However, to win that unprecedented fourth term in office, the Labour party needs to be rebuilt – all the candidates say so.
“In my constituency we have 700 members. I don’t just talk about rebuilding the party, I have done it, I have knocked on the doors. So I have the confidence to say to the party nationally I can help build the party, because I have shown I can do it on my own patch.
“If people can’t do it on their own patch, how can they be expected to be credible when they say that everybody else should do it?”
Ms Harman was one of the earliest reshuffle casualties of the Blair years, serving just 14 months as Secretary of State for Social Security.
If she becomes Deputy Leader should she be back in the Cabinet for the first time since July 1998?
“If you are going to be strong for the party you have to be in the Cabinet, not outside waiting for people to come out in order to say what the party would like to happen.
“If you are leading a big department, delivering schools or hospitals, you can’t deliver for the party.”
Peter Hain, Alan Johnson and Hazel Blears backed the idea of a new crime of incitement to homophobia when they spoke to PinkNews.co.uk
As a Justice Minister, what is Ms Harman’s view?
“We want to stamp out homophobic crime and things like acts preparatory, such as conspiracy, incitement, contempt; they need to be properly covered.
“I know there is an argument that there is a gap in the law, I would want to look at that.
“I also want to discuss with the prosecutors whether or not there is evidence and they just have not been prosecuting, or whether the law has been the problem.”
Finally, we talked about the new Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Many have expressed concern that the new body will not be able to tackle its multiple responsibilities, among them racial, sexual and disability discrimination.
“The roots of, and the manifestation of discrimination and inequality in relation to gay and lesbian people are completely different from the roots of and the manifestation of discrimination against women.”
Ms Harman keeps on-message, but seems to accept that it might not work:
“There is not one set of causes and one set of remedies.
“Tackling discrimination requires a forensic understanding of what is underpinning it.
“It makes sense for those places where there is a vulnerability to the breach of human rights to come together and to work together and to share, for example, legal advice, IT systems and personnel.
“But in bringing them together it’s very important that we don’t blur the edges of the sharpness of the different strands.
“To be effective we must not lose sight of the different strands and if that means having a separate committee to do with gay rights and homophobia that might be necessary but what we can’t do is let people think that there is a general problem and a general solution.”
At the very start of this seemingly endless campaign for Deputy Leader, Ms Harman got a lot of flak for saying that Labour “needed” a woman in the role. Surely that’s discrimination?
“I think that a men-only leadership campaign would have been a very bad thing for the party. We are a party of 97 very strong women MPs and we would mask the women behind an all male leadership. I don’t believe in men only politics full stop.”
This interview was first published on 3rd June. On 24th June Harriet Harman was elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour party.