How are you enjoying the new job?
It’s really great to be being shadow international development. I’ve got a big diaspora community in my constituency so I’m one of the few MPs where my constituents are happy for me to go to Africa as often as I like because that’s their continent of origin. So it’s very connected into my constituency. It’s very connected into women’s issues as well because there have been endless goings-on about women’s empowerment and how crucial it is to development. Rhetoric is not matched by action. I think the thing is it’s quite an interesting situation at the moment because on the key aid promise of 0.7% by 2013 the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have followed our lead and we are all in the same place on that. There’s a high degree of scepticism among the public, so it’s quite curious that the political parties are in the same place but we need to reassure and convince the public that it’s the right thing to be doing. Most people want to see an opposition party kicking the government’s backside, but I don’t need to be doing that, which is good.
From a political point of view though, is it healthy that all three political parties are singing from the same hymn sheet on this because you get people saying you’re all the same and there’s no difference between you. On this, they’ve got a point.
They have got a point in terms of the 0.7% by 2013, but I don’t imagine how anyone can think we’re all the same on the NHS since the government are smashing it to pieces and we’re supporting it. I can’t see how people think we’re the same on the economy when they’re doing the deficit too far too fast. But there are distinctive approaches on development. I think the question about fairness as between global corporations and small developing countries is a very important issue which the Tories will not address. For them it’s more about philanthropy, paternalism, charity, which are all good things, but our perspective is that it’s more about rights and equality and so on the issues about global companies not exploiting countries but being part of their opportunity to develop themselves, that is where I think we have a distinctive line of argument.
From your dealings with government ministers on this issue, Andrew Mitchell in particular, do you think that they really do get it, or is their commitment to international development, the 0.7% thing, only skin deep?
I think that when David Cameron made the commitment it was not anything he’d ever campaigned on before or indeed ever said anything about before and therefore it looked like it was a tactical thing to detoxify the Tory party. I think that Andrew Mitchell is clearly very committed to there being an aid budget and the promise being kept, but it’s a Tory way of doing it. But I think he’s very committed to it. I keep saying to him that I’m his best friend in Parliament. All his backbenchers are against him, nearly all the cabinet is against him except for the prime minister, and having the prime minister on your side isn’t enough if you’ve got the Daily Mail, all your backbenchers and three-quarters of the cabinet against you. So actually it’s an argument that has to be made. I’m quite tribal about things, but actually the issue is more important and when Andrew Mitchell gets the argument right I will fully support him.
You mentioned inequality and human rights but surely poverty, or eradicating poverty, has to be the driving force behind this job? Surely that takes precedence over equality and rights.
But actually the point about inequality is that it’s a relative thing. I thought it was interesting that the World Economic Forum identified inequality as one of their top five priorities because it creates conflict, it creates forced migration and therefore inequality, not just poverty alleviation, is important. It’s about relationships between the developed and the developing world. So are western companies ripping off countries or are they helping them to grow? Is there a fair balance? So all of those things are about equality and inequality and we’re not going to have the global growth we need if there are some countries that remain undeveloped.
Andrew Mitchell said, that we are now an international development super power. What do you think he meant by that?
Well, you’ll have to ask Andrew Mitchell what he meant, but he’s getting a lot of stick on that. First of all I think people said, he was misquoted as saying it was an aid superpower and he said a development superpower, but that didn’t really seem to help people either because his Tory backbenchers are saying we should be doing less of this, and why us? But I think it is true that under our government Britain took a leading role. It was important for us to do that and it is true it does actually come back to security as well because inequality can foster conflict, poverty can foster conflict, and so can forced migration. I wouldn’t put it quite like he did because it just wound everybody up and they’re wound up enough on his side anyway. So he’ll need even more support next time we have oral questions. Perhaps I should ask Andrew Mitchell: why are you doing such a great job? Can you just tell us?!
And of course you’ve renewed your partnership with Alan Duncan, which we’re all delighted about.
Actually it’s quite possible for the Leader of the House and the shadow to go so flipping pompous that it’s absolutely unbearable. I think Alan Duncan and I had an implicit pact that we would not be pompous farts doing that job. Both of us thought it was important.
You really seemed to enjoy being Leader of the House.
I did enjoy that job. Over the years I had done a lot of campaigning all around the country but the House and chamber had never been my primary focus. It’s a bit like being a pit pony when you’re the Leader of the House. You never see the light of day. You go in there just when the cleaners are leaving and you leave when the only people there are the security people.
Did that job help you when you had to do PMQs? Obviously you’ve got business questions every week, and you’ve got to be pretty quick on your feet there. Do you think it helped?
I do think that being across everything is important. I think if you did it from just one portfolio there’d be things that would be outside your vision but being deputy leader I’m more or less across everything anyway.
When you hear that you’ve got to do PMQs do you get an empty feeling in your stomach, or do you relish the thought of it?
It’s a formidable challenge because your own side will be wanting you do to well. They won’t want to leave the chamber with their heads low. They’ll want to leave the chamber thinking ‘we put our argument across’. You’re the front of house and so there’s a lot of pressure. There was an additional pressure on me because everybody said I was going to be rubbish.
Did you resent that? You were up against William Hague who is always thought to be brilliant at these things but if I was you I would have been, hang on a bit, I’ve been around a bit, I can hold my own in these situations, why do the commentators automatically say that Hague is going to win?
I suppose Hague has got a particular house-pleasing style and has got very sharp humour, and he did do well against Tony Blair so he had a bit of a reputation ahead of him, but yes...
There were a couple of times, I can remember, where everyone thought you’d bested him. When you walk out of the chamber after that what are you feeling?
Not, YES!!!! No sense of euphoria?
I think it’s basically relief. Tony Blair said that even right up to the end of doing PMQs it still created apprehension. It is a quite unique kind of pressure, and I think Ed’s doing incredibly well at it.
I do, I absolutely do.
Do you think he’s actually found Cameron’s weakness now? He seems to have found that if he goes after Cameron on a point of detail he can get him because Cameron’s not a details man.
But it’s getting the right detail. If he asks something on detail that’s not relevant to anything, people would think that he’s lost the plot. People remember Tony Blair doing PMQs in his heyday and they don't’ realise that there were times when he couldn’t get things past John Major, so I think where he is. He is leader of an opposition now which was heavily defeated. He’s giving very confident and assured and committed performances.
How do you think people see you as a politician?
I think if you spend your time thinking about how people see you, you become introverted. Haven’t I got to spend my time thinking about what people’s problems are and what we should be doing about them? It’s actually not about me, it’s about them.
But it is about you and the way you get things across to the public, how you communicate. Everyone’s got a view of every single politician, whether it’s positive or negative but what words do you think people use to describe you?
Well they’ll just have to find their own words, I’m trying to spend my time thinking about what matters to my constituents, what we need to be doing about them and trying to put those arguments forward clearly and make the Labour party’s case clearly.
I think people see you as quite a tribal politician but with a sense of humour, and you can use humour to get a point across...
That’s interesting, I’ve always been described as humourless – a humourless feminist.
Feminist maybe. I think in the last few years you’ve changed. You can afford to be a bit more of yourself, and a bit less of the sort of identikit politician who’s climbing the greasy pole.
I think you go through a pain barrier. When you arrive in Parliament you think everyone knows more than you and then you realise that it’s not about knowing things, it’s what you believe in and what you’ve come to Parliament to say is as valid as what anybody else says. So I think it’s about getting the confidence of going through the pain barrier and thinking, well, if people criticise you, so be it.
Do you think it’s because you’ve got as far as you could? If you wanted to be the leader of the Labour party you’d have stood in 2010, presumably. Once you’ve got to the peak of your ambition you relax a bit more.
I think I was quite relaxed in the deputy leadership contest. Well, ‘relaxed’ is an odd way to describe an absolutely massively arduous campaign all around the country, but I don’t think that I was ducking or weaving or trying to be something I wasn’t.
Why didn't you stand for leader in 2010?
Because after Gordon left I felt that the job to do was to hold things together in the immediate aftermath. There wasn't anybody else who could do that because nobody else was elected. It could have been potentially quite an uncertain period so if somebody from the shadow cabinet, somebody from the cabinet had been picked they wouldn't have had any more authority than anybody else. I was the only person who was elected. So I was the only person to do that and you can't do that and run for leader.
There are certainly quite a few Labour women that I spoke to that felt you let them down by not standing. You actually would have stood a good chance of winning.
Everybody's got to make their decision about what they think is best for the party and best for themselves at the time. I've not had a shred of doubt at any stage, I've had no twinges. You do sometimes wonder if you made a decision not to do something whether you'll have a twinge and think… I think having had a period of being acting leader, it makes you very insightful about what it is to lead. Very insightful. But actually, it hasn't made me want to take the party forward to the next general election.
That sounds as though there's a bit of self-doubt there. As though you wonder if you would have had it in you to be leader.
The truth is that nobody knows what they're up to until they get the chance to do it and until they have those demands put on them. Some people outperform what people expect of them and what they would expect for themselves and some people don't. So I don't think you can make that judgement sensibly in advance. You've just got to think, 'Am I up for doing this?' And then do your best when you are doing it.
You have ruffled John Prescott's feathers on Twitter. You said '89 years of Labour leader and deputy, 84 men only. Time for rule change.'
Yes that was me.
John Prescott then tweeted, 'Harriet, stop complaining and start campaigning on the big issues for Labour. The last men-only leadership was voted in by women and men.' So you've got a bit of a way to go to convince the John Prescotts of this world that there should always be a woman in the leadership.
We can't have a men-only leadership in the party and then say we are committed to equality in the 21st century. It is just not OK any more. I don't think women in this country are prepared to just have a situation where men make all the decisions and women have to put their case forward to men. I think that is last century politics. I know that is still what the Tories are doing, but it’s not right. There has to be a partnership of men and women. That whole thing of Cameron saying, 'Calm down, dear'…
But that was a joke! I don't know a single person outside this Westminster village that took it for anything other than a take-off of Michael Winner ...
No, it's patronising and it's condescending. Women feel strongly about something and then they are patronised. All it does is make them angry. So I think the idea of women having to put their case to men and men then making the decisions, absolutely not.
I am with you on that one.
So that's why you need to have a man and a woman in the leadership to show that from top to bottom…
Do you feel that Yvette Cooper let the side down a bit by not standing and allowing Ed to stand?
I just think the idea that women have to be looked at either as saying 'oh their too pushy' or 'they're letting the side down' is wrong ...
She would have been a serious contender.
She was great in the cabinet, she's doing a fantastic job as shadow home secretary and she will make the right decisions for herself and for the party. I've got nothing but support for her rather than supporting anybody who's second guessing what she does.
So you'd like to form the leadership election system so that there's a woman and a man.
A leader and a running mate. Yes, definitely.
Whichever way you look at it, Ed Miliband was elected because of the union vote. Do you think the voting system on the leadership election needs to at least be looked at again?
Well, it is being looked at as part of the review that Ed Miliband has asked Peter Hain to do. The thing that I'm actually campaigning on is making sure that we don't fall back to an all-male leadership, otherwise I've got to be here until I'm 95 and that's too long. You've got to be making sure that you entrench progress behind you not just be a blip and then it's back to the men-only business as usual.
What did you see in Ed Miliband when you took him on as your researcher?
Very hard working, … a really sort of good person. Not a bone of cynicism in his body. And very committed and good values. And not at all a wheeling-dealing type.
Does it make you feel a bit old when you have your researcher who is leader?
No, not at all! Yvette Cooper was my researcher. I will be basically recruiting incredibly bright, young people as I do. But then Gordon Brown would be like…
Filching them off you!
Yeah. No, it doesn't make me feel old at all.
In the London mayoral contest the polls seem to point towards a Boris victory. Do you think Ken Livingstone is in danger of making the same mistakes in this campaign as he made in the last where he completely under-estimated Boris's cross-party appeal?
What I think what happened to Ken last time is that the party was at quite a low ebb. Ken was ahead of the party but he couldn't withstand the national trend. Boris Johnson tries to pretend that he isn't a Tory when in fact he is. And it is our task for the party to be advancing and making progress, which we are, and for Ken to establish his positive view for London. It's for us to make it clear to everybody that whatever he likes to think about himself about being independent-minded, Boris is a Tory.
What's one good thing Boris has done?
[Long pause] I can't think of anything. I mean, I think the thing about the Boris bikes, which are called Boris bikes, that was all planned by Ken. I am not going to say anything positive about Boris because he's got to be overwhelmed in 2012.
What did you make of Peter Mandelson's comments that the Labour Party needs to be more interesting?
I didn't make anything of them at all.
What do you think he meant by that?
I don't know. Ask him.
He seems to have been wiped out of the collective memory of the Labour Party and he seems to rather resent that. Is that a fair analysis?
We've got a task to be getting on with. We've got to be speaking out for all the concerns that people have got. We've got to be making it a one-term coalition and that is a serious task to have in our hands. We are not commentators. We are representing people and speaking up against what the Tories are doing on the NHS and cutting the deficit too far and too fast, so that's where my focus is.
Tony Blair, in his memoirs alleges that you were always Gordon Brown's choice for deputy leader. Is that true?
If you read Peter Watt's memoir, apparently - although I haven't read it myself - …
Which I published…
Oh right. It basically says that Gordon Brown was mortified when I got elected. All I know is that I didn’t ask for Gordon Brown's support. But I said that I would be a good deputy to go with a Gordon Brown prime minister. I didn't ask for his support and as far as I know, I didn't get it. But I don't think it would have been appropriate for him to be because he would have to work with whoever the party elected. No, I didn’t notice any support.
How did you find those three years? From all the accounts you read, it was a fairly bruising time. Were you constantly having rows with Gordon Brown as everybody else seems to have been?
I've worked with Gordon Brown since the 1980s, so we didn't have a new relationship in 2007. We had a long-standing relationship including a period when I'd been his deputy. It was a very, very tough period. But I admired how he was very calm and determined over dealing with the global financial crisis, which was a hell of a threat and could have been much worse in terms of business bankruptcies and jobs going.
If you read Anthony Seldon's account of it, he comes out of that particular episode very, very well indeed. When you were in cabinet and watching him operate with the G20 and all the rest of it, did that give you a different sense of him? Was that a different Gordon Brown? Or was it the Gordon Brown that you always hoped would rise to the occasion?
I think it was the Gordon Brown from when the 1980s when his analysis of the economy was that we had to have investment in people, in industry, in infrastructure, and that actually it was the supply side that needed addressing as much as the demand side. He is very confident in those things and commanded the confidence of a lot of people internationally who were very overwhelmed about what was going to happen to their economies. Seeing him in the G20 he was very confident and very purposeful. And although it was a very difficult time, we got through the right to flexible working, the right to request flexible working for families, the Equality Act, although the Tories appear to be shelving it or watering it down, so it was a difficult time for a whole load of reasons but we were still in government and taking stuff forward.
Anthony Seldon also accuses you of a plot to get rid of him in early 2010. You were on holiday somewhere in Suffolk. What's the truth in that?
I've said I was not involved in a plot. All the way along, I remember there was one particular thing when I was, I think it was one of the summers when I was standing in when Gordon was on holiday for a very brief period and there was this amazing cartoon of me like Lady Macbeth with a bloody dagger in my hand. It was just…
You've got that in the loo now, have you?
No! There was a lot of discontent around at the time and obviously people talked to me about their concerns. As deputy leader, it is my job to listen to what people have got to say. But there was no coup.
You didn't think you gave anyone the impression that you would have supported a coup?
No. But I do remember waking up one day and hearing on the radio 'the deputy leader of the Labour Party, she has done in the prime minister and taken over and…' It was like… I was half asleep and I thought, 'God, have I done that. God, I'm prime minister…' you know.
A nation rejoices!
Oh, God! But they were talking about Julia Gillard ousting Kevin Rudd in Australia!
When you hear yourself called Harriet Harperson, how do you react?
I don't mind at all. I'm not bothered about it. I think there is sometimes a fine line between being a caricature and being a consistent campaigner. And I am on the vanguardist side of feminism in that. It's not my fault, it's just not enough people agree with me, otherwise, I'd be mainstream. I'd be happy to be mainstream just so long as everybody else can flipping well catch up. But, I'm still vanguardist. So I suppose that is what people are commenting on. If they are denigrating tackling domestic violence, women having an equal say, then I don't agree with them.
Who were your role models and mentors when you were just thinking about a political career?
It was not really easy to have a role model, in that, mostly there were hardly any women in Parliament – only 3%. There were no women who had young children at all. Ann Taylor lost her seat, Helene Hayman had lost her seat. The truth was I was really doing it on my own, trying to find my own way, and it was really great when more other women arrived. I spent a lot of years being supported by lots of women and the women’s movement outside the House of Commons. But in the House of Common I was pretty much a lone voice, and you know, I see it’s much better for young women now to have other women in the same situation as them.
Did you ever regard Margaret Thatcher as any kind of female role model?
No, because it’s an ideological thing. She was beating the men at their own game. She was not being a feminist; she was doing it despite being a woman. I was doing because I was a woman. It was just completely different.
Have you ever had conversation with Margaret Thatcher?
I just thought it might be entertaining if you had.
She was too busy being Prime Minister.
A lot of Labour MP’s use to go and have little chats with her.
You mean Frank Field
Did he? Nooo?!
I was being against everything that she stood for.
Talking of Frank Field, when you left the government in, when was it 1998-99...
Ok, I was being kind.
Yes, you were axed. How did that feel? Pretty humiliating presumably? And did you immediately think, right, I am coming back?
No, because there was no pattern for anyone to come back. Once you were axed, you were axed. I remember a day or so after I had been sacked I was walking down a street with local Party members in Peckham, I was knocking on doors or something and someone said “Oh...it’s great you can come down because we know how busy you are what with you being in the cabinet”. And I said “You know I am not in the Cabinet, because I have just been sacked”. And they said “Yes yes but you know what we mean”. I thought that for me it’s like an enormous change, but for them who’s in and who’s not in the Cabinet it’s not such an issue. I thought I will just have to get on with it. I have seen people being bitter and thinking that nothing was their responsibility and it was everybody else’s fault. That’s just really unproductive and I didn’t want to be like that. I wasn’t going round gnashing my teeth blaming everybody else. Not for a bit, anyway! [laughter].
Why didn’t you have an all women shortlist in the seat your husband fought, Birmingham Erdington?
Because even with my good offices we haven’t got 100% all women shortlists. There are still men in the Labour Party that are able to stand for Parliament, you know! We don’t have hundred percent all women shortlists, you know.
What advice did you give to your husband when he was elected? Keep away from me?
I didn’t give him any advice at all, because he is very experienced and has been representing people in the Labour movement for many years. He doesn’t need any advice from me.
What was the last film you watched at the cinema?
I go to the Brixton Ritzy all the time but I can’t remember what was the last one.
Well it can’t be all the time then, if you can’t remember.
I do, I have seen just about everything, I just can’t remember what the last one was. If you told me what’s on I would know if I had seen it.
I’m afraid I am not familiar with the Brixton Ritzy.
One of the things I thought was really great was Of Gods and Men .You know the one about the French monks in the Algerian...
I don’t know that.
You should get out more.
I know. The last one I watched was Thor, so that shows you what crap I watch.
Do you have an Ipod?
I don’t have an Ipod. It hasn’t even got Arctic Monkeys on it because I haven’t even got one.
How do you get through 8 hour flights if you haven’t got an Ipod?
Because mostly we’re working.
For goodness sake.
Oh yes we are. My time on the flight out is to focus on all the things we have to prepare for and on the way back it is writing it all up, so you will have to await my forthcoming my Sierra Leon report. Which is all lot about mining, a lot about mining.
I can’t wait. What makes you cry?
I can watch Emmerdale and I am off...
Let me think. *whispers to assistant* What is the answer to that one?
Assistant: Children? Family?
No, that makes me determined to get good international development for children. I am not elected to be crying my eyes out. I am elected to do things. If you were about to have cardiac surgery you wouldn’t want to see you surgeon crying his or her eyes out, you want them to be on it. So I want to be on it rather than wringing my hands.
What are you reading?
Memories of Love, because we have just come back Sierra Leone and it is by Aminatta Forna. I am about to read The Yacoubian Building. I do read quite a lot.
Your favourite country that you have ever visited?
HH: My favourite country is England. I have visited all over England. I love being able to go all over the place and to knock on people’s doors and be incredibly nosey.
What was the first record you ever bought?
I am sure it was the Beatles. I think it was Please Please Me or something like that, or it was Michael Jackson?
Your favourite view?
From my sitting room, out to my garden after I have mowed the lawn. So then I can feel job satisfaction.
Isn’t that the sort of thing you have husbands for.
Not in my case. [laughter]
Food you would be sick if you ate?
Never tried it, but probably Sushi.
Best friend in politics? Your chance to make a lot of enemies in this answer.
What do you do to relax?
Watch the telly. Things like So You Think You Can Dance. Doing my garden. Cooking.
Something you wish you had known at 16?
I didn’t know anything at 16.
Who is your political hero?
Michelle Bachelet. She is the fabulous former President of Chile. She was a paediatrician, her father was killed, she was tortured, she left – your only allowed to do one term – she left with 85% popularity ratings.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Listening to my Adele CD. That sounds so terribly tame.
Favourite TV show as a child?
I wasn’t really allowed to watch much TV. This was the olden days where there was one TV in the house, and it only two channels. We weren’t really allowed to watch much TV.
ID: Do you collect anything?
HH: No. Should I?
What 3 objects would you take if you were stuck on a desert island.
My iPhone for absolute certain. Can I have a cooker? And a boat.