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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 11:21 GMT
Interview: Harriet Harman
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

It is hard to fault Harriet Harman for the clarity of her message.

Harriet Harman
Political survivor: Harriet Harman

When the constitutional affairs minister entered the race to replace John Prescott as Labour deputy leader she said, quite simply, that she believed there should be a woman at the top of government.

Now that Hazel Blears has robbed her of that unique selling point, by becoming the second woman to throw her hat into the ring, Ms Harman's message to Labour members has become more straightforward still - vote Harman for a fourth term.

"I want to make sure we have the best leadership team that is best placed to win a fourth term," she tells the BBC News website.

And that, according to YouGov research commissioned by Ms Harman herself, would be a combination of Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown.

Of all the possible permutations of leader and deputy leader, the Harman/Brown dream ticket is the one with most appeal to "swing voters," the poll suggests, with 15% of those surveyed saying Ms Harman would make them more likely to vote Labour, compared to 12% for nearest rival Hilary Benn.

"I will be making that information available to colleagues, so that if for them the most important thing is getting a fourth term then I will be the best candidate," says Ms Harman.

Policy debate

Harriet Harman is one of the great political survivors of modern times, having battled way back to the front bench, first as Solicitor General and now constitutional affairs minister, after being sacked as Social Security Secretary from Tony Blair's first Cabinet.

CONTENDER QUESTIONNAIRE
Age: 56
Family: Married, three children
School: St Paul's Girls School, London
University: York
Political hero: Rosa Parks
Good night out/in: Get together with the family, with me cooking
Hobbies: Cooking, family get-togethers
Favourite book: We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
Best thing on TV: 24
Bad habits: Watching the news too much
Something we don't know about you: After 25 years in politics there is very little

She has worked closely with Gordon Brown in the past, on welfare reform and other matters, and, as swiftly becomes apparent, she is a great admirer of the man and his methods.

She admits the public and most Labour members would prefer to see "a contest not a coronation" but, who would challenge Mr Brown?

"It's not Gordon's fault he is so much the best candidate," she says.

She also bridles at the suggestion, made recently by former cabinet ministers, and would-be Brown challengers Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke, that Labour members have been short-changed by the deputy leadership contest, as it has failed to ignite a proper policy debate.

"I think what Alan and Charles more fairly should have said was that other people are debating and reaching out on what the future direction of government policy should be and we would like to join in.

"I think that's the truth of the situation. And they are very welcome to join in but they didn't invent it."

'Equal society'

She admits the gloves have yet come off among the six would-be deputies but nor are they likely to because, she adds, most of them are old friends and colleagues.

She is also keen to play down any hint of division on policy, particularly on the issue of city bonuses and the growing wealth gap, which her fellow minister Peter Hain has made a theme of his campaign for the deputy's job.

"All of us share a view that we would like a more equal society."

She believes one of the key tasks for the next Labour government is to rebuild trust in politics.

I think it was wrong to raise money and not tell the party and Tony Blair has acknowledged that it was wrong to do that
Harriet Harman

"It's about being prepared to listen as well as lead. It's about engagement and involvement of people.

"One of the problems is that Tony has been such a pre-eminent figure in British public life for so long that to some extent there has become a default situation where people wait for Tony to say something and then decide whether they agree with it or disagree with it.

"And actually that's not healthy politics. Healthy politics is where there is a debate and a discussion, and there is a sense of team. I think that that's partly because Tony Blair has been right at the top of government for such a long period of years.

"We need to once again create a sense that it's 'Team Labour' and it's 'Team Labour' that engages with the public on its ideas for the future."

Mr Brown is not exactly noted for being a team player, I point out.

On the contrary, she replies: "One thing I would say about Gordon Brown is that he is very much a listener. He is not somebody who thinks all his ideas are complete and finished and written on tablets of stone."

Scandal

Despite his "extraordinary success" at the Treasury, "there is not a shred of arrogance about Gordon Brown because he wants always to do more", says Ms Harman.

Is she really suggesting that, after 10 years in government, people don't yet know the real Gordon Brown?

"I am sure they don't. I don't think they do. As prime minister they will get to know him. They will see him as somebody they can place their trust in."

Gordon Brown
Voters will see a different side of Mr Brown, says Ms Harman

Ms Harman is married to Jack Dromey, Labour's treasurer, who was famously kept in the dark by Tony Blair over loans made to the party during the 2005 general election.

She even had to briefly give up the part of her ministerial role which involved overseeing House of Lords reform, to avoid potential conflicts of interest when the scandal emerged.

As someone who has a ringside seat in the cash-for-honours debacle that followed, and that is still going on, does she feel a change of style is needed at the top of the Labour Party?

"I think it was wrong to raise money and not tell the party and Tony Blair has acknowledged that it was wrong to do that," she says.

Power

She firmly rejects the suggestion that corruption can start to creep in when governments have been in power for too long.

"I don't accept that. If that was inevitably the case I would be the first person who would want us to be out of office."

Neither does she accept the argument that ministers who have been in power for three terms or more can become a little too secure in their role - and all that comes with it.

"I think that Gordon is the most unlikely person to be seduced by the trappings of power. I think he is somebody on whom the obligation of public service weighs very heavily."

But she also seems to acknowledge the need for a change of tone if the Brown/Harman team comes to power.

We are unlikely, for example, to see Ms Harman enjoying a game of croquet on the lawns at Dorneywood, John Prescott's erstwhile country residence.

'Renewal'

She would not use Dorneywood if she became deputy prime minister, she says, handing it, along with other state-owned buildings, such as Admiralty Arch, in central London, back to the public.

"It could become a centre for debate and discussion about Britain's foreign policy, perhaps starting off with ways of building peace in the Middle East," she says.

Breaking the monopoly of the foreign office and other "specialists" on foreign affairs is one of her big ideas.

"People are no longer in the 'leave it with me' society. They are not prepared to have it said it is too complicated or too secret or too technical for you."

Like most of her rivals, Ms Harman walks the tightrope between talking about "renewal" of the Labour government, while being careful not to criticise anything it has done over the past 10 years.

'Middle England'

The key is to build on Labour's successes, such as a stable economy and greater investment in schools and hospitals, she argues, and, above all, to make sure they win a fourth term - an outcome, she argues, that will be best for her constituents in Peckham.

With Mr Brown's Scottishness being an issue raised by some voters and Labour members, she claims to be uniquely placed, among the six deputy contenders, to appeal to the "Middle England" voters that won New Labour its first landslide election victory in 1997.

"One of the things I have been able to do is to take the Labour message to the South, to Middle England. I am a southerner and that's what part of my role has been in helping Labour get into government and helping it stay in government."

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