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Harriet Harman’s diary: the joys of being a ‘former’

I still hope Labour wins the argument. But I’m happy to be listening to the Today programme, not speaking on it

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

One of my constituents has been in an Indonesian prison since May. Journalist Rebecca Prosser was arrested with her colleague Neil Bonner while working on a documentary for National Geographic about piracy in the Malaccan Strait. Their visas hadn’t come through when filming started and they were arrested by the Indonesian navy and locked up in a prison with 1,400 men and 30 women. The family had been warned that publicity would only make things worse so I have been working behind the scenes to try to get her home. I’ve been ambushing Philip Hammond and Hugo Swire as they come out of the division lobby after 10 p.m. votes, urging them to get our embassy in Jakarta to visit the prison, and leaping on Richard Graham MP,chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Indonesia. After six months of worry, an email from Rebecca’s sister arrives. The court has found them guilty, but with the time they’ve already served, and a fine paid, they can come home. Great news and huge relief all round.

To King’s College Hospital to meet some of the junior doctors. Every few seconds bleepers and phones go off and the doctors dash out on urgent calls. How different from my usual meetings there with the management, when it’s tea and biscuits and a rigid agenda. The junior doctors, in their late thirties with stethoscopes around their necks, are passionate about the NHS, their medical research, and, most of all, the care they give their patients. There was a psychiatrist, an anaesthetist, a geriatrician, a paediatrician and a number of acute medics. They are seriously brainy, committed professionals and we should all be falling down in gratitude to them — their long years of study, professionalism and downright stamina! With Australia and pharmaceutical companies trying to lure them away, it’s mad to be cutting their pay. I fume that we are not in government and that the Tories are running the NHS.

Mornings are transformed now that I am no longer acting leader. I lie in bed listening to Today — hoping Labour’s argument will triumph, but glad not to be the one to make it. Instead of sweating over preparation for Prime Minister’s Questions, I tweet pictures of my kittens.

At the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards I find an unlikely kindred spirit. Having loathed the Tories in the Commons for decades — especially their economic policy — it’s startling to find how much I have in common with former chancellor Nigel Lawson. No, it’s not just that we both love Nigella nor, eerily, that both of us have the same hair colour we did in our forties. It is that I, too, am now a ‘former’. I used to pity the political ‘formers’ hanging around the fringes of politics. But I love being one. Nigel Lawson, who was one of many formers and soon-to-be-formers at the lunch, pointed out to me that, with the recent sad demise of two political giants, Geoffrey Howe and Dennis Healey, he is now the most senior former! I’m only a new former and I’ll never make it to the dizzy heights of former chancellor.

On to the second meeting of our new Joint Committee on Human Rights — half peers and half MPs. Despite never having been on a select committee before, I’m the chair. Our first inquiry is into the government’s new use of drone strikes. What exactly is the policy? Is there a ‘kill list’? Who puts names on it? Are strikes fully legal and accountable? Note to self: ‘Pay close attention to Homeland.’

The Sunday newspapers are full of the Tory plans to water down the Human Rights Act. It’s not a good sign that they’re now calling it ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act’. It’s one ominous step from that to scrapping it altogether.

Off to the Southwark remembrance service in Borough High Street. Like most MPs I go to our local ceremony every year and value highly the moment of reflection and contemplation. But one particularly freezing November when we were standing there before the silence, with an icy wind whipping round, I moaned to Tessa Jowell, my fellow Southwark MP, that my feet and hands were numb with the cold. ‘But think,’ she said, ‘how much colder it was for the soldiers in the trenches.’ She left the Commons in May and this Sunday was the first time in over 20 years that we didn’t stand next to each other during the silence. I really miss her. People still muddle us up, but I’m happy to have well-wishers come up and congratulate me on bringing the Olympics to London.

After the service, there is a meeting of Camberwell and Peckham Labour party women members. Nationally, there’s a clean sweep of men in the top positions now: Labour leader, deputy leader, general secretary, NEC chair, London mayoral candidate… Once again, time to step up our efforts to insist women get an equal say.

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