Why Harriet’s acting leadership matters


By Sunder Katwala / @NextLeft

Good luck to Harriet Harman, who is acting leader of the Labour Party after Gordon Brown’s resignation as party leader took effect immediately last night. She will speak to the Parliamentary Labour Party at 2.30pm today.

Anybody in any doubt about how crucial this immediate post-election period can be for an opposition should get hold of Tim Bale’s book ‘The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron‘. A better title for that book could have been ‘What not to do in opposition’ – and Labour should learn from the Tory failure to hold any proper internal debate or inquest in 1997 or 2001, and how they got that right at the third time of asking in 2005.

That should lead Labour to push the leadership contest back a little – to just after the Autumn party conference – as Michael Howard did very successfully in 2005.

This would be the single most important decision that Harman could take.

Labour could then use the contest as a public showcase and for a recruitment drive, while ensuring the party debates its first general election defeat for 18 years properly.


Harman is the second female acting leader in the party’s history, following Margaret Beckett on the death of John Smith in 1994.

Many have noticed how male-dominated the election campaign was – with only the party leaders’ wives prominent in media coverage of the campaign.

With Harman suggesting that she will not run, and given that Yvette Cooper would not run against her husband Ed Balls despite the Miliband brothers making this a ‘family fortunes’ contest, is this going to be an all-male Labour leadership contest?

Except for Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1975, and Margaret Beckett running against Tony Blair and John Prescott, I think all of the major party contests have been all male affairs.

I think it is too early to say who the field of candidates will be. But it would be good to see Harriet Harman run. If she does not, could another of the party’s female MPs yet throw their hat into the ring?

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