Comfortable child-centred home of unlikely New Labour rebels

Donald Macintyre on the firm beliefs of Harriet Harman and Jack Dromey
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The Independent Online
Harriet Harman is said to have told friends that it is sometimes harder to go through "the eye of a needle" than to be at once a good mother and a good politician.

Whether or not she imagined that her decision to send her son, Joseph, to St Olave's, a grammar school in Orpington, Kent, would provoke quite the coverage and turbulence it has, it would be absurd to imagine that she did it without any thought for the risks involved.

On one level, she and her husband, Jack Dromey, are an almost Identikit New Labour couple.

She is a St Paul's-educated lawyer from a professional and liberal middle class family (father a Harley Street doctor, mother an LSE graduate and lawyer) who worked for the Brent Law Centre before going to the National Council for Civil Liberties.

He is a highly articulate trade union official, with a working-class Irish-born father, active in the Labour movement, who was a key figure in the bitter Grunwick dispute in the late 1970s and is now a good deal more likely to use his media skills and powers of argument to further the case of his members than foment a strike.

But although they are both ambitious and energetic, they are also notably active parents, taking care to return home whenever possible and ensuring that one parent is present on evenings when the other - because of the demands of the job - is not.

Their comfortable but unostentatious family house in Herne Hill, according to friends, is pleasantly child centred, with plenty of school art on the walls. Harry, 13, Joseph, 11 and Amy, 9, have never been shooed away just because an adult happens to turn up.

And although they have a network of close friends within the party - mainly, though not exclusively, modernisers - they are not grand socialisers in the manner of the late 1950s set of up-and-coming Labour politicians. "Chance would be a fine thing," Ms Harman told an interviewer last year. "Could you tell me when we last went out?"

They are just not flashy "fine wine and rich food" types, according to friends. In the same interview, Ms Harman described her principles of family life as "utilitarian" - running the household for the good of the greatest number.

Her supporters point out, firstly that St Olave's is a state school, and in a neighbouring borough; secondly, that while Labour is against more selective schools, it has effectively made clear that it will not seek the abolition of existing ones, so that her decision is not "in conflict" with Labour policy. One of her difficulties now, at least internally, will be private anger from those Labour politicians who send their own children to comprehensives because they feelthey have to, and so, in some cases, putting political goals above purely personal ones. Clearly, some may resent their colleague'sdecision.

An effective and hard-working campaigner, probably now with her ideal brief, she deserves credit for toughing out demands for an unrealistic figure for the national minimum wage while establishing an ideologically credible case for setting one. And when the 'Jennifer's ear' party political broadcast backfired, she kept a cool head.

Regarded by Tony Blair as a star, she is certainly on course for high Cabinet office. Her main problem is with her own party - for example, in the Shadow Cabinet elections, which have seen her sidelined in the past.

Now she may have to draw quite deeply on all her political qualities to ensure that she remains known as the able and committed parliamentarian she undoubtedly is, rather than simply the Shadow Cabinet member who sent her child to a grammar school.

Poll support for grammar schools

More than half the electorate wants the Government to bring back grammar and secondary modern schools, according to a poll published today.

The Harris poll, carried out just after the announcement of the Prime Minister's plans to allow schools to select more pupils, comes as the political battle over selection intensifies with the decision by Harriet Harman, shadow Secretary of State for Health, to send her son to a grammar school.

Yesterday the Independent on Sunday revealed that Labour is to ballot parents of primary school children in areas with grammar schools about whether they wish to keep them.

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