Don't ignore rank and file, Harman warns Brown

After sounding out shoppers up and down the UK's high streets, the deputy leader has advice for her boss, she tells Marie Woolf
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'It's not size that matters," declared Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, as she perched on a sofa in her Whitehall office. The party chairman was not referring to the size of her ministerial rooms, which are so vast they have been dubbed the "Independent Republic of Harriet Harman", but the length of the speech she will make to close this week's Labour Party conference. This year, controversially, ministers have had their speeches restricted to seven minutes. Ms Harman is to fill the final barn-storming slot to send the faithful home happy, for years the party piece of her predecessor, John Prescott.

Sitting in Mr Prescott's former office, still resplendent with his fuchsia curtains and pink carpets, Ms Harman insisted she will not need too much time to make a few key points about the direction the party should go. Chief among them will be a stark warning to Gordon Brown not to ignore the Labour rank and file and to "listen" to the membership. "It's about celebrating our leadership but very firmly saying that Labour is a team," she said.

"The team expects the leadership to work with the whole team, and also to listen to the whole team. The team is local councillors. It's the parliamentary Labour party. It's the trades unions. It's the delegates. Exceptional leadership is not in contradiction to working as a whole team and listening – listening to the team and listening to people in the high street."

Ms Harman has been doing a lot of listening since beating a slew of cabinet contenders in the deputy leadership election. She has been conducting a "Harriet on the High Street" tour of shopping centres around Britain to talk to people about what they think about the Government. "Never has someone been in so many shopping centres and done so little shopping," she quipped. "I'm very nosy so it's interesting to hear what people say."

Chief among the electorate's concerns are housing and young people, while bottom of the agenda are David Cameron and the timing of the general election – an issue currently obsessing the political classes.

Ms Harman – dubbed "five-jobs Harman" by dint of her multiple political roles as Labour Party chairman, deputy Labour leader, Leader of the House of Commons, equalities minister and Lord Privy Seal – will play a key role in the general election. She tried to dampen speculation of an early poll, saying the issue will not "dominate" conference, but failed.

"I don't want to say that the mood of the party is positive and confident because then you'll to think that it is going to happen," she says. "I can understand why people look at the opinion polls, and the question among commentators is very much out there. It is not an illegitimate question to be asking. When the election is called it's the job of the party to be ready for it, if it is called."

Pressed about whether the Labour Party, which has crippling £20m debts, can afford to fight an autumn election, the Labour chairman insisted the party is already at action stations. She said again: "It's the job of the party to be ready for it whenever it is called. We will fight an election whenever it is called. I can't say anything more than that."

Ms Harman said the "mood of conference is going to be confident and determined" and that "nobody is complacent". But she cautioned against party strategists trying to frighten voters into backing Labour by playing on fears about the terrorist threats, foot and mouth and global warming. Such a tactic could backfire, she warned. Instead, the party should be concentrating on better housing and schools and people's hopes "for the future".

"We shouldn't be trying to scare people into supporting the Government – that there are all these threats that are upon us," she said. "We will deal with the threats, whether it is terrorism or global warming or financial shocks. "What people want is a better life for themselves and their families."