Harriet Harman: The great survivor's big new challenge

The Shadow Culture Secretary says Labour has far to go, but Tory views on women are helping, she explains to Andrew Grice

When Harriet Harman entered the Commons as a mother of three young children in 1982, she was well-placed to champion issues such as child care, maternity rights and securing more women MPs. Now, at 62, she is again a good role model as she launches a new campaign as a crusader for older women.

"I feel it is my responsibility to speak up for a pioneering generation that is not prepared to be written off," she said. "Public policy is lagging behind and needs to wake up to a big demographic change. There is a lot of seething resentment about such a waste of talent and ability."

In 1993, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, only 13 per cent of women believed that employers gave too few opportunities to older women; today the figure is 71 per cent. In 1993, 65 per cent of women agreed that a man's role was to earn the money while a woman's job was to look after the home and family; today only 27 per cent agree.

Outlining the role of Labour's commission on women, she said: "It will challenge the notion that there are three ages of women: young and silly; having kids and being written off; and then being past it.

"A new generation of older women are saying 'no!'. Public policy has not recognised the fact that they have broken new ground. We don't expect to be written out of the script and blotted out of the telly. Institutions need to wake up to that."

Labour senses an opening because David Cameron and his party appear to be losing support among women. The number of women who are full members of the Cabinet dropped from five to four in this month's reshuffle and Ms Harman points out that five Whitehall departments, including the Treasury, have "men only" ministerial teams. "He [Mr Cameron] is blissfully unaware of the problem," she said. "It's the same paternalistic, out-of-touch, patriarchal Tories. The mask has slipped."

Ms Harman is Labour's great survivor. Although sacked from the Cabinet by Tony Blair in 1998, she bounced back and won Labour's deputy leadership in 2007. But Gordon Brown denied her the title she wanted as Deputy Prime Minister. She is confident of landing the post if Labour wins power in 2015. After all, Ed Miliband's first job in politics was working as a researcher and speechwriter for her. "Yeah, I definitely would expect to be," she said with a smile.

Her other priority is to lead a Labour fightback in the South of England. Outside London, the constituency map is very blue, although Labour has gained some key local authorities since 2010. A task force will be set up at the Labour conference to tackle what the party called its "southern discomfort" during its last spell in opposition.

Despite speculation during the Lib Dem conference about a possible Lib-Lab coalition after the next election, Ms Harman is unofficial leader of Labour's hardline tendency which does not want to play footsie with the third party. "We are not commentators. We are not interested in 'what ifs.' People have only one vote in a first-past-the-post system."

Ms Harman rattled off the gains Labour needs to win an overall majority: Labour has 38 MPs in London and needs another 11; has two MPs in the eastern region and needs another 11; has four in the South-West but needs another seven, and has four in the South-East but needs another eight. The South could decide the next election. "It is crucial," said Ms Harman.

As Shadow Culture Secretary, Ms Harman will lead Labour's response to the forthcoming Leveson report. She wants a cross-party approach, saying a new system of press regulation must have "some statutory underpinning", even though that is opposed by most newspapers. "This is a historic opportunity we cannot miss," she said.

She warned Mr Cameron not to "seek political advantage" by rejecting a legislative approach in an attempt to curry favour with newspapers – a sign that Labour fears he will do just that by rejecting a press law.

Although Labour will not use its conference to announce an A-Z of policies, there will be some signals about its direction of travel. Ms Harman admitted that the party needs to pass the doorstep test. "People are asking what we would do," she said. "They don't feel that any political party has got the answers."

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