Harriet the harassed

26th January 1996 at 00:00
In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, Harriet Harman is harangued for hypocrisy.

The headline-writers have enjoyed themselves over the plight of Labour's shadow health secretary and her choice of a grant-maintained grammar school for her son Joe. There is nothing like a touch of alliteration to get them going. In the Daily Mail, "Harriet's hypocrisy" led two days later to "Harriet harangued". As The TES went to press, Harriet had not yet been hounded out although the hungry hacks were harassing her horribly.

The quality press were mostly on Ms Harman's side. What opinion writer on a broadsheet paper has not sent his or her child to a selective school?

"Harman gets her priorities right," said the Independent leader on Monday, expressing distaste that "neither the political opportunists in the Conservative Party nor the puritanical ideologues in the Labour Party have been able to keep their lips buttoned". "The real crime," it said, "would have been if Ms Harman had stunted her son's potential achievement and made his progress come second to her political ambitions."

Donald Macintyre, the paper's political editor, also wrote a sympathetic piece, describing the "comfortable child-centred home" of Ms Harman and her husband, Jack Dromey - pictured in surroundings redolent of a dentist's waiting room.

The real anger within the party, Mr Macintyre suggested, might be from those Labour politicians who had felt obliged to send their own children to comprehensive schools and therefore found Ms Harman's blatant breach of policy hard to take.

The Times, too, backed the beleaguered mother, saying "it is Labour's attitude that is wrong, not Harriet Harman's". A commitment to the comprehensive system was one of the "scraps" that had "had to be thrown to the Cerberus of old socialism" as Tony Blair modernised his way through the party's education policy, the paper suggested. But excellence in education was ill-served by attachment to an outdated orthodoxy.

The Guardian, keeper of the left-wing conscience among the chattering classes, faced both ways. "Harriet's right to choose" was the main headline over its editorial "but" (underneath, in smaller print) "her reasons are all wrong". She should not have rabbited on about how traditional it was for parents in inner London to send their children to school in outer London.

What she should have done, the paper argued, was be blunt about the state of Southwark's schools and say she would not send her children to them until they achieved excellence. It did not seem to occur to the paper that it might be even more awkward for her openly to rubbish the Labour-run education authority in which her constituency sits.

While staff at the Guardian find some sympathy with Ms Harman, the sneering and untortured Daily Express had no such difficulty: "We expect it will be the live-in nanny who has to drive little Joseph Harman the long miles from his expensive home to his exclusive grammar school, and fetch him home in the afternoon. His parents cannot possibly have to spend two hours a day as chauffeurs, as they are far too busy making Britain more equal for everyone else."

By Tuesday, three days after the story broke in the Daily Mirror, the story was developing into a real crisis with Labour's most loyal friend, the Mirror, calling in a front-page editorial for her resignation. "As a parent, she is entitled to choose to send her son to any school she can get him into. But as a member of the Shadow Cabinet, she is not entitled to breach party policy and, more crucially, its fundamental philosophy."

The Express, in a front-page story "Harriet in new school shock", reported that her elder son, Harry, 13, had failed the St Olave entrance exam two years earlier. Instead, he had gained a place at the London Oratory, the grant-maintained school chosen by Tony Blair.

The Sun, perhaps scenting blood, carried the headline "Hypocrite Harman is backed by Blair", with a report that a defiant Mr Blair had refused to accept her offer of resignation. The Labour leader, it said, was now facing civil war between New and Old Labour, and his biggest crisis since he took over.

The serious papers were unanimous in pursuing the story on Tuesday's front pages.

Meanwhile, the columnists and political analysts were poring over her decision. "If it's good enough for Harriet, it's good enough for everyone, " penned Janet Daley in the Telegraph, while the more measured Financial Times preferred "Blair set tough test by middle-class loyalist".

By Wednesday, with Ms Harman fighting for her political life, the Sun leader writer went on the attack, describing Mr Blair as "a sitting duck" for Tory taunts. "To win our confidence, Blair's team must have clear, workable policies . . . AND convince us they won't try to dodge the impact. If like Harriet they fail the hypocrisy test, they have a simple choice: Change the policy so we can ALL have the best. Or get out."

The Daily Mail also called for a change in Labour's policy. "For selective education and parental choice, the writing is on Labour's blackboard. And with a vengeance. That very ladder of opportunity, which the sons of Harriet Harman and Tony Blair have been so commendably encouraged to climb, would for countless other parents be kicked away," it said.

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