Image by Dan Murrell
Alan Johnson is dispirited. Reflecting on the issue of social mobility in Britain, he fears that his own rise from the poor, postwar tenements of west London to become a Labour home secretary is no longer replicable: “I think it’s doubtful that anyone can come in like I did.” Even more anxious-making for him is the notion that any disadvantaged young people could be inspired by his tale. “I’m not a role model for kids from any kind of background but certainly not from poorer backgrounds,” he tells me when we meet at his airy office on Parliament Street, Westminster. “It was a different era completely.”
In his elegantly observed childhood memoir, This Boy, Johnson tells the story of his early years in the slums of North Kensington in the 1950s. Born the son of a hard-up but honourable charlady and a violent womaniser who deserted the family, he was orphaned at the age of 13. His plucky sister, although just 16, saved Johnson from destitution or care homes by successfully petitioning the local authority for a council flat for the two of them.
In recent weeks, This Boy has won two major literary awards, the Orwell Book Prize for political writing and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. Johnson, smiling shyly, concedes that the endorsement conferred by them has made “a big difference” – confirming his status as a significant writer as well as a politician.
Yet it is the next volume of his memoirs, due out in September and that he is frantically scribbling away at, trying to finish, that he is keen to discuss when we meet. Picking up where This Boy ended, with Johnson as an 18-year-old entering adulthood, and charting his early career as a postman, “This one,” he says, “will be much more of a political book.” His political awakening – a “process of osmosis” – was the result of his experience in the trade union movement. He hopes the new book will convey the excitement of union meetings to the “whole swath of people out there who have no experience of what trade unions do”.
However, he believes the unions have lost their way. “We took the wrong route and we suffered for it,” he says, recalling with incredulity the labour movement’s “peculiarly British” choices in the 1970s, such as opposing the minimum wage and EU economic integration. And the “salvation” once offered by the unions – the miners’ libraries, the Trades Union Congress’s free correspondence courses – has waned “because their numbers have shrunk, their influence has declined”.
Where the unions continue to have influence is in and on the Labour Party. One suspects that their influence in swinging the leadership to Ed Miliband in 2010 was a source of irritation to Johnson. A cheerleader for David Miliband, he even announced the elder Miliband’s candidacy on the BBC’s Today programme just six days after the last general election.
Now, he says, he is “100 per cent” behind Ed Miliband, supporting in particular his reform of the links between Labour and the unions, including a “one member, one vote” system for party leadership elections and an end to the automatic Labour affiliation of union members.
He concedes, however, that the Labour leader trails his brother in style and presentation and “maybe is not as able to connect [with people] as strongly as David can. It’s not his strong point.” He continues: “I can’t pretend that, knocking on doors, people come out and they’re really enthusiastic about Ed.”
He believes that Miliband needs to project a more engaging image to voters and at the same time retain a sense of authenticity, which happens to be Johnson’s
greatest asset. “With him [Miliband] being classified as a geek – which may turn out to be a very cool thing to do; I’ve seen T-shirts with ‘I’m a geek and proud of it’ – he’s going to have to overcome that. What he mustn’t do is try to pretend he’s something he’s not.”
He is encouraged that the Labour leader “doesn’t get carried away when things are going wrong, doesn’t get despondent when things are going badly. So he’s got the temperament.”
He is hopeful that the US election guru David Axelrod, the strategist integral to Barack Obama’s first and second presidential campaign triumphs, can help Miliband. Johnson says Axelrod’s recruitment “was designed to deal perhaps with some of the [presentation] problems we’ve been talking about . . . Policy is just a part of it. It’s image and how you come across – that’s very important.”
Johnson says that foreign election gurus have “become like football managers”. He adds: “You know, why do we go for Fabio Capello? You’ve got to have the best.”
Now he is looking ahead to the general election in May 2015 with enthusiasm. The Labour Party has “been through so much” that it is going to be a “watershed election” – a phrase he extends to the elections of 1945 and 1979 but, oddly, withholds from 1997.
Despite his optimism, Johnson is realistic about the challenges facing Labour and stresses that there has been little time for the party to regroup following the “carnage” of the 2010 election defeat. “Coming back from a comprehensive drubbing in the polls in 2010, the second worst result for us since universal suffrage, within five years – it’s difficult.”
As the last politician to have served as both home secretary and education secretary, he has been following the feud between Theresa May and Michael Gove. During his own time in cabinet between 2004 and 2010, he says, there were “very, very strong and difficult discussions” between the Home Office and the Department for Education about the approach to Islamism – “but none of it got out”. “It was never treated as . . . some kind of issue you could use in a leadership race,” he says. “But with May and Gove, that’s precisely what [it is] – it’s about their own standing within the party. That was wrong, that was bad.”
Though he hardly reserves high praise for Gove, who has “done nothing yet that suggests he’s turned around British education”, Johnson’s contempt for May is biting. “The major villain here is the Home Secretary,” he says. He derides May for the resignation of her closest adviser, who left in an effort to draw a line under the row. “Poor Fiona Cunningham taking the hit here . . . I think that’s wrong.”
It is not the first time May has “disgracefully fingered” one of her subordinates either, he points out, referring to the Home Secretary publicly blaming Brodie Clark, the former UK Border Force chief, for a passport checks fiasco in 2011.
“You just don’t do that – I thought that was despicable,” he says of her treatment of the senior civil servant. And as for special advisers: “They’re your friends. They’re your people.”
Loyalty is important to Johnson. At one point during our conversation, he claims that he could not “betray” the people of his constituency in Hull by standing for London mayor in 2016. Later, he explains why he never bid against Brown for the Labour leadership: “I wasn’t going to stab him in the back. I don’t do treachery.”
There is an enduring sense of decency and honour about the way Johnson has navigated politics. Conversely, as he continues to catalogue May’s perceived errors, it becomes clear that it is her lack of these qualities that he resents. “Abu Qatada,” he says emphatically: “the biggest mistake I’ve ever seen a home secretary make to get someone like him arrested on the wrong day.”
Nor can he fathom how she failed to resign following the absconding of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed and Ibrahim Magag, two terror suspects under control orders who remain at large. “No home secretary would have survived that in the past.”
Her treatment of the police has, furthermore, been a ploy to earn “cheap applause” from “her group of worshippers”. He says: “You need the police force, you need to be able to work with them. You don’t need to be at this constant loggerheads with them, as she is.”
He reiterates: “You have the rows behind closed doors. That’s the sensible thing to do as a senior politician.” He pauses. “So I’m afraid I won’t be joining the Theresa May Fan Club any time soon.”
The conversation turns from politics to his other interests. Clothes remain a passion, and once we touch on the subject I realise
I am talking to a different person. This isn’t Alan Johnson, former home secretary; this is Alan Johnson, former mod. A sartorial evangelist, he launches into an impromptu lesson. The basic rules: Italian tailoring – bellissimo; male MPs’ attire – rubbish.
His own garb is the exception, of course. He is wearing a blazer in tonic blue (“the mod shade”) and natty, houndstooth-checked slacks.
“It’s simple things,” he muses. “In here, you see guys come into the chamber, as soon as there’s any sunshine, and they stick on those linen bloody suits – have you seen them? What an aberration!
“It’s simple things like the fact your socks have got to be long enough so you don’t have a big expanse of leg between your trouser top and your socks. Now you wouldn’t even need to explain that to an Italian.” He removes his right shoe – a black leather slip-on with elaborate broguing – to inspect the artisanal brand and show it off.
That’s before we move on to jackets. He is talking at breakneck speed now: “The five buttons [on the sleeve] are very important, double vent up the back . . . Are you taking all this in? And the other thing, and this is sound advice that I’ve given my daughters over the years,” he pauses gravely: “never have anything to do with a man who wears cufflinks but not a double cuff.”
He bellows theatrically, playing to my laughter: “The answer’s no, don’t trust those people – they’re probably very, very bad people indeed. It’s a matter of style!” l
Lucy Fisher is the winner of the inaugural Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists