Interview: Alan Johnson

The one-time postman became the Labour darling of the Tory press as he contemplated the top job. But

Alan Johnson greets me with a broad smile. It is not a fixed smile, one that denotes discomfort, but nor is it natural. It is a professional smile. We chat mischievously about the prospects of the other candidates, wondering out loud about which of the other four runners will get the required number of nominations to stand.

Tape on, I go straight into the issue of the moment - the treatment and behaviour of the nation's youth, following a Unicef report com paring the UK unfavourably with other nations, and the spate of gang killings in our inner cities. Johnson enters the caveat that some of the report's findings are based on old statistics. Fair enough, perhaps, but I still invite him to discuss the various concerns. Instead, he offers this: "What the report shows is the damage you can do with 18 years in power from the right, and what good you can do with long periods in office from a government that's determined to tackle it." Blame it all on Thatcher? "Theirs [the Tories'] is a disgraceful record," he retorts. "It would be really strange if we were suddenly to shut up about it when such a report is released."

Johnson talks passionately about the achievements of Sure Start children's centres. "All the things we're doing in education, from Sure Start to higher education and through to adult skills, is about closing the social class gap," he says. "Closing that gap has to start at a very young age because most analysis shows that usually it's at the age of 22 months that a bright kid from a working-class background starts declining vis- à-vis a less bright kid from a more affluent background." He cites data showing that literacy and num eracy standards have risen more rapidly at schools in deprived areas than elsewhere. "In terms of absolute poverty, 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. On relative poverty, it's much more difficult when everyone's income is rising . . . It's clear we're getting to the disadvantaged. Are we getting to the most disadvantaged? We need to do more work there."

It riles Johnson that the Conservatives are now talking about quality-of-life issues, with the ind ulgence of the media. He calls David Cameron's agenda "synthetic": only an Eton-educated Tory leader would see the world in this way. People on incapacity benefit and single mothers, Johnson says, "are almost knocking down our door to say, 'We want to get back into work.' I know it's become a mantra, but it's true that the best form of welfare is a job. Christ, we campaigned on that for donkey's years, from the foundation of the party through the Jarrow marches - the dignity of work and the obscenity of people being cast on the scrap heap."

We move on to drugs. Given the links bet ween gangs and drugs, should the approach change? "I don't know what more we can do on drugs policy," he replies. "I suppose we could stop a few party leaders smoking cannabis."

It might seem strange that a man who has a visceral loathing for the Conservatives looks chuffed when I remind him how right-wing newspapers wrote fawning pieces about him last autumn as the most likely "anyone-but-Gordon" candidate. It took Johnson a good two months, following the tension surrounding the so-called Brownite "coup" of September, to decide to stand only for the number-two job, thus removing the Blairites' last hopes of finding a credible rival to the Chancellor. I wondered if he had been in no hurry to disappoint them. "Why should I? I was getting some good coverage, lots of profiles, and nobody really knew what was going to come out of it anyway." Before the party conference, "there were all kinds of people throwing their hats in. I might have wanted to throw my hat in as well."

Why he is different

So what now is his pitch? What makes him different from the other candidates? Johnson says he likes them all. I suggest he ought not to be so bashful. "Modesty comes naturally to the working classes," he insists, and then says: "I could complement the leader; I've got experience; I could help us continue to win elections; I've got links in the trade-union movement; I've been in five different constituencies in my 35 years of party membership and I've been in government for eight years."

He plans an overhaul of party structures if he does win, and says he is setting up a commission led by the MP Shahid Malik. This will report back, before the official launch of the campaign, on a number of matters: the recruitment of new members, particularly wo m en and people from ethnic minorities; a strategy for marginal seats; a new structure, including the role of the party chair; an improved policy-making process; and strengthening links with the trade unions to ensure that the ties are as much emotional, social and to do with policy as they are financial. "We should use the leadership elections to renew the party and make sure it is in the best state possible to fight the next general election. I've got my own ideas, but I also want to listen to ordinary members to get their thoughts."

What about policies? Which areas are ripe for change? "I think we have a very good record. We have an excellent record." No mistakes at all? "Well, I don't think there have been any huge mistakes. By and large, we've played it well, over the past ten years." I suggest that voters, and Labour members, have moved on from 1997 and politicians reading from scripts. They tend nowadays to appreciate a little openness, and perhaps the lack of it is harming the party's performance at the polls. "I think we're in very good nick in the polls," he says. This is on the eve of one survey putting Labour support at a 14-year low.

Undeterred, he suggests that public displays of candour are not in the party's best interests. "If you're going to have an election as leader, then it's the opportunity for your political enemies - as we found out when Charles [Clarke] said the things he said about Gordon - to mark down what candidates say about each other. You have to be absolutely sure that there is an appetite for this and I don't think there is an appetite for a contest. You certainly don't have a contest for the sake of it. There's nothing wrong with coronations."

He launches a swipe at Peter Hain and others. "You can go for the cheers and applause of your members, and even your ex-members, but the British public are watching. It's totally different if your party is in government, so there's no case for picking over the past ten years, where we went right and where we went wrong." Really? "Well, we could have this debate. What difference would this debate make to somebody on a good income, in a good career? Probably it doesn't make any difference to some of your readers. It doesn't make any difference to you, probably. It makes an awful lot of difference to the people I represent. It makes an awful lot of difference to people from my kind of background."

Middle-class lefties, in other words, indulge in criticising Labour because ultimately, they do not care if it loses. That, one might say, is a moot point. As newspaper clippings love to point out, Johnson was orphaned at the age of 12 and was then raised by his elder sister. He married at 17 and by the time he was 20 he had three children. He left school with no qualifications and became a postman. "I raised three kids on a council estate in Slough. My foreground, my background, my hinterland, are all working-class. I'm not on the dinner-party circuit in Islington."

Money talks

Johnson was one of new Labour's first modernisers, and the only senior trade-union leader to back Blair's scrapping of Clause Four in 1994. One of the party's achievements, he says, has been to combine the needs of "aspirants" with the less advantaged. He recalls canvassing in the 1983 election in his home area of Slough. "The people on this estate felt that Thatcher had given them an opportunity to buy their own council houses. And we were still in theoretical discussions endlessly about Nicaragua and Cuba."

It is only when we talk about City bonuses and other business practices that Johnson concedes that all might not be perfect in the new Labour garden. Last year, the private equity company Permira bought Unilever's UK and European frozen-food business. A few days later, it cut the pension provision for workers at the Birds Eye plant in Johnson's Hull constituency, and promptly closed the factory down. The GMB has been mounting a vocal campaign against Permira to draw attention to its "asset stripping".

Johnson is keen to support the union. "I don't know what you can do to deter this, but it's good that there's a focus on this. It's also good that the GMB is focusing on what's happening with hedge funds and what's happening with private equity companies: that's absolutely right. It ought to be a subject for debate."

He concedes that Unilever "probably would have closed the plant anyway" if it had remained the owner, but talks of a duty of care to employees, which costs money. "You were dealing with an employer that had a feel for the community and that had good employment relations and dealt properly with its trade unions. One of the reasons they [Permira] sold Birds Eye off was because they couldn't face up to the decisions they needed to take. They ducked out of them." Johnson says politicians should exercise caution. "If you get it wrong you just find the same things are happening but you've damaged an important part of the economy." Still, by backing the GMB campaign, he is hoping to change the mood in the country, and put pressure on such companies. "It's public opinion that changed people's attitudes to treating employees properly."

As Johnson lets himself be a little more candid, impressions of him improve. My colleague Martin Bright and I have now seen all five declared candidates. (We are waiting for Hazel Blears to declare.) Some have used the opportunity for grandstanding and headline-grabbing. Others exercised caution and were defensive. Dispiritingly absent so far has been vigorous debate on the way ahead. There is still time. But if a party in government for a decade closes in on itself during its deputy leadership contest, and avoids a meaningful contest for leader, it will have only itself to blame for reverses in the polls.

Alan Johnson: the CV

Born 17 May 1950, London
1962 Orphaned at 12, he is raised by his elder sister in a council flat
1968 Becomes a postman. Joins Union of Communication Workers. The following year, moves to Slough
1992 Aged 41, becomes youngest general secretary in history of the UCW
1994 Only senior union leader to back abolition of Clause Four
May 1997 Elected MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. Becomes parliamentary private secretary to Dawn Primarolo at the Treasury
July 1999 Appointed minister for competitiveness, Department of Trade and Industry
2000 His proudest achievement: Trawlermen's Compensation Scheme, providing £46m for those who lost their jobs after the cod wars
June 2001 Minister of state for employment and the regions
June 2003 Minister for higher and further education
September 2004 Joins cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
May 2005 Appointed Trade and Industry Secretary
May 2006 Reshuffled again, becomes Education Secretary
June 2006 Says the idea of him becoming prime minister is like "putting the Beagle on to Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure"
November 2006 Launches deputy leadership campaign
Research by Sophie Pearce