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

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror