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The Politics Interview: Alan Johnson

The amiable postman, the ‘‘good, cor blimey cockney’’, insists Labour must get behind its leader. Bu

On a long train journey from Hull to London with Alan Johnson, appointed Home Secretary on the day we meet, there is one question that demands an urgent answer. Would he stand as Labour leader, and heed the calls of those who insist he is now the party’s best – and possibly only – chance of winning the next election? Johnson’s answer is carefully worded, but very different from the one he gave on Desert Island Discs in October 2007, when he said he simply wasn’t up to the job.

“I can’t look you in the eye and say, hand on heart, I will never be leader of the Labour Party if that means I would never under any circumstances run for the leadership. But I can look at you, hand on heart, and say that I do not believe I could do the job better than Gordon Brown. I don’t believe anyone could. I think it would be wrong to challenge Gordon – he is the best man for the job. I can look at you, hand on heart, and say it’s never been my ambition to be prime minister. I’m not driven by that kind of ambition. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure that the party under its current leadership is successful.”

So confident does Johnson claim to be in the Prime Minister that his next comment appears to predict that Brown will be in No 10 until 2017. “When Gordon steps down after ten years of successful leadership I’ll be too old anyway.” He still repeats, however, that he is “not saying there are no circumstances” under which he could be a candidate for the leadership.

Decoded, those comments suggest that Johnson supports Brown but would stand if the PM were deposed. “If I didn’t think there was someone there who could do the job better, then I’d be taking a different view,” he says.

When I first met Johnson he was a new MP who said he “wouldn’t mind being a junior minister”, but displayed no ambition beyond that. His latest words make it clear that he has not completely ruled out holding the highest office in the land. That will give hope to Labour rebels – many of whom believe Johnson’s amiable persona, humble roots and relaxed demeanour on television make him the ideal leader to take on David Cameron – that the Home Office could yet be a staging post en route to No 10. They will be disappointed to learn, however, that there is absolutely no prospect of a Johnson challenge, not least because his avowed belief in Brown’s abilities seems genuine.

Earlier in the day, he mentions an article in the Independent by a US journalist who says that most Americans are bemused by the threat to Brown’s position, given his response to the global economic crisis. Later, he produces the paper and demands that I read it. The rest of the world may hold Brown in high regard, but the Parliamentary Labour Party is in despair over its pummelling in the local and European elections. Does Johnson think the Labour MPs who want to see him in Downing Street are mad? “I don’t do false modesty. I think I have got skills.” But, he adds: “Don’t believe your own propaganda. There’s someone there who can do the job better, and you have to put that in front of any other consideration.”

Johnson recognises that, given the mood on the back benches, No 10 must listen to the critics. “There are things that Gordon needs to do, obviously, to react to this. Of course. Backbenchers and PLP members feel that they are not sufficiently engaged, not listened to for whatever reason.” But he is firm that the carping must come to an end. “This party needs to get behind its leader,” he says. “This party needs to get this out of their system.”

Differences are sure to re-emerge this month when government plans to part-privatise the Post Office come before the House of Commons. The proposals are being furiously opposed by dozens of Labour MPs, but Johnson, who led the Communication Workers Union before becoming an MP in 1997, backs them. “This is something I’ve lived with for 30 years. I led the campaign to stop the Royal Mail being privatised under the Tories, but we’re not proposing privatisation. I think it should be in the public sector. Having said that, I don’t believe that the Royal Mail is the one area of British life where, for ideological reasons, you don’t allow a penny of private finance into it. It’s ludicrous.”

Many Labour MPs will not agree, but they do believe Johnson is the best man to take the fight to Cameron. “I genuinely believe Cameron is there for the taking,” Johnson says. “I really do believe we can win the next election and I think we can win the next election under Gordon Brown.”

He mocks the Tory leader for saying that he would consider introducing fixed-term parliaments. “Cameron talking about the constitution looks like an elephant on a skateboard. Tories do not do the constitution. They oppose devolution. They’d probably take away votes for women if they had the chance. We’ve had Cameron-the-hoodie-hugger. And we’ve ended up with the Tories being with a nasty little reactionary clique in Brussels, opposed to Obama in Washington, and committed to a world of austerity in Westminster. Brilliant.”

When he first entered parliament, Johnson says, he was shocked by the size of the allowances MPs could claim. The Daily Telegraph recently published his own modest expenses, and in effect gave him a clean bill of health. That makes it easy for him to deride Cameron and Nick Clegg as “the self-righteous brothers”. “From the day they walked in, both of them virtually claimed the maximum amount of money they could. It’s all right saying: ‘I didn’t claim for patio heaters’ – they couldn’t. They were at the maximum; they couldn’t claim any more. They both had to pay some money back.” The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders, he says, don’t have “the moral authority to be pious. They have nothing to be pious about.”

Other leading Labour figures advance the same arguments, but Johnson’s fans believe his comments carry more weight, partly because his compelling life story puts the Tory leader’s privileged upbringing into sharper focus. He was raised by his 15-year-old sister after his mother died, and lived in a council flat until he was 37. “I don’t buy the backstory stuff,” Johnson says. “Me and my sister didn’t go through a tough childhood to give me a good backstory for a life in politics.

“There is an element of inverted snobbery, I suppose. ‘The pearly dauphin,’ I’ve seen it said. ‘He’s a good cor blimey cockney bloke.’ But it’s fair enough; I take the mickey out of posh people sometimes as well, so I don’t mind that. David Cameron is as unable to have any influence on his childhood and past as I was. I’m not going to be defined by my background.”

That may be so, but his is a journey few others at the highest level of politics have travelled. “Within the space of three years, I left school, played in two bands, cut a record, got married, had two kids. That’s a lot to do in a short time.

I went to school on the King’s Road, Chelsea, in the Sixties. We used to sit at lunchtime outside the World’s End pub because that’s where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards drank. It was just a buzz, a real buzz, a really exciting time. I’ve never [recaptured] the excitement of playing in a band. Nothing has re-created that for me and I did it when I was really young, I was playing in pubs I was too young to drink in.”

Even reaching one of the four great offices of state hasn’t changed his view that “it’s been kind of downhill all the way from there”. Johnson laughs as he says that, but his critics may not find another confession too amusing. “I was drinking in pubs underage,” says the new Home Secretary. I ask if he has ever taken drugs. “No, never. That’s why I can still remember the Sixties.”

Music remains a big part of his life. “I’d love to have been a songwriter more than anything else. You know, you hit the right song and you can live off that for the rest of your life.” The last record he bought was by an American band called the New Pornographers. “They are really good,” he says. Newspaper columnists will no doubt be swiftly googling their lyrics.

There may not be so much time for music now, however, and Johnson sighs when asked how he feels about the 24-hour police protection, which will be part of his life from the moment our train pulls in to King’s Cross. “Not good,” he says. “But I realise it comes with the job. I value my solitude, and being able to walk up Victoria Street or over Lambeth Bridge. I like walking and thinking, and I like getting away and doing things on my own. I like travelling to Hull on the train by myself, toddling around meeting constituents and all that. But I’ll get used to it, I guess.”

He jokes that he will be “taken into custody” once the journey ends, but Johnson’s liberty was extended for a few hours by his decision to travel to his Hull West and Hessle constituency, on the morning of the reshuffle, to keep an appointment with a group of former trawlermen. “They did the most difficult, dangerous job and got treated absolutely disgustingly. I’m trying to get their pensions that were never paid over 30 years.” This has been an issue Johnson has long campaigned for; he even mentioned it in his maiden speech. “The compensation scheme that we managed to establish – which was my greatest political victory – is going to be reopened and there’s going to be a bit more money for them.”

He received the call asking if he would move to the Home Office on the journey north. Did he have any doubts about accepting? “None whatsoever.” His failure to take on Brown has left some Labour MPs disappointed and depressed. Some think Johnson is simply too laid-back to rise to the challenge, and point to his lacklustre and disorganised deputy leadership campaign in 2007 as proof. “I haven’t dwelled on it. Harriet deserved to win. I always said I was the best man for the job but, as in all walks of life, there was a better woman.”

He says the campaign was “a lot of fun”, and he enjoyed “having very good debates. I don’t for one moment regret it.” Another criticism levelled at Johnson is that, although he may be popular, few know what he stands for. “I stand for greater equality and the abolition of poverty,” he replies. Is he a socialist? “Yes.”

Others say he was responsible for a more “nannying” agenda as health secretary and also before that when he was at Education. “Better the nanny state than the neglectful state,” Johnson says. “I believe in an active state and that’s a big difference between left and right. We’re in a period in politics when those historic differences are so apparent, whether it’s laissez-faire versus an active government, whether it’s greater equality and spreading wealth, or whether it’s tax breaks for the rich. “These issues are the meat and gravy of politics and they are back on the agenda.”

Johnson feels confident enough to say that James Purnell, who resigned from the cabinet and demanded that Brown step down, should return to front-line politics. “Discourteous” is how he describes the manner of Purnell’s departure. “I think it’s a mistake. He’s a tremendous talent . . . and it’s a waste that he’s gone to the back benches. But to do that in such a destructive way was wrong.” But, he adds: “Gordon has a record of bringing people back in, people who are not said to be of totally the same political outlook as him. And as James is so talented, and as time heals lots of wounds, I’d like to see him back in a Gordon Brown cabinet at some stage.”

A further comment is unlikely to please Ed Balls, another leadership contender and would-be chancellor. “I’m pleased that Darling is still in the same job. Alistair has done really well.”

Alan Johnson: the CV

1950 Born 17 May in London
1965 Leaves Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea, central London
1968 Starts work as a postman; joins Union of Communication Workers (UCW)
1974-81 Local officer, Slough branch, UCW
1981 Joins UCW national executive council
1992 Elected youngest ever general secretary of UCW
1993-97 Serves as general council member
of Trades Union Congress. Member of TUC national executive committee and of Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International, to which UCW is affiliated
1997 Elected Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle in May. Appointed parliamentary private secretary to Dawn Primarolo, paymaster general, in December
1999 Made minister for competitiveness at the Department for Trade and Industry
2001 After May general election becomes minister for employment relations and
the regions
2003-2006 Takes on a series of portfolios: minister for lifelong learning and higher education; work and pensions secretary; trade and industry secretary; education
and skills secretary
2007 Joins Gordon Brown’s cabinet as health secretary
2009 Named Home Secretary in June
cabinet reshuffle
Research by James Cave

Over at the Blue Bell pub in Hull, one of the trawlermen jokes that “the new prime minister will be able to sort it out”. Johnson tells them that reopening their compensation package will “cost the government a lot of money. But that’s not our problem.” Coming from another minister, that might have been described as a gaffe, but Johnson has always been regarded as something of an anti-politician. He says he rarely socialises with other MPs, though he describes Dawn Primarolo, Ian Stewart, David Miliband and Gerry Sutcliffe as friends.

“When you say the word ‘friends’, I think of Ernie Shears, a postman with me in the Seventies in Slough. Ernie’s very ill at the moment, but every year on my birthday he sends me 50 quid, and on his I send him 50 quid. We might as well just keep the same 50 quid and not bother with the cheque.”

He could always put the next birthday gift towards the cost of another designer tie. Today, he wears a patterned Kenzo tie, although he insists it is “just a cheapo one. The Vivienne Westwood’s my favourite.” His watch must have cost a few quid, too, I say, but the Home Secretary says he got it free at a conference. “It looks expensive, but it’s cheap as chips,” he laughs. “Sums me up.”

A few days later I speak to Johnson on his way to work. At 7.30am on the morning after Brown confronted his critics at a packed meeting of the PLP in Westminster, his mood is less cheery than before, more determined and clear. “It was a robust meeting, where people with different opinions were able to speak,” he says. “The PM knows he needs to listen much more closely to the PLP.”

The meeting was, he says, “a watershed moment. The party agreed that we can’t go on like this. Do we back or sack our leader? And the overwhelming majority decided to back him. There is no difference on policy, no ideological difference. So we can unite.”

I ask him about a poll in the Independent that found he was the only potential Labour leader who could deny the Tories a general-election victory. He has not seen the poll, but says: “Any politician who takes these polls seriously is asking for trouble. It’s fantasy politics.”

There are many Labour supporters who share precisely that fantasy, of the unassuming for-mer postman becoming the next occupant of 10 Downing Street. But for the moment, at least, they will have to wait.

Gloria De Piero is political editor of GMTV

Gloria De Piero is a former Labour MP and journalist

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!