I recently attended an event at Brand Exchange, a club in the City where I am a member. The speaker was the Rt Hon Alan Johnson who enjoyed a distinguished career in Trade Unions and then Parliament. After many years as a postman, Alan worked his way up through the Trade Union ranks to become General Secretary of the Communications Workers’ Union before being invited by Tony Blair to stand for election as an MP in 1997.He held several posts in the Blair and Brown governments, including Work & Pension Secretary, Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. Alan retired in 2017 after being a leading figure in Labour’s failed Remain campaign in 2016.
Alan may have retired as a politician but he is working as hard as ever as an author. Indeed I think he would want to be known as a writer as much as a politician. He cites the grave of Roy Jenkins, another distinguished Labour politician, on which he is memorialised as ‘writer and politician’. Alan has already published four volumes of memoir: the first covered his childhood up to the age of 18[i]
; then two more on his life up to the position of Home Secretary[ii]
and then the latest is about music as his first ambition was to be a Rock & Roll star.[iii]
Alan grew up in North Kensington not too far from Grenfell Tower, the site of an appalling fire two years ago. The health inequality there compared with wealthy, neighbouring South Kensington involves a life expectancy difference of 16 years.
His father, Steve Johnson, was a musician but also a feckless drunk and a gambler. He walked out in 1958 when Alan was eight years old. Steve arranged matters so that the Family Allowance went to him. Alan’s mother, Lily, struggled to bring him and his elder sister Linda up. But one day she won £70 on the football pools and let the children decide how to spend it. With his half Alan bought an electric guitar and a Dansette record player. He also bought Bert Weedon‘s famous Play in a Day
, which has inspired Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Sting, Brian May, Pete Townsend and countless others to learn how to play the electric guitar.
Alan’s grandmother had died of cancer in her 40s and Lily was convinced that the same thing would happen to her. It did in 1964 when Linda was 16 and Alan 14. Steve was nowhere to be seen and the Council wanted Linda and Alan to go in to a home. Linda refused and a social worker called Mr Pepper found them a maisonette in Battersea and kept a watchful eye on them. Alan was still trying to become a pop star but in the end he realised he needed a proper job and a friend took him down to the local sorting office and he started work as a postman. By now, still in his teens, he was a husband and father, so in his short life he had already experienced being in a family of two parents with a sister, then just his mother and sister, then just his sister and then with the responsibilities of a wife and child.
In 1969 he and his young family left West London to start a new life in Slough. Alan was still working as a postman, now taking on every bit of overtime he could, working twelve-hour shifts six days a week. Then he became involved in the post workers trade union. His negotiating skills and charismatic style soon came to the notice of senior members of the Labour Party. As General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union he was one of the most powerful trade union figures in the land. He was therefore surprised that in the run up to the 1997 General Election the then leader of the Labour Party called him personally to ask him to stand for Parliament. He had no desire to change his place for that of a backbench MP but Blair assured him he would have a place in government.
He was parachuted into the safe seat of Hull West and Hessle, and entered Parliament as an MP after the landslide election victory for Labour in May 1997. Blair kept his word and Alan was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to Dawn Primarolo and moved up to his first ministerial post at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999. He was moved to the Department for Education and Skills in 2003 as Minister for Higher Education although he had left school at 15.
In 2004 he was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. After the 2005 General Election he moved back to the DTI as Secretary of State but after the 2006 local elections moved back to Education and Skills as Secretary of State. During his time there he looked at improving pay and working conditions for teachers, so you might say his Trade Unionist’s instincts were still with him.
In 2007 in Gordon Brown’s first cabinet as Prime Minister, he became Secretary of State for Health where he, like most ministers in the role, had to deal with controversy. The Department was highly criticised in the Court of Appeal over their intervention in a NHS Trust case of dismissal.
In 2009 Alan became Home Secretary, one of the great offices of State, an amazing achievement for someone who grew up in poverty, was effectively orphaned at 14 and left school at 15.
In 2006 when John Prescott stood down as Deputy Leader, Alan stood for the post of Deputy Leader and was successfully nominated onto the ballot paper with the most number of nominations. He led in rounds 2 to 4 but was overtaken by Harriet Harman in the last round, eventually finishing with 49.56% of the vote.
In 2010 when there was a leadership contest following Gordon Brown’s defeat in the General Election, Alan was much touted as a potential successor but he announced that he would not be standing and would instead be backing David Miliband. David’s brother Ed won to most people’s surprise and Ed Miliband appointed Alan as Shadow Chancellor. He performed miserably in the role unable it seemed to manage the intricacies of it. He resigned after just three and a half months in the job, citing personal reasons. He was replaced by Ed Balls.
As Ed Miliband performed predictably badly by 2014 there was again considerable speculation that Alan would ride to Labour’s rescue. He did not do so but later became a strong critic of Miliband’s successor, Jeremy Corbyn. When Corbyn was elected leader for the second time in 2016 Alan told The Times:
“He is totally incompetent and incapable of being the leader of a political party and he knows it”. As for moderates like himself he said: “We’ve got to recapture this party again otherwise it’s dead and finished and gone”.[iv]
However, he retired from politics when Theresa May called the 2017 General Election.
I have quite a lot in common with Alan Johnson. We were born within a month of each other. We both love football, he’s a Queens Park Rangers supporter and I follow Manchester United. We both love the Beatles; all his books are named after Beatles ’songs. He told us that he was inspired at school by discovering the books of George Orwell and they had a major effect on me too. Despite this I told him that my politics were very different. But I said that I did not want to live in a one party state so how could we get away from the appalling political situation we are in today? He thinks the answer lies in electoral reform. He advocates the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) system as recommended by the Jenkins Commission. He has consistently made the case for this within the Labour Party and publicly. However, the House of Commons turned it down. Perhaps we need to think more creatively about constitutional reform.
It is useless to play the “If” game in history. What if King John had been a nice guy? What if Joan of Arc had stayed at home? What if Lord North had stopped taxing the American colonists? Such questions are better left to novelists like Robert Harris who has written superb novels imagining, for example, what Britain would have been like if Hitler had won the War.[v]
But I can’t help thinking how different British politics would have been if Alan Johnson had succeeded Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party in 2010. He might well have won the General Election in 2015 in which case there would have been no EU in-out referendum in 2016. If not that, he almost certainly would have won the General Election in 2017 in which case he would have done a much better job in negotiating the UK’s exit on favourable terms. And in any case we would not face the appalling prospect of a Corbyn-led government and the consequent collapse of the British economy.