A politician more interested in striking deals than posturing? He belongs to another ageby Michael White / November 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Alan Johnson will be speaking at the Prospect Book Club on 21st November.
Since Labour’s last election winner Tony Blair left office to a standing ovation from the House of Commons almost a decade ago, the party has been looking for a leader who can both enthuse its activists and win power in Parliament. In an age that craves authenticity so much that it risks being seduced by dreamers and fraudsters, few social democratic politicians in the west can match Alan Johnson’s personal history as a basis for moral authority. If only…
Born and raised in poverty in a west London slum, abandoned by his father, his mother dead at 42 when he was 13, his dreams of rock stardom wrecked at 17 by the theft of his electric guitar, Johnson pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps—in his case a postman’s walking boots. He told the story of how he did it in the first two volumes of his award-winning memoirs, This Boy (2013) and Please, Mister Postman (2014). When this third and final volume, The Long and Winding Road, begins in 1990 we find the author—“a 40-year-old divorcee and grandfather”—shortly to be elected leader of the Union of Communication Workers (UCW). The UCW was a moderate trade union once led by Tom Jackson, famous for his handlebar moustache, who was his first significant patron.
Five harrowing years at the helm of the union included a brilliant campaign to thwart Michael Heseltine’s plans to privatise the post office. Facing a tough reelection campaign, Johnson got a surprise phone call from Tony Blair. New Labour’s modernising leader urged him to bring some real-life experience to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). “I have never wanted to be an MP,” Johnson protested to Blair. Nonetheless, Johnson was duly parachuted into the constituency of Hull West and Hessle (known as “Hell West and Hassle” to Labour Party officials) where the outgoing Labour MP, Stuart Randall, had been denied a key to his own party office. It was just 20 days before Blair’s 1997 election landslide, in which the new MP grew the Labour majority from 10,585 to 15,525.