A politician more interested in striking deals than posturing? He belongs to another ageby / 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.
“Few social democratic politicians in the west can match Alan Johnson’s personal history as a basis for moral authority”
After a few months at Westminster, Johnson became an unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), then a junior industry minister in 1999, and occupied five cabinet posts between 2004 and Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010. It was a virtual postman’s round of Whitehall addresses for an emollient character who could be relied on not to make unnecessary waves or too many enemies: the friendly postie could deliver a policy package without enraging the dog. Here the reader is treated to cameo treatments of thorny policy problems such as the introduction of university student fees (Johnson was cynically given the higher education job precisely because he didn’t go to university). But this is really not that sort of book. You hear more details about his private office staff than about the “TB-GB” battles, which he sidestepped, and there is little cabinet gossip. Johnson the writer, like Johnson the man, is witty, warm and magnanimous. But he lacks malice and his memoir would have been enlivened by a few more barbs. In The Long and Winding Road he deplores only one fellow MP by name, Nigel Griffiths, for sneaky conduct. Even John Prescott, Johnson’s turbulent East Hull neighbour, is spared a verbal clip round the ear.
That round of cabinet posts was also a bit of a waste. No cabinet minister can do much in a year. Johnson did some good when the chance arose and not much harm. But the leadership of the party that some colleagues briefly entertained for him—as the man who could succeed, or even oust, Gordon Brown—was not to be. On the evidence presented in this book it was never likely to happen. Leaders shaped by public schools, like Blair and David Cameron, carry burdens of expectation and other private scars beneath a polished armour of entitlement. So too, evidently, do the clever, nail-biting children of the Presbyterian manse like Gordon Brown. But being raised in Dickensian poverty leaves deeper marks (“emotional repercussions” as Johnson obliquely puts it), which even the most successful careers rarely quite eradicate. Certainly not Charles Dickens, nor the Alan Johnson we meet here, though Brixton’s less traumatised John Major did better.
The story that opens this volume exposes the wound that will not heal. In 1990, a reluctant Johnson is persuaded by his sister Linda—the heroine of volume one who at 16 saved him from a care home—to attend the wedding of Sandra, their half-sister by Steve “Ginger” Johnson. It would be Johnson’s first meeting with his father Steve since the feckless pub pianist had deserted his mother Lily when he was a child. The prospect triggers a flood of bitter memories (“DIY cognitive therapy” our author calls them), self-pity and anger mixed with distress for the long-dead Lily.
Does he thump Steve? Of course not. Steve’s “Hello son,” is greeted with a “Hi,” but there is no reconciliation with one of the “snapped branches of our family tree.” Just three words passed between the rising union official and his indifferent father. Yet it is significant that Johnson chooses to end his narrative, not with the pinnacle of his own career as Home Secretary, but with his father’s death in 2004, and his own imagined words of comfort for his mother Lily: “Everything will be all right, Lily, all right, for all of us.”
It certainly was for Johnson and the talented young advisers he promoted—including Billy Hayes, ex-leader of the Communications Workers Union (CWA), Julia Simpson, who ended up on the board of British Airways (and the current editor of Prospect, who was then a Whitehall special adviser). But others he knew were less lucky. As with his earlier volumes, Johnson paints a nostalgic portrait of working-class life from the 1950s to the 1990s, its loyalties and hobbies, its humour (he was always “Mr Kite” to his second wife’s family, in honour of Peter Sellers’s militant shop steward in the 1959 comedy, I’m All Right, Jack) but especially its unfulfilled potential. In particular, he often pauses to admire the formidable women he works with—in the union, his constituency and in government—describing their “self-unimportance.” It is the phrase he attaches to MP Dawn Primarolo, who never quite made cabinet.
Yet the label could just as easily be applied to himself. He lacks the ego and ruthlessness which—as Theresa May has lately demonstrated—is needed to get to the top. “I was no campaigner,” he concedes, as he describes his narrow victory (by just 370 votes) over his rival, Derek Hodgson, to become UCW boss in 1992. Hodgson was much better organised and got the top job when Johnson went off to Westminster, but Johnson admits he had “arrogantly” assumed his superior qualities would be self-evident to voters. “I never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
“Alan Johnson’s pragmatic world of trade unionism and incremental reform is alien to doctrinaire souls and revolutionary romantics”
This helps explain why Johnson’s own political career seems to have ended on a downswing. Unexpectedly defeated for deputy leader in 2007 by the more forceful Harriet Harman (she did a better job than he would have done, he concedes), and a diffident failure as Ed Miliband’s shadow chancellor—he got the job because he wasn’t Ed Balls. He also under-performed this year as leader of Labour’s EU Remain campaign. Staunch European though he is, Johnson has nothing to say in this book about the Brexit disaster. Nor does he even mention Jeremy Corbyn, who deserves a greater share of Labour blame for Brexit and much else, as Johnson has made clear elsewhere. Apart from occasional swipes at the “delusional left” and conventional justifications for disputed New Labour policies, including the Iraq war (for which he would vote again), Corbynism might as well not exist in Johnson’s narrative.
And why should it? Johnson’s pragmatic world of deal-making trade unionism and incremental reform is alien to doctrinaire souls and revolutionary romantics. For his 1992 campaign to derail post office privatisation, Johnson did not hesitate to use Thatcherite Tim Bell’s lobbying skills to maximise Tory resistance to the plans. As a constituency MP, he worked quietly with retired Hull trawlermen to win the compensation promised after the collapse of the long-distance fleet (the Icelandic “cod war” was to blame, not Europe) and to sort out their equally neglected pensions. It meant working the system, and does not sound very Jeremy.
Instead his late career has blossomed into something that may prove more enduring than cabinet red boxes. He has written an unexpected literary success, a self-consciously modest masterpiece of the genre. In its gentle Englishness, Johnson’s work resembles the three-volume memoir produced by another poor boy made good, the late Richard Hoggart. He too provided a shrewdly observed, wryly humorous account of a lost world, kinder but in many ways harsher: Britain before Thatcherism and credit cards, before 24/7 news and Twitter, before cleaner air and the gig economy. It was a world where men worked (the CWU didn’t want women posties) and wives mostly raised the kids; a world where change was too often resisted. As Johnson ruefully acknowledges while watching Thatcherism’s brutal assault on union power, “some of the fault lay with us.”
Like Hoggart, Johnson passed the 11+. His mother Lily has passed a scholarship exam but couldn’t afford to take her place and was determined that her clever son would. Whereas Hoggart stayed the course and went on to academic eminence, the orphaned Johnson left Sloane Grammar at the age of 15 to become a Tesco shelf-stacker and make his way via the university of life (TUC branch). Clever Dennis Skinner made the same choice in the more uncompromising world of coal pit solidarity. As an MP, Skinner made the honourable but limiting choice not to compromise with office as Johnson and Prescott did. In Sailing Close to the Wind, Skinner wrote a much more acerbic memoir.
But Johnson emerges the more rounded man. Hoggart, with his years in workers’ education, would be proud. All three volumes are dotted with unpretentious references to his evolving cultural tastes, from QPR, Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and the Beatles (he is tongue-tied when as a minister he meets Paul McCartney) to Robert Frost and TS Eliot, Philip Larkin and Andrew Marvell, the last two fellow carpetbaggers from Hull. Monet gets a nod. Despite its early sorrows, plus two divorces and the death of his daughter Natalie at the age of 32, this is a life well lived and gracefully evoked.
Its serendipity is best summed up on the occasion a painter turned up to decorate his newly rented constituency flat in Hull. Thanks to Charles Buchan, Johnson recognised him instantly. “You’re Chris Chilton! The great Hull City centre forward!” And it was. “Like Bobby Charlton arriving to fix the plumbing,” explains Mr Self-Unimportant.