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Friday 18th May 2012 | 00:01
WORDS: PAUL WAUGH AND SAM MACRORY
Alan Johnson is back where he started. Nearly two decades since he headed the postal workers union and its campaigns against the Major Government, he’s out on the streets again. In a poacher-turned-gamekeeper-turned-poacher vignette, the former Home Secretary was last week marching with the police against Home Office cuts. Days earlier, Johnson was protesting with workers from his constituency at a BAe shareholders’ meeting.
As he catches his breath in his Commons office overlooking Parliament Square, he claims that both protests underline the difference between this Government and the one in which he served continuously for nearly three full terms of office. The failure to secure BAe jobs at Brough reflected a neglect of manufacturing, while the police cuts underline the Coalition’s misguided priorities, he says.
Speaking under an original ‘The Who’ concert poster (signed by Roger Daltrey, no less), the 62-year-old MP for Hull West and Hessle is still as sharp as the finely-cut suits he made famous in Whitehall. But despite the rediscovered joys of street protest, it’s clear that on the deficit, as on Labour’s future, the former Mod is still very much a moderniser.
Having joked about marching with the cops - “I didn’t get any abuse..they love me!” – he’s serious about the need to make the right kind of cuts. When he ran the Home Office, he says, spending on overtime and procurement were tackled but overall spending was protected. And in a jibe that may chime with some Tory backbenchers, he says: “It’s very difficult to justify to the British people that you’ve made international development a priority, but not policing.”
Johnson points out that the police understand the need for savings, just like the voters. “The public are anti-incompetence, but they are not anti-austerity. They want a government that gets it right. They’ve cut them an awful lot of slack, they know these are difficult times, they understand that there’s going to be job losses, they understand that austerity is the theme. But the Government act as if they inherited recession and delivered growth. They inherited growth and delivered a recession. It’s not working,” he says.
Johnson believes that Labour can only prosper if it understands that public mood. Is the ‘deficit denier’ tag one that the party has to lose? “Yes, that’s why we will never reap the benefits from a kind of Bradford West like
George Galloway because he can go and say what he likes. What we mustn’t do is be dragged to the extreme. Our policy is that yes, the fiscal deficit does have to come down, it does have to be addressed. This is not the way to address it, because you won’t get the fiscal deficit down without growth.”
As for his party’s own relations with the unions, Johnson labels Ed Milband’s proposed £5000 cap on party funding a “game-changer”. Yet he doesn’t back an opt-in on a political levy for Union members. To make his case, the former Work and Pensions Secretary makes an intriguing comparison with the shift to an opt-out pensions system. “It’s not that people don’t want pensions, it’s the fact that because they have to opt in to their pensions scheme they leave the bit of paper behind the clock and never get round to doing it, which is why the government is changing to auto-enrolment and we’ve got consensus on that. They know full well that people who don’t opt in to the political levy won’t be because of any political reason or even a financial reason. You’ll opt out because they won’t get round to doing it. There’s no high principle.”
As for reforms to Labour’s conference votes, Johnson argues that “there is no earthly reason” why the Unions vote should remain at 50 per cent – he says 28 per cent, as on the National Policy Forum, “is about right”.
And on the party’s leadership election, he is equally adamant that the system has to be reformed. “It has to change. I bow to no one in my commitment to the unions being a crucial element and an advantage to us in the Labour Party but… as we saw in the last elections, this crazy situation where Conservatives and Trots can vote in our leadership elections, because that’s basically what they can do if they pay the political levy, no other political party would allow that. For that reason alone it needs reform. The current system… you can’t defend as democratic.”
Asked what for his own specific solution, he smiles: “You invite me to put my anorak on, if not my cagoule… There is a way that you can do this so that the union turnout reflects their proportion of the vote. That’s a very simple one. You could even keep the electoral college in that sense but you shouldn’t have, whatever it was, a 16 per cent turn out looking as it trumped a kind of 98 percent turnout for the PLP and a very big turnout for members. If it’s a low turnout then that’s reflected in the vote and there’s ways to do that.
“There is a way to move to simple one member one vote I wouldn’t be against that though I’d prefer to find a one member-one vote that reflected the three parts of the party: PLP, the members, and the trade unions but you know there’s a whole variety of ways you can do this.”
Johnson’s reforming instincts – he was a passionate campaigner for AV – wins him friends amongst Liberal Democrat MPs, and he remains a keen supporter of a future Lib-Lab pact. “I can see a coalition, yeah. Labour colleagues [are] screaming because they have tussles with the Lib Dems. But, you know, we’re going to have to get used to the situation in this country where we get the worst of both worlds: we’re not going to get electoral reform for a long time but we get a public that doesn’t want to give one party an absolute mandate.”
However, Johnson adds, there is a stumbling block to any future deal – Nick Clegg. “Nick’s been damaged and the Lib Dems have been damaged, by one thing. And they will try and hide it, and they will try and pretend it didn’t happen, but … what they did over student fees actually besmirched politics. That was a fundamental piece of cynicism that they wont be forgiven for and that might be the reason why, you know, we’ll find it very difficult to do a deal with Nick Clegg if he’s still around at the next election.”
And, he warns, the Lib Dem leader should know what happens to unpopular incumbents. “Curiously enough, Nick’s problem was he wouldn’t do a deal with us if Gordon [Brown] was still in power. That might come back to bite him….”
Off the back of the local election gains, Labour has a healthy poll lead. But Johnson sounds every inch the greybeard as he urges caution. “There is no triumphalism [about the local elections]. It was good, it wasn’t glorious. And it is a mid-term election and there’s lots of precedents of people doing well in those elections and doing badly in general elections. But coming on top of the Government’s double-dip recession, donors, the Budget was a disaster, he [Ed] needed that kind of response from the public.”
As for the recent ‘omnishambles’ that has helped give Labour that healthy lead, Johnson says the Budget was ‘shocking’. He and fellow East Yorkshire MPs – many of them Conservative – are lobbying hard against the ‘caravan tax’. His constituency is very much his current focus. Not just a former Home Secretary, but a former Education Secretary, Work and Pensions Secretary, Trade and Industry Secretary and Health Secretary, he has more experience of Government than most. And, while he says “never say never” on the idea of a Shadow Cabinet post, he has no yearning to rejoin the party frontbench in the Commons.
“I’ve found it more difficult, probably, to convert to Opposition because once you’ve been in Government it’s very difficult to sit on the outside and just pretend you’re in Government” admits Johnson, who was appointed to the government ranks within his first year as an MP.
“We had a great intake and there’s lots of people there that will feel really, really driven by getting a front bench role.
“And, you know, I might as well be honest about it: to me, being a backbencher and having more time to spend in my constituency, is what motivates me more than sitting opposite whatever minister is there and, you know, playing ‘pretend’. It’s as well to be honest about that, because you won’t give it your best if you say ‘I’d love to do this it would be a great honour and privilege to the party’, and then you’re not doing your best because you don’t really want to do it…”
If his own ambitions no longer lie in the Shadow Cabinet, what about Mayor of London? Johnson brushes aside Ken Livingstone’s claim that he lacked the ‘appetite’ for the candidacy back in 2010.
“I thought about it. But I think the party made a mistake in having that selection at the same time as the leadership election. For a start it was two years off. In the end, my decision was a commitment to Hull, where I’ve had 15 really good years and a city which I love, rather than the city I was born in.
“But for any MP from outside London to throw their hat into the ring for the Mayor two years before the election is going to take place, you are either going to pack up your job as a Member of Parliament which means you lose the profile and you lose all your income, or you don’t stand for it. It means the only people who can stand for it – as MPs – are ones like Boris, who was close to London, or Ken who was a London MP. Or Oona [King] who had been a London MP. So I think that was difficult.”
Did he come under pressure from those colleagues who said Labour could beat Boris with a decent candidate?“There were lots of colleagues who quite liked the idea of Johnson versus Johnson. I left the question open at the time. I don’t think Boris was sitting there petrified at the idea of Alan Johnson, but there were a lot of people thinking it shouldn’t be a re-run of the last one. Actually, I’m a great admirer of Ken and probably the Boris factor would have done for anyone. But it’s very rare that you just re-run the same challenge in any sphere, that you just run the same candidate who lost some years before. So maybe we do need a bit of fresh blood next time that’s for sure. I would not rule it out.”
In 2016, he would be in a strong position to run for Mayor, possibly after leaving Parliament and with Boris out of the way. But he would be 66, would that be a problem? “I don’t think [the problem] was age with Ken. If you look at some of the great mayors around the world, look at America, like New York, you have to be sort of 80 before you qualify,” he laughs.
If he does run for City Hall one day, Johnson’s backstory as an orphaned youngster in West London may resonate with the voters. Aptly enough, his childhood memoirs, ‘This Boy’, will be published in September, conveniently timed for a launch around the party conference season. “It’s up to the age of 18 so I can’t insult anyone. I don’t need any government records. It’s childhood…” he is quick to add.
Even when he focuses on his past, there’s a glint in his eye which suggests he’s not entirely given up on the future frontline. For Alan Johnson, marching is all well and good; but governing is the real deal.
Johnson on… being in opposition
“Some of my colleagues say it’s a good time to be out of government. There’s never a good time to be out of government. The only place to be in politics is in government”
Johnson on… Ed Miliband
“I think the impressive thing about Ed was his chin didn’t drop when things were bad and he doesn’t get carried away when things are good and that’s exactly the way you need to be as a party leader. And now the tide is turning.”
Johnson on… David Miliband
“David’s a huge talent…the appetite’s still there for front bench politics. At some
stage he’ll be back.”
Johnson on…regrets about not standing for Labour leader
“No I don’t at all. Je ne regrette rien. Johnno regrette rien…”
Johnson on… current union leaders
“They are moderate. Dave Prentis is moderate. Mark Serwotka is moderate. They might kind of play to the gallery occasionally because a bit of blood and thunder helps in some of the more militant sectors but basically they’re pragmatists.”
Johnson on…why Theresa May should resign
“The Home Secretary’s job is to help to ensure that dangerous people like Abu Qatada are actually deported. What she did by her actions was hinder that process. I don’t know how you can live with yourself for making an error like that.”
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