Alan Johnson: ‘Labour should be willing to work with other parties, through a coalition if necessary’

22 Apr

Alan Johnson has started dismantling his office. There are piles of books on his desk – music biographies, politics, novels, all sorts. “Take any of them,” he says. “They’re up for grabs.” Soon after Theresa May announced the snap general election this week, the former postman turned trade union leader turned cabinet minister said he was standing down after 20 years in parliament.

The surprise is that it’s only been 20 years. He might have been closing in on 50 when he became an MP, but his subsequent rise was meteoric – work and pensions secretary, trade and industry secretary, education secretary, health secretary, home secretary – all within seven years. Johnson, who left school at 15 to stack shelves for Tesco, has also established himself as a popular TV pundit and prolific memoirist. He is known for his equanimity. And already he’s looking forward to a new life dedicated to writing. But at the same time, he’s fuming about this election – the timing, the chaos it’s wreaked, Tory broken promises, his own party’s unreadiness for office; you name it, he’s angry about it.

We haven’t even started on May. Now he really is spitting feathers. “I don’t think we should have agreed to the election. I abstained on the vote. Politically I thought it was outrageous. I mean what she said in her speech, ‘The country has come together but Westminster hasn’t.’ What? The country’s come together?” His voice is rising by the second, and he is talking in permanent italics. “What part of Maidenhead has come together? Never mind the country. And Westminster hasn’t? It’s not Westminster’s job to come together. What was the other thing she said? I actually wrote it down …”

He jumps off his chair, goes to his desk to find this obscenity, and returns quoting scornfully. “‘There should be unity in Westminster.’ There shouldn’t be an opposition here? What is she talking about? And, in fact, she had unity beyond her dreams in terms of triggering article 50. It’s such a stupid, cack-handed way to say she was going to go back on everything she’d said; it was obviously just done to put us into disarray. No manifesto ready. No candidates selected. As well as all the other problems we’ve got. We should have said, ‘No, we’re not going along with that.’ But I suppose the consideration there is that we would look as if we were frit. Well, we are frit.”

Finally, he comes to a stop. Frit? What does that mean? “Thatcher word. She used it for frightened.” Wow! Alan Johnson is so incensed he’s quoting Thatcher. He really is not himself.

But it wouldn’t look great for Labour to complain that it’s unfair for the government to give them the opportunity to run the country, would it? Well, he says, the fact is that it was the coalition who introduced the five-year fixed-term parliament to ensure leaders did not play fast and loose with election dates. And it was May who scolded the cynics who suggested she was about to hold an election. “She said there are good fundamental reasons why we shouldn’t be dragged at this time into another election; ‘that it might be good for my party, it might be in my personal interest, but actually this is about what’s good for the country’.” And she was right, he says.

Johnson’s contempt for May is undisguised and absolute. He suggests she is a coward – “The refusal to do TV debates will eventually catch her out” – with a poor record as home secretary. “She said she was going to get net migration down to tens of thousands,” he says, “but it was at record levels last year – 333,000”. Most witheringly, he talks of her inability to perform unscripted. “The only time she got herself into an unrehearsed situation was the fucking National Trust and the Easter bunnies … I mean, she took time out to go to the cameras and say, ‘I’m not only the daughter of a vicar, I am a member of the National Trust and this is disgraceful what they’re doing – taking the word Easter out of their egg trail.’ Extraordinary. The only time she’s busked on anything!”

But however strongly he feels about May, the more profound target of his anger is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. If he felt Labour was electable he would surely have welcomed the election. Is there no part of him that thinks this is a great opportunity?

“No,” he says instantly. “There is no realistic chance of us winning. Is there an unrealistic chance of us winning in the same way that it was unrealistic to imagine Donald Trump becoming American president or Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour party? Yes, unrealistically we could win if we’re still in the age of unrealism.”

What is Labour’s biggest weakness? He breathes heavily. “Look …’’ Long pause. “I’ve said enough about the leadership. I don’t want to queer our pitch just as we go into a general election. It’s all on record. I don’t want to requote because I do actually want Labour candidates to do well and Labour to do well, and Labour is much more than this person perched at the top of the party at the moment.”

Johnson has called Corbyn “useless”, “incompetent” and “incapable”. Does that not make it hard to ask people to vote for Labour? “It wasn’t the reason I didn’t stand. I could make those accusations about David Cameron or Theresa May.”

Of course – but they are your opponents. “Yes that’s true, but the point I’m making is people often vote for parties whose leader I consider to be useless and incompetent.”

Johnson with Tony Blair in 2006 … some of the policies implemented under New Labour were ‘well to the left of anything Jeremy Corbyn has suggested’.



Johnson with Tony Blair in 2006 … some of the policies implemented under New Labour were ‘well to the left of anything Jeremy Corbyn has suggested’. Photograph: Richard Lewis/EPA

Johnson is a youthful 66 – a dapper man with a fine head of silver hair, a side parting sharp as a scalpel, and a life story that verges on the Dickensian. He grew up in the slums of Notting Hill – his feckless father was caught in bed with young Alan’s aunt and walked away from the family; his sick mother was dead at 42, and from the age of 12 he was brought up by his heroic sister.

Johnson brought the heft of his childhood to his politics, alongside the negotiating savvy gained as leader of the Communication Workers Union. He became a bridge between traditional Labour and New Labour, equally at home with blue-collar workers and the Oxbridge metropolitan elite.

He says the biggest problem today is that the party’s leadership rubbishes the New Labour legacy. “We characterise our period in government as a failure. There’s this piety that only the sectarian left care about tackling poverty.” He is quick to defend the New Labour record and has the figures off pat. “We came in in 1997 and upped child benefit by 25%. We also introduced a £5bn windfall levy on the privatised utilities, which would be considered outrageous if Jeremy Corbyn suggested it – it was well to the left of anything he has suggested.”

Then, he says, Labour listened to the people. “Tony Blair put it a very good way. He said the will of the people is sacrosanct, but the will of the people changes.” Isn’t that exactly what so many Labour politicians have refused to acknowledge, though? The people said they wanted something different and elected Corbyn. It’s complex, he says – there’s a distinction between party members and the public. Surely the party would be in a stronger position today if senior politicians such as Johnson had supported Corbyn rather than tried to defenestrate him?

“Here is a leader who was never loyal throughout. The sectarian left sat down every week and decided how they would vote. They didn’t take the whip from the Labour party, they had their own structure. So, no, we’re not taking any lessons in loyalty.”

Was the backbench rebellion revenge? “No. No. The problem has always been about competence. Is this someone who can put a vision before the public that they would support, rather than just activists. It’s about this very important and difficult to define quality – leadership.” This is a subject Johnson has given considerable thought. There were a number of times post-Blair that he was asked to challenge for the leadership, and each time he declined. Does he regret it? “No,” he says with certainty. Why? “Because I knew I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t have the motivation, and [initially] I didn’t think I had the capability to do it. I did think I had in 2010, and if we had done a deal with the Lib Dems, I would have thrown my hat in the ring, but the time passed.”

If Labour loses, could Corbyn continue? “No, it would be outrageous.” Does Corbyn think that? Another painful silence. “That’s a difficult one. I suppose there is a certain delusion … there is always a good excuse … I’ve only had two years or whatever.”

Johnson as shadow chancellor in the House of Commons in 2010. He was repeatedly asked to stand for the Labour leadership after Blair stood down, but always refused.



Johnson as shadow chancellor in the House of Commons in 2010. He was repeatedly asked to stand for the Labour leadership after Blair stood down, but always refused. Photograph: PA

As for Johnson, his office is going to take a lot of dismantling. It’s both huge and intimate – the museum of his life. There are his favourite football pictures framed on the wall (QPR winning the League Cup in 1967), family photos and music mementoes (a poster of the Who signed by Roger Daltrey; a cab designed like the Beatles Revolver album). It gives the impression of a man who has taken a lot of pleasure from life – and from pop culture.

He is still thinking about the possibility of an “unrealistic” Labour victory, and says they desperately need a narrative on Europe. It’s a sore subject for Johnson. He led Labour’s campaign to stay in the EU. “We still seem to be in the position of representing the 0%. The 48% who voted to remain think we are for leave and the 52% who voted to leave think we’re for remain.” Even though 66% of Labour supporters voted to remain, Labour’s campaign was savaged. Does he think it failed? “We believed we should have got 75% of Labour supporters, so in that sense it was a failure.” Does he regard it as a personal failure? “Yes I did. We were arguing for Britain to remain and Britain voted to leave.” Did he get enough support from Corbyn? “No. From the people around him we had a terrible time. I’m convinced many of the people around Jeremy would have voted to leave. I don’t think Jeremy did. It was bloody hard work.”

He says the public is deluded if they believe May is in control of Brexit. “I hate to quote Tony Blair again, but it was a magnificent speech. It’s not Theresa May driving the bus, it’s the swivel-eyed ones. From Farage forcing Cameron to have the referendum in the first place, they are driving this bus and they are driving it towards a cliff edge.”

He quotes Blair so regularly. Does he think we should simply return to New Labour values? “No, you can never go back there again.” He pauses, distracted. “That’s a line from a song. Billy Joel.” He starts singing. “Brenda and Eddie still going steady,” that’s the one. All the things we did for the disabled, civil partnerships, national minimum wage, union recognition – that to me is the Labour party. Appealing just to your core supporters and having rallies where you can turn out thousands, well Farage can do that, Le Pen can do that. That’s not going to win Labour elections. What’s going to win elections is finding a compelling argument as Attlee did in ’45, as Wilson did in the 60s, as Blair did in ’97, and we’re searching for that.”

Johnson has always been in favour of proportional representation. Would he like to see Corbyn suggest a coalition to defeat the Conservatives? His eyes light up. “In this election the rules are different. You would normally go into a general election saying we are not interested in coalition. Given that this most crucial issue, our place in the world, crosses party lines, I think in this election, above all, Labour should be saying we are perfectly willing to work with other parties in the national interest, through a coalition if necessary.” Should Corbyn tell Labour supporters to vote strategically? “I would. Where it’s marginal, where you can defeat a Tory, vote tactically.”

Johnson has to rush off to his Hull West and Hessle constituency. Before he leaves, he has his photo taken. Now, for the first time, he seems demob happy, as he chats away about the subject he’s been itching to talk about all morning – writing. He has just signed a contract for a new book – essays on songs that represent his life from the 1950s onwards. Next he wants to attempt his first novel. He says he’s never loved anything quite like writing – the solitariness, the control, the drafting and redrafting, everything. In 2015 he remarried. The third Mrs Johnson has also made him very content, he says.

He poses with his raincoat collar up, and I chuck a series of random questions at him. Was he ever a Mod? “What d’you mean was? I’m wearing Fred Perry today.” Who’s the most impressive politician he’s worked with? “Robin Cook … his brain, his eloquence, his ability.” Who does he prefer Blair or Brown? “As Bono once said, they were the Lennon and McCartney of politics; I prefer McCartney by a nose, and McCartney was Blair.” He grins. “Got there eventually!”

What was his biggest strength as a politician? “Sense of humour.” And weakness? “Sense of humour.” Oh come on, I say. “It’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t go down well. Like when Tony had his heart problem, I said: ‘The problem with Tony Blair is he’s got a dicky heart, with Bill Clinton it’s the other way round.’ And it got back to him. That didn’t do me any favours.”

I ask what he would rather be remembered for – his politics or writing. “Writing,” he says. “It’s something I  wanted to do as a kid. I always wanted to be a rock star as well, and that’s not going to happen, but the writing has made me so happy. But I guess if I’m remembered at all, it will be my background; someone who left school at 15 with no qualifications rising to become home secretary. That is something not done very often is it?” And off he trots to wrap up a life in politics and start anew.

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