IT is a sad indictment about the febrile state of British politics, and the turmoil within the Labour Party’s ranks, that Alan Johnson cannot be persuaded to return to the front line at Westminster.
Here is an individual respected by voters and his opponents in equal measure – a very rare accolade – and who has resisted overtures to return to the Shadow Cabinet as Ed Miliband desperately looks to save his leadership.
I’m sure I was not the only person to have been left slightly disappointed to read the Hull West and Hessle MP’s typically candid interview in which he said that he would not come to Labour’s rescue and that being Prime Minister is “a God-awful job”.
This, after all, is a politician who has far more experience of real life than his contemporaries. Born into abject poverty and abandoned by his father, he grew up in condemned houses deemed unfit for human habitation in west London.
Taken under the wing of his elder sister, Linda, when their adored mother Lily, a redoubtable woman who tried to do the impossible and toil 25 hours a day to make ends meet, literally worked herself into an early grave, Johnson famously became a postman – the Prime Minister’s country residence of Chequers was on one of his rounds – before progressing through the ranks of the Communication Workers’ Union and then the Labour Party, becoming elected to Parliament in 1997.
Reading Please Mister Postman, the sequel to Johnson’s acclaimed childhood memoir This Boy, one cannot fail to be humbled by the ex-Minister’s work ethic in the 1960s, his determination to provide for his own young family and the contrast with the carefree attitude of many of his working age constituents in Hull who are content to milk the welfare system.
This is a politician who has first hand experience of the “university of life” and whose fortitude in overcoming a Dickensian childhood offers hope and encouragement to all those striving to advance an agenda of aspiration for all.
Not only should this experience, and Johnson’s eloquence, be an asset to a Labour Party that cannot take the support of working class families for granted following Ukip’s electoral advance, but it needs to be embraced by all those striving to make Westminster and Whitehall more representative of contemporary society.
Three factors, I believe, explain Johnson’s status as the “reluctant politician” who refuses to deliver change for his party and his country.
First, Johnson, now 64, does not want his childhood experiences to become a political device. He never made a virtue about his upbringing when he held five Cabinet posts from 2004 until 2010. I don’t believe he would have written two books if he was serious about returning to the front benches. He has always been very protective of his family and resigned immediately as Shadow Chancellor in 2011 when it emerged that his then wife had been having an affair with a police protection officer.
Second, the former Home Secretary does not appear to be motivated by personal ambition. He put loyalty first when Gordon Brown’s premiership was imploding. He chose not to stand for the Labour leadership in 2010, deciding to back David Miliband instead, and his campaign to be deputy leader did appear to be half-hearted (he ultimately lost to Harriet Harman by the narrowest of margins). It was often said that Johnson was “too nice” to be a leader, and I think there is some truth to this. He’s that rarity – a politician who would be good and engaging company in a pub.
Third, I think Johnson was left scarred by his short stint as Shadow Chancellor after Ed Miliband became leader. He appreciated that Labour needed to win back the public’s trust on the deficit and public finances, but this realism was derided by many of his colleagues who believed that he was an economic lightweight. How ironic that he ended up being replaced by Ed Balls, whose reluctance to sign up to spending cuts is now causing Labour just as many problems as those that are being created by Ukip’s plain speaking.
I don’t blame Johnson for turning his back on British politics, though I am intrigued to learn more about the contribution he intends to make from the backbenches if he wins re-election. His low-key style has been the catalyst for major economic and social changes in Hull – and I’ve been repeatedly told that he is the one politician who strikes fear into those Tory MPs defending marginal seats next May. They say that it would be very difficult to attack his values and decency.
I also think it is very sad that such an experienced individual regards the keys to 10 Downing Street as a poisoned chalice. Is it the job that is too big for one person – or is it that the resulting loss of privacy, the demands of the media and the political pressures created by feuding colleagues make it unappealing?
That said, it is Britain’s loss that the prospect of delivering changes to Labour, and possibly the country, is too much for Alan Johnson to contemplate at a time when there are so few politicians better qualified to do so. I just hope this will not be the post-script to his career.