Alan Johnson - from postman to political heavyweight and a true man of letters

Alan Johnson stepped down as an MP in the summer after 20 years. He talked to Chris Bond about politics, Brexit, his pride at Hull's resurgence and his passion for writing.

Former Hull West and Hessle MP Alan Johnson is forging a new literary career. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).
Former Hull West and Hessle MP Alan Johnson is forging a new literary career. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).

PHILIP Larkin famously swerved east and made Hull his home. So, too, did Alan Johnson. That was 20 years ago when the former postman who rose to become Home Secretary first arrived in the city as the new MP for Hull West and Hessle.

His decision to step down at June’s General Election was greeted with surprise and dismay not only among many of his constituents but also Labour supporters across the country. But just five months after closing the book on his political career he says he doesn’t miss the cut and thrust of parliamentary life. “I’ve not had a second’s regret. Maybe I will. Maybe there’ll come a time when I’ll wish I was in the Chamber or at the heart of events, but it’s not happened yet.”

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After spending 13 years as a Labour minister, during which time he held five cabinet posts, he felt it was the right time to go. “I enjoyed every second of it but there wasn’t much more new for me to do. Also I had to ask myself whether I wanted to carry on into my 70s. I think the time to go is when people say ‘that’s a shame’, rather than ‘what’s he still doing here?’”

Johnson seen here among the congregation at the 21st annual Lost Trawlermen's Day Service at St Andrew's dock, Hull, in 2010. (Terry Carrott)

We’re sitting in a hotel lounge overlooking the marina of a city that has been transformed during the two decades he was an MP. “I think the last five years have been particularly visionary. The council leader set out a plan for the city. Part of that was bidding for the UK City of Culture and part of it was attracting Siemens. That’s where we put a lot of effort and the fact those two things came off lifted the morale of the city.

“The big employer we were looking to replace the fishing industry never arrived until now with the renewables industry. So things have come together. It’s not a case of ‘job done’ but it meant I could go with some sense of achievement.”

One of the reasons he left was to pursue his burgeoning literary career. His three-volume memoirs, charting his extraordinary journey from poverty-ravaged childhood to the corridors of power, not only won a clutch of awards but highlighted his writing prowess.

Johnson, who is appearing at the Hull and East Yorkshire Literary Lunch next week, is now working on a music book and planning his first foray into the world of fiction. “I wanted to be a writer from the age of about 14, or 15. I read voraciously from an early age and I wanted to have a go myself. But this went on hold for 50 years”, he says.

Johnson has been critical of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the past. (PA).

Johnson became an MP after he was parachuted in halfway through the 1997 election campaign. His trade union roots and the struggles of Hull’s fishing community for recognition and compensation for trawlermen and their families gave him a cause to get his teeth into and at the same time prove his mettle to his constituents.

He may have left the political stage now but he still has plenty to say. “I’m very firmly on the left but I set my cap against the far left,” he says.

And he’s quick to defend the achievements of the Blair and Brown governments of which he was such a key figure. “The enemies of those governments include, I’m sorry to say, many people in the Labour Party. The worst thing you can be now is a Blairite, but I’m not going to allow them to rewrite our history.

“During those 13 years we had 47 successive quarters of economic growth in this country; Sure Start Children’s Centres; a national minimum wage; education maintenance allowance and peace in Northern Ireland – all those things were really important achievements. Of course we had to bail out the banks because the alternative was seeing people lose their jobs.”

Johnson seen here among the congregation at the 21st annual Lost Trawlermen's Day Service at St Andrew's dock, Hull, in 2010. (Terry Carrott)

Johnson has been a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn, whom he’s previously called “useless” and “incapable”, though he concedes the Labour leader has tapped into a widely held desire for change. “You have to give credit where credit’s due and he’s found a way to give young people, in particular, some vision for a better future,” he says.

“I want Labour to succeed and I want Jeremy Corbyn to win, but just as he was not entirely enamoured with the governments I was in, I’m not totally enamoured with his front bench. In the end Jeremy and the people around him are part of sectarian politics, they define themselves by what they’re against and there will be more disruption, more falling out and more enmity within the Labour Party as a result. We saw it in the early 80s and we’re due a re-run of it.”

When it comes to Brexit he doesn’t hold back. He says David Cameron’s decision to hold an in/out referendum over our membership of the EU was “the biggest folly of any serving Prime Minister” and that he will go down in history as “the worst Prime Minister since Lord North”.

Johnson headed the Remain campaign for Labour and is scathing over the Government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations. “What the Tories did, and I have to say my very good friend and near neighbour David Davis was part of this, was insult the people today you’re going to negotiate with tomorrow.

Johnson has been critical of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the past. (PA).

“They never created the mood music to get this right and now they’re suffering from it. We would have adopted a much more comradely approach to all this, dealing with these countries as mature nation states that deserve some respect. Not this blubber we get that we’re a great trading nation.

“Who are we going to trade with when we cut off our links and have to renegotiate 700-odd agreements with 216 treaties in such a short space of time? And how’s it going to be better than what we’ve got at the moment with access to the biggest commercial market in the world, bigger than China, bigger than America, without any tariffs whatsoever and where 60 per cent of exports go?”

He doesn’t see anything on the horizon that can replicate this. “Deals with the Commonwealth? We export more to Ireland than we do to all 53 countries of the Commonwealth put together. That’s not going to change. People trade with the countries nearest to them and those nearest to us are those on our doorstep in the European single market.”

The late Denis Healey was dubbed ‘the best leader Labour never had,’ but just as the former Leeds East MP would have much preferred to be Foreign Secretary, Johnson had no ambitions to lead his party. “Being general secretary of my union was an ambition. I then wanted to become a really good backbench MP and was delighted to have a ministerial career that I wasn’t expecting, but I never wanted to lead the party,” he says.

Ask him what his proudest political achievement is and he replies without hesitation – helping the trawlermen. “Achieving a thousand pounds a year for every year of service capped at 20 years, which is what they were asking for, full payment to widows and dependents and full payment to radio officers – that was my proudest political moment.”

Hull wasn’t just his constituency it became his home. “What people hear about Hull is completely different to what you see,” he says. “I always loved poetry and Philip Larkin. In fact I bought his collected poems on my way up here during my first visit as the prospective parliamentary candidate and so many of Larkin’s poems are about Hull.

“There’s something about the big skies and the landscape that Larkin saw, and the people here, that make it an amazing place. I had to say that when I was an MP but I don’t have to say that now and I don’t have to live up here... but it really is wonderful.”

Alan Johnson is appearing at the Hull and East Yorkshire Literary Lunch at the Best Western Willerby Manor Hotel, near Hull, on November 22. Tickets are priced £34. Call 01482 325413.

Alan Johnson: A remarkable life

Alan Johnson was born in May 1950. He grew up in poverty in the slums of London. His mother died when he was just 13 and he was brought up by his sister, Linda.

Johnson left school at 15 with no qualifications and spent 20 years working as a postman before becoming general secretary of the Communication Workers Union in 1992.

Five years later he was elected Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle.

He held several cabinet positions including Home Secretary from June 2009 to May 2010.

His first memoir, This Boy, won the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Orwell Prize in 2013. His second volume, Please Mister Postman, won the National Book Award for Autobiography of the Year in 2014.