Historical Oracle Meets...Alan Johnson - music’s loss was politics’ gain
Updated: Feb 26
On a May morning in 1997, an overnight revolution had occurred. Tony Blair walked up to the steps of Downing Street having swept to a landslide victory, heaving the Conservatives out of power after 18 years. Indeed, in Blair’s own words, a ‘new dawn’ had broken.
This ‘New Labour’ government could easily be argued to stand alongside Attlee’s in 1945-1951 and Thatcher’s 1979-1990, as being one of the most radical in British postwar history.
Elected that night was someone that would become a staple of the Labour Party for the next two decades, Alan Johnson. He would hold the offices of Home Secretary, Education, Health and Work and Pensions, helping the government transform the country.
However, these years of success were far removed from those in which he experienced in his early years living in poverty in London with his mum and sister.
“I would say that [my childhood] was tough, but it was tougher for my mum.
“We lived in one room, first of all…then we lived in two rooms. I remember being in the single room with this massive iron stove that we did everything on.
“The message of [my book] This Boy, is if people think the 60s was an age of peaceful innocence, they weren’t there.
“The 60s was a terrible for anyone who was a minority, it wasn’t a very good time for women, there were some terrible murders like Kelso Cochrane being murdered on the end of my street, race riots – you know, these were worrisome times for a lot of people.”
“My mother was a pretty Scouser. She always wore a turban and a dustcoat. The only time she wouldn’t would be when she went to the pictures, because the glamour of the screen had to be reflected by her.”
What brought her down to London was when the war broke out. She came down to join the NAAFI [Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes], and that’s where she met my father, who used to play the piano.”
As if growing up in slum-like conditions without a father who had walked out of them, wasn’t enough, tragedy would strike Alan’s family in the early 1960s.
“My mum’s mother died at 42, and her grandmother also died at 42. My mother was always convinced that she would as well. Sadly, she did. She refused to have a final operation to fix her heart because she was 42 and didn’t want to die like her mother and grandmother. She didn’t sign the consent form until the last possible minute and by that time, it was too late – she didn’t survive it.
“It was my sister that went in and sat with her, during the operation etc. At 15/16, she was then organising the funeral and everything. Aunties and uncles came down from Liverpool and couldn’t believe the conditions we were living in.
“I remember the funeral. My father came on the periphery and my sister marched over to him and lambasted him.”
The social services were about to consign Linda to a Barnardo’s home, and to place Alan with foster-parents, but the two siblings resisted. Linda argued with the social worker, and said she could perfectly well look after her younger brother and run the home. She was persuasive with the authorities, and so, teenage sister and brother were removed from North Kensington and housed together in a Wandsworth estate.
His 16-year-old sister mothered him, and ran their new home. Linda “paid the rent, fed the meters, bought the food, washed and swept, all with minimal help from me,” he recalls. The social worker, Mr Pepper, would call on them from time to time, and Linda would produce an impressive meal “to underline the success of our domesticity”. To this day, he maintains that he owes everything to his big sister.
It’s a little known fact about Alan Johnson that he’d have gladly traded in his years in Parliament for a spell in the charts. He formed his own band and came within an ace of making it to the big time.
As a boy, Johnson was transported by the sound of True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly on the radio. He fell in love with The Beatles who became his lifelong passion while in the late 1970s he surfed the wave of post-punk bands such as Elvis Costello, Tom Robinson and XTC.
“I started listening to music at an unusually early age. Back in the 1950s, there were no ageing rockers then because pop music was still in its infancy. My sister was two-and-a-half years older than me and we were both just captivated by pop music.
“We weren’t listening to music to escape because we weren’t unhappy kids. We didn’t think of ourselves as being poor or deprived. The posh kids at the other end of Kensington would have been just as fascinated by music. It was just a part of our lives.”
It wouldn’t be long however before politics would overtake music as the dominant force in Alan’s life.
“Politics started to swell around when my English teacher got the whole class to read Animal Farm. He explained the subtext of the book and this was just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our lives were dominated by the Cold War, so understanding more about Russia was fascinating. I became fascinated by all of that from then on.
“He kept me grounded in democratic socialism. My interest in politics started well before I was 18.”
Then came the moment that finally dictated the move away from pursuing a career in the music business – something that he still names today as one of his regrets.
“I was trying to make it with bands but I was getting married and needed a job. After our band ‘The In-Betweens’ got all their gear nicked, again, I knew the bassist was a postman. I became a postman and joined the Union straight away.”
He became active in the Union of Communication Workers (UCW). Johnson remained an active trade unionist over the following years, and by 1987 he was working for the UCW full-time, brokering national contracts for some 100,000 postal workers. In 1992 he was elected general secretary of the UCW, becoming the youngest person in the history of the union to hold that position.
“There was a massive strike in 1971, for several weeks, and that got me interested in getting involved in union politics.”
After being elected as a branch chairman, “I decided that I would like to be on the Executive. Then after that I decided I wanted to be a National Officer. Then I decided that I wanted to be General Secretary. My book The Long and Winding Road is about my ambition to lead the Union.”
In the 1990s, he helped fight a massive campaign against Michael Heseltine and John Major who were trying to privatise the Post Office, which caught the attention of some notable people.
“We ran a really successful and sophisticated campaign and we beat them. We got plaudits everywhere, including the new Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair.
“I sat on the NEC of the Labour Party and Tony was very interested in me coming in Parliament. This was just before 1997, and we knew we were going to win it after 18 years in opposition.
“He rang me on what was laughably called a mobile phone at the time, and said “I hear you want to be an MP”, I said “I don’t know where you got that from!”
“But it was a big step to go from the General Secretary of a union to a backbench MP. It was a big leap in the dark for me.”
“I ended up being parachuted in to Hull West and Hessle, and winning the biggest majority the constituency had seen.”
Although Johnson was a relative newcomer to the party, his trade union experience won him a position on the trade and industry committee. He rose quickly through the ranks, emerging from the backbench to work as an aide for the financial secretary to the treasury and, later, as an aide to the paymaster general. In 1999 he received his first ministerial post, overseeing competitiveness for the department of trade and industry.
After the 2001 election, Prime Minister Tony Blair reshuffled his cabinet, and Johnson was given the portfolio of employment relations. Two years later he moved to the education ministry, where he oversaw higher education and lifelong learning. In 2004 Johnson was promoted to secretary of state for work and pensions, becoming the first onetime trade union leader in a generation to sit in the cabinet.
It is at this point that I asked him about his government’s most controversial issue: the Iraq War. He answered the question as directly as any other.
“I supported it. This was the first time Britain had gone to war, not by Royal Proclamation but by a decision in the Parliament. I was a good friend of Robin Cook and was discussing this with him and I was massively in favour.
“The argument wasn’t about whether or not he had weapons of mass destruction, because everyone thought he had because he used them against his own people twice. The question was would we let him and his sons carry on?
“People weren’t mislead or beguiled. Cook’s speech was dramatic. It was a masterly speech but then he went outside and told people they must carry on voting Labour.”
After holding numerous positions in government, and even Shadow Chancellor while in opposition, he is widely considered to have been the one that got away. The man who could have easily led the Labour Party and the country.
“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.
The modesty in which he presents himself is echoed in the answer he gave when asked about his most treasured item:
“A watch given to me by the Hull branch of the British Fishermen’s Association. It’s inscribed: “Alan, in appreciation.” It was presented to me in 2000, when we succeeded in getting compensation for the trawlermen who had been chucked out of work after the cod wars. They were offered no compensation, even though the British government had agreed the new 200-mile limit around Iceland, and promised these men money and training.”
With all the work that he had done on the national stage over the years, the fact that he chose an achievement so close to home emphasised that he really is one of the nice guys in politics.
Having stepped down from frontline politics in 2017, Alan now dedicates himself to writing, which has included numerous memoirs.
However, as someone who had been in numerous bands, treasures music and once sent a cassette of his own songs which he’d recorded to Elvis Costello, does he ever look back and wonder what might have been?
“In a way I live my life vicariously through my son, Jamie, who has worked with all kinds of artists. I had that one hour in the Regent Sound studio and I’ve remembered it ever since. Those two or three years of playing on stage with other musicians in front of crowds, the biggest was probably about a thousand at Aylesbury College with the Area, thrilled me so much,” he says.
And what about that letter and cassette he sent to Elvis Costello all those years ago? “I’m still waiting for a reply,” he says, with a smile.
Music’s loss was evidently politics gain.