Alan Johnson held some of the most senior roles in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Having been elected to Parliament in 1997, he went on to become the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Trade & Industry, Education, Health, and finally Home Secretary.
Alan began his life in absolute poverty, growing up in one of the most deprived parts of London. The Johnson family had no central heating, no indoor toilet and his mother, Lily, was a victim of domestic abuse. She died when Alan was just 12 years old, making him and his sister orphans. He left school at 15 before taking up a job stacking shelves in Tesco and becoming a postman aged 18.
His early life is a sharp contrast with the experiences of most of his contemporaries on either side of the House of Commons. Far from being a career politician, one of Alan’s earliest pursuits was music, joining two bands, one of which was fairly successful and played at venues around London. His dreams of a life in music were finally ended when his guitar was stolen outside the White Hart in Islington and he moved into a more stable career path at the Post Office.
Known for being personable and quick witted, Alan worked his way up the trade union movement, and was elected to Parliament in 1997. In office he was in charge of two notoriously difficult departments, the Department of Health and the Home Office.
Often inspired by the problems he had experienced in his youth, Alan worked to reduce the overwhelming number of incapacity claimants and improve he lives of children in care, as well as dealing with the major policy issues of the day, such as counter-terrorism and hospital bugs.
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This is an abridged version of a series of 30 interviews made for a book exploring successful personalities.
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You started out with nothing, no contacts, no qualifications and no particular workplace skills to mention. What personal qualities were needed to get Alan Johnson from stacking shelves to one of the great offices of state?
I suppose I had an ability to write reasonably well, speak reasonably well and argue and negotiate reasonably well. These are all attributes you needed in the trade union movement and attributes you need in Parliament.
I couldn’t say it was “determination” in my case as I never set out to be a Member of Parliament from the beginning. Having said that, you do need to have a certain amount of self-confidence in order to do these things, I certainly developed that from childhood. I had help from various people, principally my English teacher, who saw something in me that others didn’t seem to see so clearly.
Were there any specific experiences from your upbringing that gave you these characteristics?
I just liked reading and when you like reading you pick up a lot of the tricks of writing and how to express yourself. That love of reading was instilled in me principally by my mother, who took us down to Ladbroke Grove Library when we were just little tots. I think that has a lot to do with my success as most of what I have done I have been elected to do, rather than appointed to do.
You weren’t deliberately directing yourself to be a cabinet minister from a young age but did you have a sense at all when you were growing up that you wanted to do something political?
Not political, no. I had a sense that there might be an opportunity for me to write or be a musician. I always thought that something would come up, for example, when I joined the Post Office, I started reading the Post Office staff magazine and thought “someone must write that, maybe I could transfer over to that?”. So I always thought something would come up but I was pretty lethargic, I never set out to make it happen for myself. I never went and played in pubs as many musicians do off their own back to promote their work.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Area and the Inbetweens, the bands you were involved in?
The Area was just a band started by myself and two of my friends, Andrew Wiltshire and Danny Curtis. At the time Andrew and I were 16 and we thought Danny was ancient but he must have only been about 20. The three of us decided to form a band and advertised for two other band members. We had lots of gigs around London and as far out as Aylesbury College where we played to about a thousand people, that was our biggest gig.
We had all our gear nicked, including my amplifier which I was paying for another two years on hire purchase. The band that then invited me to join them was much more professional, they had a manager and their own amplifiers. They were multi-racial as well which was unusual in the mid-sixties, really unusual. Once again all our gear got nicked in Islington, including my fabulous guitar so I just could not go on. By that time I was about to get married and thought I would get a steady occupation so I joined the Post Office.
You have talked about your book being a biography of your parents, Steve and Lily and your sister, Linda. The book has been widely noted for not having an overtly political message. What message would you like people to take away from it?
I just wanted to tell a story about these two incredible women, my mother and my sister, but when a parent dies very young, you don’t know them very well, so the act of recreating and in a sense being their biographer, was the real challenge for me. I wanted to make it interesting and record that postwar life in Britain in the 50s which is often thought of as a prosperous time.
I was in one of the poorest areas because North Kensington, right back to the 18th century was a very poor area. So it was about telling the story of the location, the Notting Hill riots, the murder of Kelso Cochrane and then the experience of being in a school on King’s Road during the 1960s. If I wanted the reader to be left with any message it was that this is a well written book and that they understand the lives of people like Lily.
Did you ever feel like you were sorting out a particular issue during your ministerial career directly due to the experiences you had in your youth?
A few, yes, at Work and Pensions we were dealing with millions of people that had been consigned to a life on benefits in order to bring the unemployment statistics down. The numbers on incapacity benefit had gone up from around 700,000 in 1979 to 2.6 million in 1997. Everyone knew why that was, it was because after they left the shipyards or steel works as they shut down, they were ushered onto incapacity benefit.
It wasn’t a lot of money but it was higher than Jobseeker’s Allowance and you didn’t have to keep trying to get work. So in areas like Strathclyde, which was a particular hotspot, people were pushed to the margin of their own lives. When we started saying to people that we would change the law so that people could go back to work without having to go to the back of the queue, people were beating down the door to have the opportunity.
Another was education and looked after children [children in public care] who had a terrible time and who I could quite easily have turned out to be. Half a per cent of the child population are looked after children, but they go on to make up 20 per cent of the prison population. They were being put into care too easily, they were being moved around too much and pushed out too young. Those were the areas where I could relate what was going on to my own experiences.
Some politicians seem to get affected by the “hubris of power” after a few years in office. Margaret Thatcher is perhaps a good example of this. Did you find that you needed to ground yourself as the years went by?
I didn’t have that chip in my mental make-up! No, I didn’t have to ground myself, the people around me would do that anyway. You have special advisors as a cabinet minister and they are generally people you know and they wouldn’t let me get above my station. There are many MPs, on the Conservative side as well, who find the way that some of our colleagues treat people who they consider to be menial, or people who are not very important to their progression, really appalling.
I’ve heard stories of very senior politicians going on television and being very keen to chat to the presenters but their rudeness to the make-up team and the staff is extraordinary. You either have that in you or you don’t.
Most of the characters in the House of Commons do have an innate and very robust self-confidence that has been nurtured through experiences that you wouldn’t have had.
You get these sorts of characters that you are talking about but you wouldn’t be surrounded by them. They were there and they and to be dealt with. I wish I had gone to university, I think university gives you a certain confidence, it certainly gives you a network and what used to be called a “trained mind”. I was Higher Education Minister for a time and it was never a case of saying to people “I got where I am without university”, I was always arguing with young people that they could go to university and that they should aspire to go to university.
There is a sense that people who have come from a more privileged background have come from a different planet and I had no real link to them at all but that would have been the case whether I had been in politics or not, I just met more of them in politics.
John Prescott gets quite hung up on the idea that there is a huge gulf between him and people that came from different economic backgrounds.
Yes, why was John so prickly about all that? I think it was because he got a really bad press. It’s a chicken or the egg question. He used to get people like Nicholas Soames, who whenever he saw him would say, “gin and tonic please, waiter”.
I never had that, there were a few people who would use the fact that I was a postman as a reason why I shouldn’t be in the job. I would get the odd letter saying “that is what would happen when you put a postman in a cabinet position”. But in my experience that was a minority. John suffered more of that, perhaps because of the age he came through Parliament and because he was Deputy Prime Minister.
At the beginning of his autobiography, John Major wrote about how he had mentally prepared himself for no longer being Prime Minister way before he left office. He realised he would need to adapt to a time without the buzz of government, constant news interest, chauffeurs and the like. How did you prepare yourself for leaving office?
John could see the writing on the wall a long time before the ’97 election. We should have seen the writing on the wall and certainly the odds were that we were going to be out of office but in the end it was a hung parliament. I thought we might continue in government and when it turned out to be a hung parliament I thought we may go into government with the Lib Dems.
So it was very sudden, though probably less sudden for a Home Secretary because you keep protection for a while. You keep the car and all that whereas most ministers are shown the door and that’s it. You even ring your old private office two hours after you had lost government and whereas they would have said “Hello, Alan Johnson’s office”, they say “this is Theresa May’s place”. I was a bit at sea for a while and I hated shadowing the position. We had all agreed to shadow ourselves so one moment I was Home Secretary the next I was Shadow Home Secretary.
It must have been immensely dislocating.
It was awful and I hadn’t prepared myself for that. John Major didn’t have to in a way because he knew he was out as you don’t go anywhere after you have been Prime Minister. It’s Tony Blair’s famous phrase, “when you are in opposition you wake up every morning and think about what you are going to say whereas in government you wake up and think about what you are going to do”.
What advice would you give to some who is interested in a career in politics and government?
Get some experience of the world under your belt and don’t try to do it too young, I think there is a push back against that now. Consider being a councillor or doing something voluntarily for your community while you are getting on with your career. Do something that means you are dealing with people and representing people.
You can have an inverted snobbery about these things, William Pitt the Younger was 24 when he became Prime Minister, but that’s when people dropped down dead when they were 34. It is very hard for people to think that someone so young can be in Parliament making decisions about people’s lives when they haven’t got much experience of life. Charles Kennedy came in very young and he would admit that he couldn’t contribute as much as an older person could.