British Labour Politician
Born 1950

Alan Johnson is currently the Labour Member of Parliament for Hull West (1) and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and the who is being touted in some quarters as a possible Anybody But Brown candidate for the Labour leadership when Tony Blair finally names the day and steps down from office.

Early life

Born Alan Arthur Johnson on the 17th May 1950, his father was a painter and decorator who abandoned the family when he was only eight. His mother Lilian was a cleaner who subsequently died of a heart attack in 1962 leaving both Alan and his sister Linda effectively orphaned. They were on the verge of being put into a Barnardo home, when the local child welfare officer named Mr Pepper was sufficiently impressed by the maturity of his fifteen year-old sister that they were given their own council flat in Battersea, which was, if nothing else, a considerable advance on their previous home, a condemned house in Notting Hill that lacked even a bathroom. From his new Battersea home Johnson attended the Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea, although it seems that he displayed little interest in obtaining an education, preferring to play guitar with his band the In-Betweens and was, according to his later admission, a mod.

His sister Linda married her childhood sweetheart at seventeen and moved out to Watford, leaving her brother to fend for himself. Thus left to his own devices young Alan left school at fifteen without a single qualification to his name. His first job was stacking shelves at Tesco, a job which he eventually abandoned when they refused to allow him a lunch break. Then at the age of eighteen in 1968 he decided to move to Slough and become a postman, attracted by the promise of overtime, since he now felt that he needed the money now that he was married and his guitar had been stolen.

Given that the Post Office operated a closed shop at the time he was obliged to join the Union of Postal Workers, later becoming active in the union and gained the reputation of being something of a union militant. Although he has since admitted that he considered himself to be a Marxist at the time, and claimed to have actually read Das Kapital (or at least read more chapters than Harold Wilson), he decided not to join the Communist Party of Great Britain, and instead joined the Labour Party shortly after the 1971 national Post Office strike. He subsequently became a full-time union official in 1987 and rose rapidly up the ranks, and in January 1992 was elected General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers(2), being the youngest General Secretary in the history of that union and was soon to claim at least part of the credit for persuading Michael Heseltine to abandon plan to privatise the Post Office in 1994.

As leader of one of the country's largest unions, he was now one of the powers in the movement and became a Member of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress from 1994 to 1995 and was also a power within the Labour Party being elected to the party's National Executive Committee between 1995 and 1997. However by this time his moderatism stood out in sharp contrast to the hard left militancy of his peers at the Communication Workers Union and it was noticeable that he was the only senior trade unionist to come out in support of Tony Blair's 'revision' of Clause Four.

Political career

As one report puts it "Johnson is curiously coy about how he came to be an MP". The truth is however quite simple; some months before the 1997 General Election Blair approached his favourite trade unionist with the offer of a safe seat, and three weeks before the election Stuart Randall, the utterly anonymous MP for Hull West, suddenly decided to stand down, thus allowing Johnson to be parachuted into this safe seat. (Stuart Randall was subsequently elevated to the House of Lords as the Baron Randall of St.Budeaux on the 25th September.)

Thus elected to the House of Commons on the 1st May 1997 with a comfortable majority of over 15,000, he made his maiden speech on the topic of the problems of Hull trawlermen, which was a brave move on his part since his knowledge of the subject was presumably as brief as his acquaintance with Hull itself. Johnson was briefly a member of the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee until December 1997, when he was given his first government job as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Dawn Primarolo, then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and subsequently Paymaster-General.

In 1999 he achieved his first ministerial post at the Department of Trade and Industry when he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Competitiveness, being promoted after the 2001 General Election to the status of Minister of State within the same department, this time with responsibility for Employment Relations and Regions. In the June 2003 reshuffle he was moved to the Department of Education and Skills as Minister for Higher Education, where he was given the tricky job of getting the Higher Education Bill (which involved the introduction of differential university tuition fees) through the House of Commons in the teeth of a great deal of opposition, much of it from within his own party.

His reward for ensuring that this piece of Blairite modernisation reached the statute book arrived on the 8th September 2004 when he joined the Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, following the resignation of Andrew Smith. Some eight months later after the General Election of May 2005 he was appointed to head the newly re-branded Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry, at which point he immediately decided to revert back to the previous name of the Department of Trade and Industry and sent the proverbial man with a screwdriver to put the old sign back up again. A year later when poor local election results and other problems forced Blair into a cabinet reshuffle in May 2006, Johnson found himself appointed Secretary of State for Education and Skills, taking over from the faltering Ruth Kelly.

Future career

Given the sharp division that exists in the Labour Party between the respective Brown and Blair camps, there has been much speculation about who the latter faction can find to stand against Gordon Brown. Alan Johnson's name has been suggested as one who might fit the bill since his two year cabinet career has so far been gaffe free, although his detractors might argue that this is simply because he has never stayed long enough in one job to get blamed for anything that's gone wrong. Others have suggested that his principal advantage in the forthcoming leadership contest is that he isn't Scottish. He has already put himself forward as a candidate to replace John Prescott as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and athough he has gone on record as stating that he likens the idea of himself as Prime Minister to "the idea of putting the Beagle on to Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure", those in the know claim that there is already an Alan Johnson campaign team up and running, busily canvassing support from Labour MPs.

One might think that being a former trade unionist, indeed the first former union general secretary to make it to the cabinet since Frank Cousins back in 1964, might give him an inbuilt advantage in any contest, given that the Trades unions still wield one-third of the votes. But oddly enough, he is not that popular with the current batch of trade union leaders. As a supporter of the Prime Minister's modernising reform agenda, which includes the acceptance of the Thatcherite Trades Unions reforms of the 1980s he is regarded as something of an apostate, and far too firmly based in the political centre ground for their liking.


Johnson was first married to a friend of his sister named Judith Cox, with whom he had a son and two daughters. His son Jamie is a music engineer, who worked on Razorlight's last album and has said that his father would rather be lead singer of Super Furry Animals than Prime Minister, whilst his daughter Natalie died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of thirty, just a week before the 1997 General Election. He divorced his first wife in 1987 and has since remarried Laura Jane Patient in 1991, and they have a son named Oliver.

Some have drawn attention to the irony that the United Kingdom has a Secretary of State for Education who left school at fifteen, but it is no less ironical that someone whose only prior experience was with the monopolistic Post Office should be placed in charge of competitiveness at the DTI. Such is the way of politics.


NOTES

1 Technically speaking the constituency of Kingston-upon-Hull West and Hessle; his near neighbour is John Prescott the member for Kingston-upon-Hull East.
2 The Union of Postal Workers was renamed the Union of Communication Workers (UCW) in 1980 and then merged with the National Communications Union on the 26 January 1995 to form the Communication Workers Union (CWU). Johnson was the General Secretary of the UCW from 1992 to 1995 and then one of the two joint General Secretaries of the CWU from 1995 until he resigned when elected an MP in May 1997.


SOURCES

  • The 'official' biographies at
    http://www.alanjohnson.org/biography.html
    http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page6309.asp
  • Paul Routledge, Profile - Alan Johnson, 29th November 2004
    http://www.newstatesman.com/People/200411290022
  • Rachel Cooke, Man of the people The Observer, September 17, 2006
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,,1872186,00.html
  • Profile: Alan Johnson 22 October, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2091320.stm
  • Profile: Alan Johnson 18 September 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3639248.stm

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