The third volume in the acclaimed memoirs of the former Labour Cabinet member and MP for Hull West Hessle, The Long and Winding Road (Bantam Press, £16.99) covers Alan Johnson’s rise to the leadership of the Post Office workers’ union and then into the Commons and government.
You ran a successful campaign against Post Office privatisation in the early 1990s. Was that a career highlight and why did it succeed?
Absolutely, because it came at the end of a long series of campaigns against privatisation that had failed, including our own one at the CWU against BT privatisation in the 1980s, and then gas and electricity. We had the ability to learn from those and we had the advantage that John Major had a small majority which, because of the grim reaper, was declining at quite a rate, so he was depending very heavily on the Ulster Unionists for getting legislation through.
We worked really hard in Ireland and whilst privatisation was unpopular among the whole of the public, no matter what their political stance – it was hugely unpopular, which was why Thatcher never went anywhere near it – it was even more unpopular in Northern Ireland than anywhere else, because a very rural society depended on Royal Mail. The sorting office in Derry/Londonderry in my time had been moved six times because it had been blown up. Sixteen of our members had been killed. So there was a particular resonance there and the Unionists wouldn’t back Major – we worked on them.
It was innovative in the sense that we worked really hard to get behind Tory enemy lines. We didn’t bother with the Labour Party because they were converts and we wanted to stop this not on the floor of the House but before it got there. We wanted to stop it getting into the 1994 Queen’s Speech.
Do you think that unions are well placed to run those sorts of campaigns now?
Yes. They are very good campaigners. They do it day in and day out on big issues likes privatisation and the NHS, on smaller issues or wider issues concerning the labour movement. They are very good campaigners and Labour feeds off that input from working people.
Of course they are six million strong now whereas they were 13 million strong in the late 1970s and it’s been very difficult for the trade unions to organise now there are fewer big employers, where loads of men and women were employed in one place – the coal mines, the shipyards, the telephone exchanges. If you’re a telephone engineer now you hardly go near a workplace. You’re in your Open Reach van and you’re travelling around almost as a self-employed entity. It’s where you can gather people together that it’s easier to organise. So although the trade union movement got the benefit of the legislation that Labour introduced – if you can introduce 50 per cent plus 1 you are automatically recognised as a trade union. But doing that in such disparate organisations where people work in a very different way to how they did in the 1970s and 1980s they find really dfficult. But they are slugging away with some really innovative ideas, particularly under Frances O’Grady as general secretary, so I hope that can change because it’s certainly diminished our society.
And the question of low productivity in the economy – you write in the book that the unions didn’t become part of the fabric of companies as they did in Continental economies. Could that yet change and help productivity?
Well, we are now talking about workers on boards and on remuneration committees. The tragedy is we didn’t – when I was in my tank top and flares I was as guilty of this as anyone – we didn’t pick up on the huge opportunity we had when the Labour government in the 1970s introduced industrial democracy as an experiment in the steel industry and the Post Office. What we did the Post Office was kind of half-heartedly put forward the most junior people because we wanted to keep the senior union reps unbesmirched by this “sleeping with the enemy” idea. We never liked it and we weren’t enthusiastic about Bullock [report on workplace democracy].
In the end, although Thatcher killed it, she only gave it a decent burial because it was already dead. The trade unions didn’t engage with it and I think that was a big mistake. And now perhaps there’s a greater interest in these issues but it’s well after all those huge developments in Germany and Scandinavia – which we helped to create in Germany. It was a guy called Allan Flanders – a very talented TUC guy – who Ernie Bevin brought over when foreign secretary to help reconstruct the German trade union movement after the war.
You also write about long being committed to electoral reform. For many people the first past the post system is contributing to a crisis in British politics. Is there any prospect for electoral reform now?
It’s tough. We keep slogging away – there are various campaigns for electoral reform. But it’s tough because the Lib Dems foolishly had that referendum on AV, which wasn’t proportional but made people think: ‘We’ve had a referendum on electoral reform – why do we need another one’, and that was overwhelmingly against, of course.
A lot of the people joining the Labour Party now are more committed to electoral reform than they have been in the past
And it’s also tough because Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t believe in it and he’s leading the party now. To be fair, neither has any previous leader of the Labour Party. But given there’s a spirit of a new kind of politics, which Jeremy has articulated, it’s a shame that electoral reform isn’t part of that, because I think a lot of the people joining the Labour Party now are more committed to electoral reform than they have been in the past.
I have spoken to Jeremy in the past and he has pointed out that that constituency link is really important. I replied that there is a system there that Labour helped develop – AV plus – that has proportionality and retains that crucial constituency link. I’d give it 10 years before electoral reform surfaces again.
There’s a moving passage in the book about the death of your daughter. That must have been incredibly hard to write.
It was – I think I say in the book that it was tough to push the pen across the page. And there had been no publicity about it at the time because I didn’t want it – it was nobody else’s business. But if you’re writing your life story you can’t miss that out. And my other daughter Emma said to me you should do it.
You write that you’re a bit antisocial. That’s not how the electorate would see you. How do you reconcile that with the needs of being a politician 24/7?
Introvert, I would say… I would sooner be in my own company. I’m not desperate to jolly up in the Tea Room and all that. I find that difficult. I find electioneering – saying vote for me – really difficult. Shyness maybe. But I love talking to people. I’m interested in people and you have to do that as a constituency MP. And I always found the constituency surgeries and so on to be the part I liked the most. It reminded me of being a trade union representative, shop floor level. It was more what you needed to do to form into groups and cliques – I never liked all that.
I was never a Blairite or Brownite. I wasn’t part of their entourage
I was never a Blairite or Brownite. I wasn’t close to either of them in that sense – I wasn’t part of their entourage. That was fine, it stood me in good stead, I survived all that. So all I mean by that is that I’m not the kind of extrovert that Boris Johnson is, perhaps David Cameron is, and the kind of thing you have to have inside you if you’re going to succeed to the top. I never wanted to be the leader and I think you have to want to be that to have any chance of being able to do it properly.
Do you think Labour had a good party conference in Liverpool?
I’m not a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. I was surprised about the decision on fracking because there seems to have been no decision within the party about that at all and I think if you’re in a parliamentary democracy you do need to listen to the electorate. The idea of no compromise with the electorate and that you never bend your principles, well, that’s great for a protest movement and a party that never aspires to be in government but we were formed to be a party of government, which means we do have to listen to people’s concerns about immigration – not coming from racists or xenophobes. Not recognising that as something that was fundamental in the EU referendum was a mistake.
It looks like a mixed bag but I don’t think we’re coming across yet as a party that’s ready to govern. You do need to fill in the blanks. It’s all right saying to want to borrow to invest – we did that in government with Alastair Darling and Gordon Brown. We were anti-austerity. That’s why there was a fiscal deficit – because the alternative was austerity. But you have to say where the money is coming from. It’s great to spend money but if you are a party of government you have to say where it’s coming from.
Some would say we can borrow very cheaply at the moment…
Well, we should. And that was Ed Miliband’s policy but he seemed strangely unable to articulate it and was frightened of it at the 2015 election. As you rightly say, there’s no better time to borrow to invest. But that’s not new – Jeremy has been lauded for having new anti-austerity policies but that was our policy in government. I sat round the Cabinet table when we bailed out the banks because the alternative was unthinkable: people losing their savings and their mortgages. And then we lowered VAT to get people spending again, we introduced the Future Jobs Fund to get 18-24 year olds into work and we introduced the car scrappage scheme to get industry moving.
All of that added to the fiscal deficit – when the Tories came in they didn’t inherit a recession and deliver growth. It was the other way around. They inherited growth and then crashed it as a result of their austerity. So that’s nothing new. With Jeremy it’s not about policy – it’s about competence. Is he capable of leading us into power, and that’s a very important question we have to answer. Because power without principles is immoral but principles without power is futile. We need to get into government so we can introduce our policies.
You were prominent in the Remain campaign. Were there lessons to have learnt?
There were. The major umbrella campaign that got all the money – I ran the Labour campaign – was determined not to speak about immigration. They said look, it’s got to be about the economy and that will trump everything else. And if we talk about immigration we’ll just get on to our opponents’ territory. But it was very clear that at some stage we were going to have to address this, particularly when net migration figures came out at the end of May – 330,000, a record. There was Cameron having stupidly pledged to get it down to the tens of thousands. And here we were six years later with the highest figure ever recorded. It was 160,000 when I was home secretary, by the way.
There was a very good argument that being in the EU actually helps us with immigration
You could see the thing drifting away from us and because we hadn’t tackled immigration enough it was too late. Because there was a very good argument that being in the EU actually helps us with immigration, like having the border at Calais and the Dublin Accord. The fault lay entirely with David Cameron from first to last. He shouldn’t have pledged a referendum to solve a problem within his own Tory Party. His approach to it was totally cavalier – his insouciance was just incredible. He paid the price for that – fine. The trouble is so did the country.
Do you think freedom of movement of people and access to the single market can be uncoupled?
If we were in government – well, we wouldn’t have had that referendum for a start; there was no public clamour for a referendum. But if were in a government – and there’s a chance of doing some of this in opposition but not much – we would be just feeling out whether there are sufficient concerns in other member states, because free movement was easy when it was six countries under the Treaty of Rome but now that it’s 28 countries it’s a whole new ball game. Countries are being denuded of their talent. There isn’t a country in Europe now that isn’t saying, for instance, that if Turkey joined (of course, every country has a veto) that they would put restrictions on free movement of people, because of what it could do to the more mature economies of Europe but also what it could do to Turkey.
So is there any new thinking going on? If there was new thinking going on in the rest of Europe and you could say, well, look, free movement is about labour, not free movement per se. Could we have a register of workers, which is what we had after the accession of the Eastern European countries? The rules are if you haven’t found a job after six months you go back. Is there a package you could put in place which would not be Britain asking for special treatment on free movement but would be something the EU had agreed and would allow us to go back to the British people and say, this has been your major issue. That is really the key to doing this because if we want a quick deal we could go the Norway route but that means we accept everything without having a say in it. A hard Brexit would just be a calamity for our country.
Hull has got City of Culture of coming up. Are you looking forward to that and how can the city benefit from the Northern Powerhouse and devolution?
Part of what we’ve been arguing for solidly for three years now is that the Northern Powerhouse is geared far too much towards the west and not the east. It has to join up Manchester, Liverpool, across to Hull, and there’s been very little attention to our side.
We prefer a Yorkshire brand, we prefer devolution to Yorkshire
We all fought together to get City of Culture against 15 rival cities and that was a huge plus. We worked really hard to get Siemens to make their biggest investment anywhere in the world, manufacturing the blades for wind turbines and final assembly. That is huge for Hull. Andrew Motion said back in the 1970s it was a city at the end of one kind of life waiting for a new one to begin, because fishing had collapsed after the end of the Cod Wars. That had built the city’s wealth. And Siemens is the investment we have been waiting for that could replace that. So we’re pretty optimistic – the cruise terminal being built, a Hockney gallery being talked about in the old town, City of Culture. A big part of what we’ve talked about and the money we have raised is about the legacy of this, not just the actual year, which will be brilliant.
And all of that leads us to say, we prefer a Yorkshire brand, we prefer devolution to Yorkshire. Sheffield seems to have gone off with Derbyshire. So that’s Yorkshire apart from Sheffield. And we’ve been stuck by not being able to agree that across Yorkshire.
In the meantime the Leeds city-region idea has been pushed and that to us is sub-standard. It’s not the best that we could get from devolution and in any case it leaves Hull out on a limb. The trouble with this devolution is it’s piecemeal, whether it’s Osborne or May. It’s saying we’ll wait for some bids to come forward and we’ll respond to them. It’s not saying let’s sit down and work out what we want from devolution – government, local authorities and MPs from the region – and then have a co-ordinated response. It’s just little bits and pieces coming up all over the place. I’m not sure now whether there’s legs left in it.
What I do know is Labour ought to be developing its own plan for all this because we agree with devolution. Our country is too centralised. We need to have a plan for 2020. I don’t think this is an election winner – people aren’t fired up by it – but we do need to be ready for it because I don’t think the Tories are going to resolve this by then. And we’ll keep fighting for Hull and East Riding to be part of something bigger but I doubt whether that’s going to be successfully concluded by 2020.
Afternoon tea with Alan Johnson, part of Manchester Literature Festival is on 23 October. Big Issue North is media partner to the festival