Alan Johnson is not your run-of-the-mill politician. The former Home Secretary is liked on both sides of the House, is a long-time champion of women, a critically-acclaimed writer, and a Mod. It’s been reported that one of his happiest moments was being recognised by Paul Weller on the street.
His childhood growing up in the slums of Notting Hill has been well-documented by the media, and by Johnson himself in his remarkable memoir This Boy. The journalist Simon Hattenstone summarised Johnson’s early years best: “There’s the stoic, sick mother who died at 42 just as her mother and grandmother did; the feckless father who is caught in bed with Johnson’s aunt, walks away from the family and fails to pay support; the heroic 15-year-old sister Linda who brings up 13-year-old Alan when their mother dies, and prevents Alan from being taken into care.” It’s a far cry from the Tory elite’s cosseted world of Eton, The Bullingdon Club and dinners in the Cotswolds.
Many Labour supporters would like to see Johnson at the helm of The Labour Party, particularly in an election year, not least due to his trade union activities (during his years as a postman, he became a branch official at of the Communication Workers Union). Although he has come close to standing for the leadership in the past, it seems that this ship has sailed, much to the consternation of the party faithful who regard him as a unifying figure.
With his working class roots and blue collar background, Johnson, who is MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, is in the minority in a 21st century Palace of Westminster. There are now very few Labour MPs with working class roots. Is this damaging the Party?
“Actually, there are more than you would think,” he tells Northern Soul. “If you look around you’ll see a former taxi driver, two former miners, a former gas fitter, a former builder. Maybe we are not drawing attention to these people but they are still there. I like to see social class diversity [in parliament] as much as I want to see gender diversity.
“But if we begin to classify someone with a university degree as not the kind of candidate we want, we are betraying what the post-war generation did for The Labour Party. They didn’t want their children to go down the mines. They wanted them to study and go to university. A lot of the candidates who come through that [university] route are often derided but they are the sons and daughters of the working class who fought and struggled to give them a better education. So we shouldn’t get into an inverted snobbery.”
Given his background, it comes as little surprise to discover Johnson was the first person to pledge his financial support to a new fundraising drive by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The museum, which is the national centre for the collection, conservation, and study of material relating to the history of working people in the UK, is struggling to plug a £200,000 shortfall following a cut in central government funding.
In an effort to drum up some much-needed funds, and shine a spotlight on British people’s fight for democracy, it has curated a list of 100 Radical Heroes. Radicals can be sponsored for £3,000. Names on the top 100 include the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, Nye Bevan, Nancy Astor, Mary Wollstonecraft and Leo Abse.
True to form, Johnson wanted a name that wasn’t on the list: trade union activist Jimmy Reid.
“He was my political hero. In my latest volume of memoir [Please, Mister Postman] I describe how, when I was in my early 20s, he led the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders which was the most successful and astonishing campaign by any trade union, not least because it was counter-intuitive.” (the shipbuilders undertook a ‘work-in’ rather than go on strike)
Johnson adds: “Reid himself was eloquent. He left school at 14 and went straight into a job. He epitomised the self-taught working class guy who was as confident at a football match as he was at a conference hall. He was a really charismatic figure.
“He was a member of The Communist Party and did very well in two elections. He wanted to be the first Communist elected since Willie Gallacher. But he became disillusioned and joined The Labour Party. I read his book, Reflections of a Clyde-built Man, when I was very young. To me, he’s as much a hero in politics as Rodney Marsh was in football.”
As for the People’s History Museum, Johnson is adamant that the museum should stay open. Consider these statistics: the museum displays the largest number of trade union and other banners in the world; it showcases almost 1,500 historic objects (it has the largest collection of political material in Britain); it houses a unique archive containing the collections of the Labour Party (including the first ever minutes from The Labour Party in 1906), the Communist Party of Great Britain and much more. More than 100,000 people visit each year.
Johnson says: “The People’s History Museum is the history of democracy in this country. It’s over 200 years seen through the eyes of the people who shaped that history. They were the unsung heroes, whether they were Chartists, suffragettes or trade unionists. If we lost that strand of our history it would be a huge tragedy.”
Funding for the People’s History Museum still hangs in the balance. For more information on how to support museum, click here