Current Affairs

Interview: Mr Johnson goes to Dorneywood

Tony Grew June 5, 2007
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It’s the kind of thing journalists have nightmares about. There you are, in the 7th floor office of Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

Stunning views of Westminster Abbey. Classy cream leather sofas. A senior minister ready to give you his undivided attention.

You turn on your Dictaphone. It doesn’t work. The batteries are dead.

I could hear the mocking voice of my shorthand teacher ringing in my ears.

Within minutes, efficient civil servants arrive with a box of triple A batteries. And people complain about the civil service. On this occasion, they certainly saved from humiliation.

Alan Johnson remained calm and mildly amused throughout this farce. He has a reputation for being charming, and so it proved.

In interviewing all six of the candidates for Deputy Leader, a journalist seeks our their unique selling point, the better to distinguish between them.

In Alan Johnson’s case, his background sets him apart in numerous ways not just from the rest of the candidates, but from the entire Cabinet and the vast majority of MPs.

He did not go to university. He does not play at stunts like working for a day in Tesco – he spent years there stacking shelves.

He was raised by his older sister, was married at 18 and was the father of several children before Tony Blair was out of law school.

Did the boy who left school at 15 and suffered abandonment by his father and the early death of his hardworking mother ever dream of a life in politics and a Cabinet job? Was it a boyhood ambition?

“Nothing was in the scope of my ambition. It’s not a Heseltine, sitting down, back of a fag paper, mapping out your future.

“I was a postman, and the nominations went up for the postman’s committee of the Slough amalgamated branch and someone said ‘why don’t you go up for that Alan.’

“And I thought ‘yeah why don’t I,’ and then suddenly someone says ‘why don’t you go for branch chair’ and then you are on the executive and you are a national officer.

“Then I was general secretary of the union and we won this great victory over Heseltine, ironically, and the Tories, over Post Office privatisation.

“We had a completely different campaign, we didn’t go for the traditional ‘have a strike, have a march.’

“We had seen unions get defeated for 18 years and we decided on a different approach, and we won.

“I was on the National Executive Committee of the Labour party and it asked ‘have you ever thought about being an MP’ and I said no, but then the opportunity to come in with that huge wave of optimism in 1997, and if you don’t make these decisions in your early forties you will never make them. So I thought ‘why not.'”

In fact, the suggestion of a parliamentary career came late in 1997:

“It was a six-week campaign and for the first three weeks I was going around with Malcolm Wicks in his constituency saying ‘vote Wicks’ and for the last three weeks I was going round Hull West and Hessle saying ‘vote Johnson.'”

His neighbour in Hull West is John Prescott.

In a scenario that would not look place out of a film called Scenes From the Class Struggle,” part of Mr Johnson’s postal route included the country home occupied by the current Deputy Prime Minister, Dorneywood.

Mr Prescott was photographed playing croquet on the property’s immaculate lawn last summer, while he was supposed to be running the country, further denting his working class credentials.

Surely Mr Johnson would relish the opportunity to be Dorneywood’s new master?

“I would like to walk through the front door rather than the servant’s quarters, because I delivered the post there for five years.

“I’ve never been to Chequers and never been back to Dorneywood as a guest of anyone. They might be worried I might roll up in a postal truck!”

So should the grand country house in Buckinghamshire be sold off, as a sign of a new Brown approach to the trappings of power? The extra revenue might come in handy too.

“There is a serious point about Dorneywood in that nobody can occupy it if a government minister doesn’t. It was a house left in trust for the use of government ministers and so it is not as if you can suddenly turn it into a refuge centre or whatever.

“I have got no ambition to live in big houses, I lived in a council house until I was 37, but at the same time these properties exist to be used in one capacity or another, whether you are entertaining guests or whatever. We shouldn’t just leave them mothballed.”

He is now engaged in a six-way contest for Deputy Leader, but in the autumn of last year many were banking on him standing for the top job, so is this bid a case of thwarted ambition?

“No not at all. But that was a febrile period, that period after all the shenanigans in September and letter writing and all that, it seemed like everyone was going to chuck their hats in the ring.

“So I thought, ‘well, if everyone is going to chuck their hats in the ring I might as well think about it as well.’

“And then of course the press picked up on that, there is always someone who was going to be the opponent of Brown, the heavyweight opponent.

“But when I sat down and thought about it, you go for a job where you think you are the best candidate, you don’t go for a job when you think, as I think, that Gordon is far and away the best candidate.

“I announced pretty quickly, early November, that I wasn’t going to stand for leader.”

Gordon Brown duly became the only candidate for leader, and eventually the vast majority of Labour MPs nominated him, some argue out of fear that to abstain would be tantamount to career suicide.

If a change of leader were meant to inspire the party to greater heights, surely a challenge of any sort would have been better for all involved?

“A point that many people forget is that nomination is an important part of democracy.

“I can’t stand as the Member of Parliament for Hull West and Hessle unless ten good citizens of that borough nominate me. I could not have stood for the postman’s committee unless two postmen nominated me.

“Nomination is important, and if you don’t get the nominations you don’t stand, that’s part of democracy.

“With Gordon, I can’t think of a political equivalent on the Tory side let alone our side, going back, who has been so obviously, with ten years as Chancellor, so obviously part of the reversal in our fortunes from losing elections to winning elections, so obviously a part of the stable economy that has been the foundation on which we won three elections.”

So Gordon will become Prime Minister on 27th June unchallenged.

The many party members seeking change in the party have focused their energies on the deputy campaigns.

Mr Johnson was the favourite candidate among MPs, but with six contestants and the Constituency Labour Parties, the MPs and MEPs and the unions all having a third of the vote, it is a very tough race to predict. At least Mr Johnson seems to be enjoying the contest.

“I am, now, and I say I am enjoying it with some surprise, because when you looked at the hard slog of so many hustings meetings, enjoyment wasn’t the first thing that sprung to your mind.

“Maybe it will deteriorate after I have said this, but it’s been quite good, it’s been comradely, we get on well and for some reason, I mean us chattering on is not likely to enthuse anyone, but people have raised issues like housing that have become important political issues through this campaign.”

The contest has also raised interest in the direction of the party to highs not seen since the days before the Iraq war.

“I am told we are recruiting 1,000 members a week, which partly is the Gordon effect obviously but is also the fact that if people join they can actually vote.

“So whether they watch us and think ‘Johnson’s a bastard, I got to stop him becoming the deputy leader,’ at least there is a motivation to join the party.”

Alan Johnson has a reputation for supporting gay rights, a perception enforced when Tony Blair, while conceding defeat over an opt-out from the Sexual Orientation Regulations for Roman Catholic-run adoption agencies, singled him out for praise in standing by his guns.

When pressed, he refused to reveal the extent of the row in Cabinet over the issue.

“I think we just have to say that there was a robust exchange of views among Cabinet members,” is as revealing as he gets on that subject, but he is more willing to talk about his involvement with the regulations themselves.

They came into force on April 30th, and protect gay, lesbian and bisexual people from discrimination when accessing goods, services and facilities.

“I was the Secretary of State at Trade and Industry when we had come up against the problem where we were introducing this equality legislation on sexual orientation and religious discrimination.

“I found a way to take an order-making power to resolve that situation to everyone’s satisfaction and then I was there just before I switched to Education in time to publish the consultation document.

“In that consultation we had already been lobbied, and listened very carefully, to the arguments put forward, we had already decided that there should be no exemption for Catholic adoption agencies.

“By some perverse political fate I end up then coming here where I am now responsible for adoption agencies at the time when this is all coming to a head.

“The argument was put to me, and there was an argument, about exemption.

“There was an argument among government about exemption – why not?

“Surely for the benefit of children, etc.

“My instinctive reaction was that we are outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

“How can we allow that discrimination to continue in terms, in the legislation, in a sector that is funded publicly and where it would be such an anomaly that we might as well say it’s fair game for anyone to seek an exemption from this.

“When I actually looked into what happens in adoption agencies, we find Anglican adoption agencies are not seeking any exemption, Jewish adoption agencies are not seeking any exemption.

“We have the capability, if there is a proper transition period, to ensure that no child is disadvantaged by this at all.

“The people who are working in Catholic adoption agencies, we think we can persuade them to keep working in this sector. They do a very good job.

“Alongside that of course is the fact that gay men and lesbians who adopt disproportionately adopt the hardest to place children. Put all that together and there is not a good intellectual argument on any level to sustain an opt-out.”

Last year, Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams persuaded his colleagues on the Commons select committee on education to investigate bullying in schools.

Incredibly, it was the first such investigation into the topic, and the testimony from the Roman Catholic schools was indicative of the scale of the prejudice gay kids face.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is head of the Catholic Education Service, told the committee that specific issues of bullying should not be singled out.

He insisted that the Church had no problems with a person’s sexual orientation, but “sexual intercourse belongs within marriage.”

How can we ever tackle hatred against gay people when many of them are attending faith schools, which have the right to teach homosexuality is an abomination?

Mr Johnson previously got into trouble when he put forward the idea that all faith schools should take 25% of their pupils from outside their religious group, a proposal that was quickly dropped.

He is full of praise for their role when asked about their harsh attitude to the gay community:

“Faith schools, like all schools, have to abide by the national curriculum.

“They are inspected by Ofsted, and they say that we are making huge progress in these areas.

“If you are in the state sector, you are governed by the rules of the state sector. I would not be pessimistic about us being able to tackle homophobic bullying in any faith schools.

“The whole argument about faith schools has been a bit distorted. I think they are part of a good rich educational mix. Some of the problems that might occur can be overcome by discussion. I am amazed at how much progress we have made through getting all the faith groups round a table and talking through these issues.

“I have got no doubt that a discussion around how we tackle bullying can lead to, if we need a voluntary code on top of what we have got, we can achieve that.

“It’s amazing what you can achieve in dialogue rather than through the heavy hand of legislation.”

His faith in the abilities of religious schools to keep their homophobic attitudes out of the classroom is admirable, though many gay people who attended such institutions would say it is naïve.

The Commons education select committee reported in March.

All schools are required by law to have an anti-bullying policy, but many do not collate figures on how much bullying goes on.

The committee expressed concern that this may be to protect the school’s reputation.

They heard evidence from charity Anti-Bullying Alliance that between 30-50% of young people in secondary schools attracted to people of the same sex have directly experienced homophobic bullying, compared to the 10-20% of young people who have experienced general bullying.

The committee also took evidence from Stonewall about the experiences of gay children and the children of gay parents.

“They told us that homophobic bullying in schools is not reported, as there is no duty on schools to record the data,” Mr Williams, MP for Bristol West and an out gay man, told

“Our report recommends that all types of identity-related bullying, whether it’s homophobic or to do with special needs or racism, should be recorded by schools.

“They need to record and have policies in place on all the different types of bulling.

“They have to specifically address each different reason why a child could be bullied, often about something they cannot do something about.”

Mr Johnson told me that tacking bullying is a priority for the DfES, and revealed that he will unveil a range of new guidance for schools at the upcoming Stonewall Education for All conference in July.

“Where the problem could lie is if we try to chop this up into little bits, and try to publish a bit of guidance about homophobic bullying, a bit of guidance about bullying against disabled kids, a bit of guidance about ethnic minority bullying,” he explained.

“You just give too much stuff to teachers in little bits and pieces. I want to bring all this together. I want one anti-bullying document that actually lays out clear guidance that people will read.

“That has the bit about homophobic bullying that we worked out with Stonewall and that has an integrated piece of advice and guidance.”

Guidance about gay children being beaten up and abused sounds a bit weak, considering the obligations on schools to record racial harassment. Mr Johnson is optimistic that the attitude of educators has changed.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of guidance in education.

“Teachers and head teachers do want to tackle it, and there have been incidents of people in denial about it, but that’s now hopefully a thing of the past.

“People recognise this, not least because of the incidents of youngsters trying to take their lives because of bullying and have succeeded in some cases.

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing to have to undergo. So there might have been a point in the past where schools weren’t taking this seriously enough. I don’t think that’s the case now and our guidance is alongside powers we have given to schools to discipline.

“Very strict powers that were contained in a report which was commissioned under the Thatcher government back in the late 1980s by a distinguished peer, Lord Elton, and they just ignored it, they did not do anything with it.

“We picked up those recommendations about giving teachers the power to detain, to restrain, to confiscate, that they did not have before. So we have given them those powers to act against school bullies.

“The guidance is really to help them to identify when it is happening and to introduce things like getting the school council involved in this.

“The kids themselves, who are the class representatives, involved and on the lookout for bullies. Sometimes kids are better able to talk to other children than to teachers so it will be a whole host of good practical guidance.”

Mr Johnson attended the Stonewall fundraising dinner earlier this year where the Prime Minister spoke of his pride at introducing civil partnerships, and he is fulsome in his praise for the gay equality organisation and their campaign to stop gay kids being abused at school.

“They are a class act. If you were going to pick one of the top five lobby groups for their effectiveness, their professionalism, their energy and their integrity, you would pick Stonewall.”

I realise that we have talked little about what he would do as Deputy Leader, apart from visit Dorneywood as a guest and not a postman.

He is keen to highlight a difference in his approach to the role from some of the other contenders.

“There is a very clear role within the Labour party that the deputy leader is that conduit between the leader and the party, the PLP, the European party, the trade unions.

“If you are not at the heart of policy and you are not round the Cabinet table and involved in the big policy discussions then you are not going to be able to do the conduit job properly.

“There is a very clear difference between the way Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears to a certain extent see it and the way myself, Peter Hain and Hilary Benn see it.

“That’s a very important part of the role but it is not the total role.

“There is a very clear policy role just as there was for Clement Atlee when was the leader, when Herbert Morrison was the deputy, when George Brown was the deputy.”

Finally we turn to events in Eastern Europe. Gay people being beaten and abused in the streets of Moscow, gay rights marches banned in Poland and attacked in Latvia, and an EU seemingly incapable of doing little except wring its hands.

“There are things that we can do through the EU, I am sure, to make it absolutely clear that this is not the kind of behaviour that we expect from EU countries.

“Russia is a bit different, but it has signed up to the European Declaration of Human Rights.

“I just think that we have to ensure that the forces of darkness which we have largely removed in this country are removed throughout Europe.

“On a wider issue about Europe we have got to re-burnish our credentials. When you look at all the problems we are facing in the 21 st century, and some of them are the bigotry and discrimination that we see, but whether its energy security, climate change or globalisation, they are international problems waiting for an internationalist party to resolve them.

“That means we have to be a lot more heavily engaged in Europe. The EU ought to be an environmental union, as David Miliband said. We won’t tackle climate change just in the UK and our international multi-lateral method of doing that is through the EU.”

Aaah, the equally charming Mr Miliband. The gay choice for Prime Minister, if polling is to be believed.

The future for Labour is uncertain under Gordon Brown, and as for who will be his deputy, even the bookies don’t know.

Of all the candidates I have met so far, Mr Johnson seems the most relaxed about winning, or perhaps about losing the contest.

Let us at least hope that when he addresses the Stonewall conference in July, he has a practical set of proposals that ensure no gay child ever suffers abuse in school again.

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