The best PM Britain never had – Alan Johnson at Swindon Festival of Literature

16 May
Mark O'Donnell in conversation with Alan Johnson

Mark O’Donnell in conversation with Alan Johnson

Alan Johnson has had a bad week. Labour lost the election, his beloved Queen’s Park Rangers were relegated, and he discovered that his new next door neighbour in the Houses of Parliament offices is Alex Salmond.

Johnson is at Swindon Festival of Literature to promote his new book. But in a week that has led to soul-searching and brain-storming from Labour Party members, the majority of questions thrown in his direction by audience members – from both sides of the political spectrum – during a buzzing Q&A session are about the future of the party, and the state of British politics in general.
But first, the book. The autobiographical Please Mr Postman is a follow-up the well-received This Boy. While the former covered his life from his parents’ marriage to his own, at the age of 18, while recalling the horror of life before the NHS, and the safety net provided by the Welfare State in the 1950s, Please Mr Postman charts his progress through his “nascent rock career” with multi-racial band The Inbetweens, the Post Office, and the Trade Union movement.
The third and final part, to be published next year,  will cover his political career, from 1997 – Labour’s landslide victory, Things Can Only Get Better, and all that – to the present day. He won’t, he says, dish the dirt of former colleagues, and I won’t be alone in believing that he might have to write a fourth in his old age. I can’t see his life getting much less interesting anytime soon.
They wanted us as canon fodder in the class war
The book starts around the time of the Paris Riots and Tariq Ali, but he says he was unaffected by both. He writes: “The activist Tariq Ali was leading a student movement to abolish money and abandon capitalism… For Judy and me and millions like us, these events might just as well have been taken place in a parallel universe.”
 “I didn’t want to abolish money,” he tells his Swindon audience. “I wanted to earn the stuff.” The working class, he says, spoke scruffy and dressed smart, while the university-educated intellectuals spoke smart and dressed scruffy. “They wanted us as canon fodder in the class war,” he reckons.
The election – both the run-up and the aftermath – have been dominated by questions of integrity, and real-life experience. On the campaign trail, a student asked Ed Miliband what he had done outside politics to show he understands ordinary voters. His answer? A Treasury adviser and Harvard University lecturer.
One audience member asks “Are MPs who’ve had a real job a dying breed?” Johnson doesn’t think so. “There’s concern about this on both sides of the house,” he assures us.
Fifty percent of the cabinet, he says, are privately educated. That’s still disproportionate, but better than the 90 percent we had in the late 80s.
Meanwhile his Labour Party colleagues include a fellow postie, a builder, and a taxi driver. “I’ve always thought,” he tells the audience, “it’s a pity that the people who really know how to run this country are driving taxis.”
Another audience member asks whether the General Election result suggest we’ve become more selfish as a society. “Oh, you don’t blame the electorate,” he says. “The electorate is always right. There’s huge compassion among the public to help the disadvantaged.”
Why, then, after five years of austerity measures, couldn’t Labour win the election? “Maybe we came across as not caring about anyone that wasn’t at the bottom of society.”
Yes, their concentration on sharing the existing wealth more equally, rather than making us all wealthier, has been a recurring thought among speakers during this Festival.
No doubt this is something the next leader of the Labour Party will address. Will it be him?
“No. If you want to be leader you have to have the appetite.”
So who will the next leader be? Johnson is coy:
“I am genuinely a floating voter. We’ll see how the examination of what went wrong goes. There are some good people in the running.”
Churchill was the MP for Dundee, but only went there three times, during elections
One questioner wonders why the voting public feels disconnected to politicians and the political system.
“Churchill was the MP for Dundee, but only went there three times, during elections. Today’s MPs are in touch with their constituents all the time, through surgeries and social media.
“Ask someone what they think of politicians, and they’ll complain. Ask them what they think of their own MP, and they’ll generally say they’re hard-working.”
And the final question is on First Past the Post.
“I’m a big supporter of proportional representation,” he says. “and, of course, the Labour Party was in favour of PR when it was founded, but that changed when it started winning seats under First Past the Post.
“The argument for First Past the Post is that it creates strong governments. I think if we’d had a second hung parliament, that argument would have looked faded.
“But we have to put party interests to one side and ask what is best for British democracy.”
And to warm applause he leaves the stage, with at least one audience member having decided what would have been best for British democracy. Turning to me, she says: “He’s the best Prime Minister Britain never had.”

One Response to “The best PM Britain never had – Alan Johnson at Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 17th May 2015

    […] enjoyed hero-worship from their audiences, some were unexpected: Will Hutton, Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, Peter Tachell, Henry Marsh, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: