Johnson: Blair’s exit opportunity for renewal

Tony Blair’s departure should be seen as an opportunity to “renew” the Labour party, its current education secretary – and would-be deputy leader – has said.

In an interview with the New Statesman, Alan Johnson said: “We should use the leadership elections to renew the party and make sure it is in the best state possible to fight the next general election.

“I’ve got my own ideas, but I also want to listen to ordinary members to get their thoughts.”

Mr Johnson, who launched his bid for the deputy leadership last November, told the magazine that if he won he would overhaul the Labour party structure.

Already he has commissioned a review with fellow MP Shahid Malik. It is due to report shortly before the campaign kicks off and will look at a wide range of issues including how to recruit more women and ethnic minorities, the policy making process and links to trade unions.

However, the Mr Johnson, who has been in government for eight years, is not distancing himself from the New Labour legacy. He was one of the first modernisers and backed Mr Blair’s push to scrap clause four.

Speaking to the New Statesman, he argued that one of Labour’s greatest achievements has been to combine the needs of the “aspirants” with the less-advantaged, suggesting that this is one area where the party fell down in the past.

When canvassing in Slough for the 1983 election he recalled: “The people on this estate felt that Thatcher had given them an opportunity to buy their own council houses. And we were still in theoretical discussions endlessly about Nicaragua and Cuba.”

Nevertheless, Mr Johnson acknowledges that involving the “aspirants” has not been unproblematic. Referencing the infighting in the party, he suggested that some people find it easy to criticise Labour as it will not affect them if the Conservatives resume power.

With the party having held power for a decade now, he argues there is no case for picking over the wrongs of the past ten years, insisting that Labour has a “very good record” with no “huge mistakes”.

He is clearly proud of Labour’s achievements, citing particular successes in his department.
“All the things we’re doing in education, from Sure Start to higher education and through to adult skills, is about closing the social class gap,” he told the magazine.

Deriding the Thatcher years as “disgraceful”, the former postman is unimpressed by the Conservatives’ attempts to rebrand themselves as a party in touch with quality of life issues, especially, he argues, when they miss the core issues.

A job is the best form of welfare, Mr Johnson maintains, adding “we campaigned on that for donkey’s years, from the foundation of the party through the Jarrow marches – the dignity of work and the obscenity of people being cast on the scrap heap.”

When asked why he is different to his fellow candidates, Mr Johnson is reluctant to be drawn into competition, insisting “modestly comes naturally to the working classes”.

His background does set him at odds from Mr Blair and the so-called “aspirants”. Leaving school with no qualifications, Mr Johnson was married with three children by the time he was 20 – a fact that once prompted Mr Blair to remark that he was “really working class”.

Mr Johnson was elected MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle in 1997 and went on to hold a series of ministerial positions, promoted to Secretary of State for Education and Skills in May 2006.