Saturday 25 April 2015

The best Leader Labour never had?

Political  commentary is littered with references to people who might have been leaders of their party, and it is too easy to see a politician's merits when she or he hasn't been put to the test in office.

However, the British Labour Party has two contenders for the "lost leader" epithet in recent history. Just over twenty years ago, the sudden and premature death of John Smith robbed the party of a leader who would surely have profited from the inevitable post-Thatcher demise of a Tory government. At the time he died, he was remodelling the party after the "looney left" years under Michael Foot, building on the legacy of Neil Kinnock (let us never forget that it was the oft-derided Kinnock who first took on the Militant Tendency in the famous put-down of Derek Hatton at the 1985 Bournemouth Conference). Smith, with the air of a prudent bank manager and the same traditional Scottish Christian values as Gordon Brown, would surely have romped to victory in 1997, as his successor Tony Blair so famously did. Blair's three victories, and all that followed them, meant that Smith was perhaps never mourned as a "lost leader" to the extent that he would have been had Labour not been so successful so relatively soon after his death. 

But then there's Alan Johnson. I have just finished reading his book "This Boy", a memoir of his childhood and teenage years, and I have to say that it strengthened my impression that Johnson's decision to stand down from front-line politics was a grievous loss not just to the Labour Party, but to the country as well.

These days, Johnson is still a backbench MP, likely to be re-elected to parliament as the member for Hull next month, but he stays out of the political limelight. He appears on TV shows such as "Have I got News for You", and seems to enjoy the freedom to express his views in a more relaxed and open manner, free from the constraints of high office. His gentle humour, smiling face and lack of bitterness belie a life which has been far from easy.

Johnson's acclaimed book brings home to the reader just how "genuine" he is, in a manner which inevitably invites comparisons with the soundbite-driven leaders who are presently fighting for our votes. By comparison, they  look like a bunch of automatons. He certainly has no need, as so many politicians of the Left feel compelled to do, to talk up his working class credentials: he was raised in abject poverty in London's Notting Hill, long before the gentrification of that area. 

His feckless father abandoned his mother and her two children, leaving her to scrape by on meagre wages from unskilled work until she died at the age of 42, leaving 12-year-old Alan as an orphan, cared for by his 16 year old sister. His account of this genuinely deprived childhood is told with gentle humour, self-deprecation and entirely without self-pity in such a way that you feel he really knows what it means to be a "hard working family", in the words of that over-used cliché. 

The undoubted heroes of the story are his sister Linda and his mother Lily, but Johnson himself comes out of the book as a man who has "seen it all" when it comes to deprivation and poverty. His unsurprisingly Left-Wing views have, however, always seemed to be borne of compassion and a desire to do the right thing for all people, rather than the humourless bitterness and envy which have so often undermined the appeal of other left wing politicians and trade unionists.

Perhaps therein lies the sad truth. One cannot help but conclude from his writings, and indeed from his TV appearances, that here is a man who is perhaps just too nice, too human, for the nasty world of politics, and one suspects that perhaps this was among his reasons for stepping aside in 2011. It is funny how politicians of all parties gain in popularity once they leave politics: think Michael Portillo, who in 1997 was the lightning conductor for all the built-up resentment after 18 years of Tory government, and is now a much-loved presenter of gentle railway travelogues on TV.

Nevertheless, I suspect that a Labour Party led by Alan Johnson might be further ahead in the polls than Milliband is managing right now.

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