Greasy Pole: Postman’s knock?
“Devotees of conspiracy theories could be excused for descrying some determined backroom manoeuvring to ensure so swift a climb up the Greasy Pole”
The next time a flood of junk mail and red-printed bills comes through the front door do not, as it were, wish you could kill the messenger. Be aware that the friendly local postie may one day be Prime Minister of Great Britain or, even more distressingly, Leader of the Labour Party. Such an event may be heartening to anyone who is sustained by a conviction that this is a great land of opportunity and that capitalism is the finest arrangement of affairs as it allows anyone, no matter how humble their origins, to rise by their own abilities up to the highest points in society where they can look down on those whose mail they once delivered.
For example there is Alan Johnson, whose mother died when he was 12, four years after his father had abandoned the family. It looked as if he would be placed in a children’s home but his sister, although only 15, persuaded their social worker that she could care for both of them. Living where the Westway flyover now belches noise and fumes, Johnson went to a local grammar school where he did not get his name onto the varnished honours board; in fact he says the school were “glad to see the back” of him. He took a job as a shelf-filler at Tescos but a problem about his lunch break put an end to that; he already had a child so he moved to Slough, to work as a postman. That led to him being elected as a
local trade union official.
A long time after life in a council house under the Westway and then in John Betjeman’s favourite Buckinghamshire town he won a seat in the House of Commons. A few minor ministerial jobs developed into a place in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. At this year’s Labour Party conference, among the pushing and shoving, the arm twisting and back stabbing, Johnson was spoken of as a challenger for the Leadership but he seemed to lose his appetite for the job – in spite of setting up websites with names like Johnson4leader.com.
Devotees of conspiracy theories could be excused for descrying some determined backroom manoeuvring to ensure so swift a climb up the Greasy Pole. Johnson’s constituency – Hull East and Hessle – was previously held by Stuart Randall, who had started out as an apprentice electrician before blossoming into a computer expert – which did not prevent a parliamentary journalist describing him as “nondescript”. Randall resigned from the Commons in 1997, allowing Johnson to take over a rock solid Labour majority and Randall to be shuffled off to the House of Lords.
Then there was the matter of Johnson’s promotion in September 2004 to his first Cabinet job, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (where he could start work on harassing Incapacity Benefit claimants back to work). The previous occupant of this job was Andrew Smith, who obligingly decided that he needed to spend more time with his family and with his constituency of Oxford East.
Perhaps he was alarmed by the slashing of his 2001 majority of over 10,000 votes down to 963 in 2005. And perhaps Johnson’s promotion in Smith’s place was not unconnected with the fact that, before he got into Parliament, he had been the only member of Labour’s NEC to support the new Leader Blair in his determination to get rid of Clause Four.
Like many New Labour leaders, Johnson shows some embarrassment about his past, about those carefree days in opposition when a budding politician could say almost anything, join almost any organisation, provided it seemed radical and exciting. Interviewed in the Observer Magazine (17 September), he insisted that “the first thing about me is I was never a Trot, or a semi-Trot. I was never, ever a Trot.” But he did not then go on to admit that he was once a branch official in the Communist Party.
Of course he has put all that nonsense behind him now that he is in the serious business of government. His record of support for Blair is unblemished – so pure that when he was the Minister of State for Further and Higher Education under Charles Clarke he played what Tony Blair later described as “a vital role in the successful introduction of variable tuition fees during the last parliament”.
This mannered praise refers to the fierce battle the government had to endure before they were able to bludgeon the measure through Parliament. In that conflict Johnson’s smooth negotiating talents were crucial alongside Clarke’s belligerence. It was, Johnson said, “…a charm offensive. I was the charm and Clarke was offensive”.
This joke may not have gone down well with students and their families who struggle through the time at university and then emerge with the right to wear an academic gown and to pay off a substantial debt. Johnson offers this as justification for his attitude: “If I thought it was going to damage working-class kids, I wouldn’t have backed it”.
Another way of putting this feebly circular case would be to argue that the very fact he had backed the tuition fees must mean that they did not damage anyone; it is a style often used by Tony Blair to justify indefensible actions such as the war in Iraq. In any case Johnson’s attitude is rather at variance with his account of how his daughter was treated by the education system. In an area which still had grammar schools she failed her 11 Plus and was placed in a comprehensive school: “She was very bright but, well, probably life chances were lost then…So am I bitter about selection? Yes. I’ve seen what it does to kids”. But he does not seem to be “bitter” about his support for the proposals to set up “trust” schools which, however words are twisted and whatever promises are made, are intended to operate selection policies which can cost the pupils “life chances”.
On other issues Johnson has solidly supported the government – on ID cards, the war in Iraq, foundation hospitals, the “anti-terrorism” laws. And there will be many more examples, as he strives to promote his career through expressed loyalty to the government.
When he was appointed Secretary of State for Education, the postie who delivers the mail to his office brought a long letter from Blair which set out the tasks ahead of him: “…build on our unprecedented record of economic achievement…ensure the long term security and prosperity of our country and its people…deliver real improvements for ordinary hard working families and to underline our Government’s commitment to social justice through policies to expand opportunity and tackle the most deep seated causes of social exclusion”. At the very end of the letter Blair slips a bit of reality into the clap trap: “Your plans will, of course, need to be set against the background of lower growth in funding than in recent years”.
One symptom of that reality is that there are 60,000 children in care in this country who are, according to Johnson, treated “appallingly”. This is after nine years of a Labour government presiding over the crises and failures of capitalism.
How does the ex-postie, with all his talents for smoothing over uncomfortable facts, explain that away?