Peter Hoskin

Alan Johnson, summarised

Alan Johnson, summarised
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What became of the likeable lads, that group of New Labour politicians who seemed more decent than the government in which they served? Alistair Darling was one, and he has effectively retired from the frontline of British politics. Alan Johnson was another, and today he gives a frank and wide-ranging interview to Rachel Sylvester. In it, Johnson spends much time cheerleading for David Miliband, and criticising Ed Miliband quite harshly, but there are some points which are worth recording. So here goes:

1) What a drag. As Sylvester puts it, "The [leadership] contest has, in [Johnson's] view, already gone on too long and should not have been extended until September." This is an opinion which many Labour types seem to share. Not only does the prolonged contest necessarily turn proceedings into a drag, with one predictable interview or debate after another. But it also means that Labour haven't been able to properly oppose the coalition's frenetic reform drive. This will come to a head when the new party leader has just 13 days to fashion a fiscal agenda before the Spending Review.

2) David Miliband is not a Blairite.
Johnson observes rightly, "The idea that David is a Blairite is preposterous. He was moved from the Education Department because he disagreed with Tony Blair profoundly about vocational education. He wanted to go down the route of diplomas, mixing the academic and vocational, and Tony wanted to keep the A Level as a gold standard. David Miliband was never some kind of Blair sycophant." Some of Miliband's former Downing St colleagues make a similar argument ruefully – to highlight how Miliband is not an out-and-out reformer – but here, of course, Johnson is doing it to boost his man's cross-party credentials.

3) Brown was a major problem. Most Labour figures have tip-toed around the clunking fist since the election – saying that, yes, the party needs to move on from the Brown years, but that Gordon achieved great things, really. Johnson is far less equivocal: "The issue that doesn't come up in the leadership debates is Gordon - it was quite definitely a factor. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a doorstep view that 'I don't want to vote for you because of Gordon'." But he adds: "If we had got rid of Brown just before the election people would have seen it as self-serving … It could well have destroyed David Miliband to have been leader at that time."

4) Good neighbours?
A curious line: "The thing you noticed most when Gordon took over was that there wasn't a problem between No.10 and No.11." Let's just say, that didn't last long.

5) Splitting the AV Bill.
Among the many tactical considerations that the coalition will have to make over summer, will be whether to accommodate Johnson's suggestion that, "They've put two entirely different things into the Bill – a referendum on AV and redefining constituency boundaries. Separate them out and we'll amend the constituencies Bill to make it fair and we'll support a referendum for AV, it's as simple as that." For those parts of the government who want the AV referendum next May, Johnson might be worth paying heed to.