By Bob Light
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A working class messiah?

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Issue 396

That sound you can hear is a bandwagon starting to roll. Four years after everyone else it has finally dawned on the Labour Party that their leader is inept. Step forward Alan Johnson.

Johnson has long been a pin-up boy for Blue Labour, but there are some signs that the quinoa-munching section of the party is ready to board the AJ Express. How else to explain the extraordinary article by Owen Jones slobbering over Johnson’s “charm” and “cool”. On the surface this makes no sense. Jones is a breakout star of the new left while Johnson is from the Dark Side. He was a servile member of the New Labour governments for 11 years ending at the Home Office where he was famous for being useless. Johnson not only supported the Blair wars, but is one of the few zombies who still justifies them.

In the past four years Johnson has given himself a political make-over — from hack to the “Saviour of Labour”. The key to this transformation has been the success of The Boy, Johnson’s memoir of growing up in working class West London just after the Second World War. Since it came out two years ago this book has propelled Johnson to the big time. This has now been followed by a second volume, Please Mr Postman.

The reviews of these have been a goat-fuck of over-praise. The paperback edition of The Boy lists review after review in states of ecstasy. The Telegraph, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Lady even The Tablet gave The Boy the sort of reviews that War and Peace wished it had got.

This can have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Johnson’s style is the equivalent of a Sat-Nav voice. What they find so praiseworthy is the “authentic” voice of working class experience. “Authenticity” and “class” are central to Johnson’s new image. The New Statesman calls him “The Shadow Minister for Working Class Authenticity”.

So page after page lists the comics he read, the kids he knew in school, the bike he rode, the records he bought. Turn to page 63 if you want to know about the decor of the Slough Sorting Office in the 1970s. Reading this waffle I just wanted to scream. Johnson lived in a slum? Who didn’t in the 1950s? Johnson had his electricity cut off? Join the queue. Even the fact that he grew up fatherless was not unusual given that 430,000 young men perished in the war.

The only aspect of Johnson’s book that is exceptional is what it doesn’t have. There is the absence of anger, of insight, of any class consciousness. Only once in 600 pages does he express a “burning sense of injustice” — when someone accuses him of stealing the ten bob left out for the milkman. This begins to explain the disconnect between the hardship Johnson the author wallows in, and the “achievements” of Johnson the politician.

We are asked to share his distress at living in a slum, yet when he is in a position of power he does nothing to address housing problems. He whinges about his experience of selective education, but when minister of education he did fuck all to eradicate the 11-plus in the Tory shires. Johnson eulogises the difference the NHS made to his terminally-ill mother, but was part of a government that began to demolish it.

In other words when “The Boy” became “The Minister” he made things even shittier for the working class.

In his second volume Johnson tracks his “authenticity” into the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. What becomes clear is that he has no principles whatsoever. Indeed he is essentially apolitical. This a period that saw Paris 1968, the struggle against the Vietnam War, the rise of black resistance, the emergence of gay liberation and women’s liberation, the fight against Apartheid, the Great Miners’ Strike. Johnson has nothing to say about any of these events.

In a book that finds 15 pages to talk about Queen’s Park Rangers footballers his only comment on 1968 is, “Apart from being impressed by the way the French students dressed, I was emotionally unimpressed.”

But hey, none of this matters now because Johnson has “charm”; he is an “ordinary guy” who has “lived a bit”. Owen Jones seems especially impressed that Johnson once wore Ray-Ban sunglasses to a cabinet meeting. I find it deeply significant that on the day that Johnson began his ascent through the Labour machine he also applied for a job in management. For Johnson it was never about principles, still less “injustice” — it was a career move.

Despite his schtick as a “working class hero” he last did an actual day’s work in 1981.

To anyone not obsessed with “coolness” these two tawdry books reveal Johnson to have all the “authenticity” and “charm” of Barbie’s Ken. Only a party as desperate, and politically bereft, as Labour could possibly mistake him for anything other than a toady. He’s not the messiah — he’s just a very haughty boy.

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