Alan Johnson is my next interviewee for GQ, out later this week. Yesterday the magazine’s spin doctors (they’re everywhere you know) put out a few selected quotes and some of the papers have focused on Alan saying Ed Miliband had asked him if he fancied a return to the front bench. Answer, no, though he did tell me if Labour win, he would be more tempted by a return to a top flight job.
Alan is one of the nicest guys in politics. I don’t think I can ever recall him without a smile on his face. He is also a team player, and Ed is right to want to have him around. But – this bit sounds familiar – he has carved out a new life for himself, in which politics is important but not all-consuming. He is also honest enough to admit that when he was made shadow chancellor, he felt unsuited to the role, and hated it.
That being said, the part of the extracts I was more interested in was less the notion of a job offer by Ed than what Alan had to say about the politics of the economy, a subject on which I am moderately obsessed, as clearly he is too. We agree that the government has been given credit it does not deserve for a recovery that hasn’t really happened, from a mess they managed to pin on Labour when the factors were way more complicated.
This week, with George Osborne’s autumn statement, the chance to regain the battle on the politics of the economy presents itself once more. It is never too late to get to the right position, and as Alan points out, that is to hammer Osborne and Cameron on the fact they have failed on every big economic pledge they have made, particularly with regard to clearing the deficit in a single term. There is also still time to nail the Big Lie that Labour caused the crash and they have created some kind of economic miracle recovery.
Despite the data presenting a compelling case of their failure, they now expect us to believe the economy has recovered sufficient to cut taxes, put billions into public services and now embark on a massive road building programme.
We know that posh boys tend to think the oiks are all a bit stupid, but do they really think we are all so stupid as to fall for a new set of promises when the first lot have been so comprehensively smashed?
Anyway, here are the extracts from the chat with Alan that GQ put out. The magazine is in shops from Thursday.
AC: Are you as depressed as I am about the state of the political debate?
AJ: I doubt it because that sounds very depressed. I think we can win. I don’t see how David Cameron can win. I can see a hung parliament or a tight win for us. Our historic role has been to tear apart after every defeat. We did it in the Fifties, the Seventies, and only once in 80 years has a government come back after one term. So being in there with a shout is good.
AC: But this is not a good government, the economy is not doing great despite their lies, David Cameron’s pandering to UKIP is an embarrassment – we should be battering them.
AJ: If I feel frustrated about anything it is about not holding George Osborne to account, because his flagship policy was to clear the deficit in one term. He has totally failed. Lost the triple-A rating for the first time, borrowing up not down, debt rising faster than anywhere but
Spain. A bit of growth, but you could have put in a few sacks of potatoes from the Treasury and there would have been some growth. Fraser Nelson keeps pointing all this out, and he is the editor of the Spectator!
AC: So why is it not happening?
AJ: The advice will be you fight 2015 not 2010 and on most things I agree with that. But this big fat lie – that we created the mess and they are creating the recovery – has to be challenged and nailed. Labour didn’t create the recession and Osborne is not creating the recovery. It is quite simple. I said it at a fundraiser in Port Talbot last week. I got the loudest applause defending our economic record and attacking the big lie.
AC: It is one of the reasons I am down about it, not just Europe and immigration and Cameron being crap, but we have conceded this economic mess nonsense.
AJ: It needs a couple of big speeches from Ed – Ed Miliband not Ed Balls – in the run-up, just taking the whole thing apart.
AC: Where are you on in/out Europe referendum?
AJ: Against. That is another reason I admire Ed [Miliband]. Lots of people were pushing him to match the Tories and he stuck to his guns. It gives us a unique place to fight from. I admire
what he did on trade union reform. As Tony said, it was more radical than anything we did. Also, on the economy, he caught the zeitgeist. I have always seen the economy as a
tool of society, even if it feels like the other way around.
AC: What would you have done differently as shadow chancellor?
AJ: I was glad to get out. I took it because I thought, what an extraordinary gesture, that he wants me there. I was not associated with him [Miliband], I’m very much a Blairite, I had not been planning to go on the front bench. But my heart wasn’t in it.
AC: From the start? So if the thing with your wife had not happened, you might have found another way to get out?
AJ: Well, that was the deciding factor. But would I have done any better than what we are doing? I was not up for it. I did it for seven months but I didn’t like the job.
AC: What of the current strategy?
AJ: I thought the Ed Balls Bloomberg speech was right – Osborne was using Greece to undermine confidence and went off into his age of austerity. I would like to see us make this issue of Osborne’s failure a bigger point. They have failed on their own targets. They took growth and delivered recession and act as though it is the other way round.
AC: Why are the rest of the shadow cabinet not more visible?
AJ: They need to get off the leash more.
AC: Will you have a broader role in the election?
AJ: Ed said to me a few months ago, “I suppose you’re not interested in coming back?” I said no, and he said, what about freelancing?” I am happy to go round the country, campaigning, talking to parties.
AC: Have we lost the politics of the economic argument?
AJ: No, because people are not stupid, they don’t feel recovery, they don’t need the IFS [Institute Of Fiscal Studies] to tell them tax revenues are not coming in because so many jobs
are low-paid. And whenever I talk to people, they do not believe we caused the global recession. So it is not lost, but there is a danger of losing it.
AC: But we have had four years and not rebutted this “mess we inherited” thing.
AJ: Ed, two big speeches. Take it apart.
AC: And if we did get a majority, what about the front bench then?
AJ: Disgracefully – and it is disgraceful because I won’t have done the heavy lifting – then I would be more interested. But I am not gagging for it. But I am clear that I cannot write and do a front bench job.
AC: What rising stars do you see in the Labour Party?
AJ: Mainly women. Gloria del Piero has a lot going for her. Liz Kendall is really good, Stella Creasy, Diana Johnson. Also the Eagles [Maria and Angela] don’t get the credit they deserve.