02/07/2015 16:00 BST | Updated 03/08/2015 15:59 BST

Alan Johnson Interview: Labour's 'Yes' EU Campaign, Terror Threats And Leadership Trapdoors

alan johnson

Alan Johnson is dressed for summer. Wearing a floral shirt, canvas trousers and deck shoes, he looks much younger than a 65-year-old former Cabinet minister ought to. And even out of his usual sharp suits - because he’s not speaking in the chamber today - he manages to appear every inch the coolest cat in the Commons.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the heatwave, not all of his fellow MPs are impressed by his laid-back attire. “We had two votes and there were plenty of pisstakers in the [Members’] Lobby,” he explains. While a jacket and tie are normally required to sit in the chamber, “you can go through the Lobby dressed as you like”, Johnson adds, pointing out that MPs caught by a sudden vote sometimes include those kitted out for jogging or the gym.

But today “a few Tories” decided to take the mickey. And the closest thing Labour has to a Modfather is genuinely disgusted by his opponents’ sheer lack of style. “If you see what they come out in,” he protests. “As soon as the sun shines, they put on these awful f***ing linen suits, brown things that smell of mothballs that they bought 25 years ago, thinking ‘I’ll save that for a summer day’.”

Sartorial differences are hardly the only issues that divide Johnson and the Conservatives. And on the vexed subject of the European Union he couldn’t be more different from backbench Eurosceptics.

The new head of Labour’s ‘Yes’ campaign for the In-Out referendum (a role he agreed to after being asked by Harriet Harman), Johnson is busier than he has been for years. A dizzying round of meetings now regularly takes place in his office overlooking Parliament Square, as everyone with a pro-EU interest touches base over the tactics and strategy ahead.

As a former Home Secretary, Education Secretary, Trade and Industry Secretary, Health Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary, his extensive ministerial career under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown now looks like the perfect preparation for his new role. From welfare to immigration, from jobs to public services, he knows first hand the wide-range of issues that will form the battleground in the referendum debate.

The Labour ‘Yes’ campaign will be firmly that, a Labour vehicle. But Johnson explains that he’s still willing to put aside differences with the Tories and others to to keep Britain in the EU.

better together referendum

Lessons learned from Scotland?

The notion of sharing a platform with the Conservatives is one he's relaxed about, despite the damaging after-effects for the Labour Party of the cross-party ‘Better Together’ campaign against Scots independence.

While that gave succour to Scottish nationalists who relished calling Labour the "red Tories" north of the border, Johnson thinks the toxicity of the tie-up cannot be "promoted as the reason why we did so badly in Scotland".

But there are lessons to learn. "I know it was an issue up there. [But] was it the issue that led to this incredible force of nature up there, the SNP? No, I don’t think it was. And even if it was, I don't think it carries over to Europe," he says.

"This is a Labour campaign. And maybe if there's any lesson from this then, yes, you have an umbrella group, they attract the public money through the Referendum Act. But you don’t leave everything to them. You have a clear and distinct Labour campaign."

The very word "Yes" is important, and it’s a core reason why he agreed to take up the unpaid role (“I’m not taking any salary for this. I don’t want a car, I come very cheaply,” he jokes.) There is strand of the Labour Party that wants out of Europe, and its line can be traced back to the 1975 referendum when big beasts Michael Foot, Tony Benn, and Barbara Castle, plus much of the trade union movement, were hostile to Brussels. Now the party is more united, in stark contrast to the Conservatives.

He says the Labour Party's principles of internationalism and solidarity are all about "working with other countries" and not "shrinking into isolation". "It very much matches our ethos," he said. "It’s Labour 'Yes' it’s not Labour 'Perhaps'. Or 'Yes, But' or 'Yes, If'. It’s the Conservative Party that will have different problems with different factions. You've got the Kate Hoeys and the Graham Stringers (Labour MPs who want to leave) but really the situation has changed completely from 1975."

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Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair and Kenneth Clarke joined forces for the Britain in Europe campaign in the 1990s

Johnson doubts "very much" whether he will campaign shoulder-to-shoulder with David Cameron. "He's doing this weird thing over there [the renegotiation strategy].”

"But why would I not share a platform with someone like [former Tory minister] Damian Green or someone from the Conservatives who are in power? They won the general election. Why would I not do that in the right context, on the right occasion? It doesn’t distract from the fact we are out there with a Labour 'Yes' campaign – working in our constituencies to deliver that 'Yes' vote."

Johnson makes a big play of how the campaign's emphasis will be on firing up ordinary people, not just activists but GPs, teachers and local businesses. "This is not about the Labour Party lecturing about Europe," he says.

The EU is not a "perfect institution", but then nor is Westminster, the United Nations or Nato, he argues. It’s just, in contrast to David Cameron's high-profile negotiations, he thinks "reform isn’t an event, it’s a process".

"With the right approach we can change Europe, as we have changed Europe for our membership for the last 40 years. But it has to be in the language people understand. Not in some technocratic, top-down, lecturing elites, saying this is in our best interests."

harold wilson

Harold Wilson, the last PM to 'win' a European referendum

Leaving the EU will be "a lot more dangerous" than not joining the Common Market in 1975. "It was six countries. It was almost like a referendum as to whether we should go in. Now it’s 28 member states. The other 27 are going to sail on without us.

"Whatever your worry is - economic growth, standard of living, the future of research and development, science, the digital economy, whatever: there is not a single part of it that we'll be better off on our own."

He's dismissive of the Prime Minister's attempts to squeeze a better deal out of Brussels, likening the scale of his ambitions to Harold Wilson's limited renegotiation of better terms with Commonwealth countries in 1975.

"Harold Wilson came back with New Zealand butter," he says. "I don’t know whether Cameron is going to come back with anything as substantial as that. But in a sense he's going through the same process. The real thing for us is Europe is a good thing."

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The TUC's Frances O'Grady

Instead, he refuses to get caught by the PM’s "red lines" – even over the loss of workers’ rights that trade unions have already warned could trigger support for Brexit. “Even if he sold the Working Time Directive – and I don't think it’s going to happen, he'd be mad to do it – but even if he did, I've heard some trade unions recommend: then we'd say 'no'. That's like saying you've lost something in negotiations, you're going to de-recognise the union. What is the point of that when you can stay in the union and get it back if you care so deeply?"

Trade union warnings about a greater ‘No’ vote if Cameron trades workers’ rights are part of the tactical process, he believes. “I think that’s just setting mood music for him in case he’s thinking about doing it. Maybe they’re saying ‘you may be filling in one hole with your swivel-eyed loonies or whoever you might be trying to please, but you will be digging another one if you want a Yes vote’.”

Johnson dismisses the idea of a loss of sovereignty as a Tory red herring, saying the structures are already in place to rein in Brussels. He points to a Labour Government reform that meant every European Commission proposal for regulation was given to a member state eight weeks in advance to let them raise red flags if uncomfortable. Popular with Scandinavian countries, it is never used by the UK, he claims. "If Cameron came back from Europe and said I've got this, people would say it's some great triumph. There are lots of things there we can make better use of."

From areas where "we need to act together" such as capping mobile phone charges and international cross-border crime, to the more informal Erasmus student exchange programme, Britain would be "diminished as a nation" outside the EU.


Alex Salmond, tactical genius

That the question posed will be a positive "Yes" to stay in is "crucial", and he praises ex-SNP leader Alex Salmond who "ran rings" around former Scottish Secretary Michael Moore (Johnson’s former neighbour, since replaced in the next door office by Salmond) over the phrasing of the question in the Scottish referendum.

"So the question was ‘do you want Scotland to be independent?’ rather than ‘do you want Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom?’ Having a positive Yes is really important in this."

Johnson still can’t believe that the Coalition agreed a simple majority would be enough to allow Scotland to break away. “Imagine leaving the United Kingdom. It’s one thing not to have a written constitution that requires a two-thirds vote – even the local golf club [has that]. If you're going to do something really fundamental to the constitution, you need more than just a simple majority.”

He knows critics will accuse him of scaremongering – or co-opting ‘Project Fear’ from the Scottish referendum – but he thinks it fair game to ask what the future would look like outside the EU.

"What do the people who want us outside the EU imagine Britain as? Do they imagine it as the 51st state of America? Do they imagine it as some kind of nostalgic 1952? Do they imagine it as some kind of offshore laboratory where anything goes – a free-market laboratory?"

If immigration is the concern, an issue Labour has to "tackle upfront", then leaving the EU will make no difference, he argues, highlighting that three European countries not part of the union all abide by the free movement of labour in any case.

"Do people imagine we'll get trade agreements with every single European country without having to agree to have free movement for their workers? Forget it. Do you think Germany and France are going to be bending over backwards to help us?"

The migrant crisis being played out at Calais is a case in point, he says. The closure of the notorious Sangatte refugee camp and moving the UK Border Control from Dover across the Channel under then Home Secretary David Blunkett in the late 1990s was only possible as an EU member, he says.

"The majority of migrants are from outside the European Union. We'd have a worse problem with asylum seekers. The situation looks worse not better if we are outside the European Union."

That's not scare-mongering, he says. "You can’t avoid asking those questions, and having that debate. But it’s not the centre-piece. I am making a positive argument. It is going to be better for our economic growth, better for our standard of living. Better for Britain's voice in the world, in an increasingly inter-dependent world."

nigel farage

Nigel Farage, the perfect enemy?

Nigel Farage seems to scare and enthuse the public in almost equal measure at times. But he thinks it will help the cause if the Ukip leader fronts the "No" campaign.

"Nigel is a obviously a person who is steeped in the political class pretending he isn't. He is so obviously a natural Thatcherite Tory trying to pretend he is suddenly a friend of the workers,” he says.

"You can see in Nigel – who is a very talented politician – all of that nostalgia for a world that I don't think ever was. The worry about people talking languages on a train – no-one who has been in London for the last 50 years has worried about accents on a train. But it still spooks Nigel out."

“He would be the very person you would want to lead a [No] campaign. This has to be about the future. Young people in particular have to be galvanised about this because it is their future as well," he says. "I think Nigel puts them off."

While Labour now accepts the EU referendum bill, it still wants to extend the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. So how much will the party dig in to get what it wants? Will ministers have to cave in to the demand simply because of that immoveable deadline of the end of 2017?

“I think that’s possible. I think that’s very possible,” he says. “Given that the Government conceded that in the Scottish referendum - they didn’t have to - I see no reason why they can’t concede it here, it would be absolutely consistent with that argument. This is not about involving 16- and 17-year-olds in general elections. It would kind of chip away at that of course, but you are talking about a Yes-No decision on something crucial to their future.”

offshore wind

Jobs heading to Hull

Johnson is anxious for small businesses to stand up and be counted, and he recalls as Trade and Industry Secretary how some firms were pro-European but feared being seen as "political" by voicing their support. "You have to start speaking up for the European Union otherwise your workforce is hearing different things. We've got to start with that nonsense. Companies have to be very clear about why being in Europe is good for them."

Europe will play a key role in moving the UK economy away from foreign-driven financial services to manufacturing and exports, he says, citing Siemens in his Hull constituency, which has just made its biggest ever investment in offshore wind after eyeing 102 rival cities.

"It’s inconceivable they would have chosen Hull if we were outside the EU. They won't pull out if they say 'No' – but we won't get their supply chain, which is mainly based around blade manufacturing in Denmark. It's more important outside of London in those areas of manufacturing in the north than it is anywhere else."

Small business "don’t export enough" but pulling out of the EU "isn’t going to help that – all the visas and documents, the 10% levies they would have to pay". "Siemens and big businesses can talk for themselves," he said. "It’s small businesses that need to come out in this campaign.”

As for the recent Tory rebellion over ‘Purdah’, Johnson hasn’t much sympathy with the Eurosceptics. “I think they’ve made much too much of it, I’m kind of with Ken Clarke on this. Purdah, what does it meant to the British people? They don’t expect everything to be screeching to a halt. It’s not as if there’s a referendum in all 28 member states, so you could all have a Purdah period.

“Things will be going on in Europe, we have to respond to it. It makes sense to me that government carries on governing through the period of the campaign. The opposition getting foaming at the mouth about it was probably making far too big a thing about it. It probably shows the paucity of their arguments when it comes to the main issues because this is a side issue.”

Johnson is keen to embark on some ‘myth-busting’ about the EU, from straight banana claims to suggestions that 80% of our laws are set in Brussels (he says the Commons library shows it’s about 12% “and even then every single one of those has been cleared by the UK Parliament”).

“All of this needs to be explained. Yes, you give up a bit of your sovereignty when you go into organisations like the EU, and United Nations, but you maintain an awful lot of control over what is discussed, debated on and agreed.”

Europe’s common interest in combatting terrorism was thrown into sharp relief recently with the Tunisian beach murders claiming victims from Britain, Ireland, Germany, Belgium and Portugal.

charles clarke

Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary

As a former Home Secretary, Johnson believes the EU can deal with crime and extremism more easily than individual nation states, though he’s careful not to seize on the recent atrocity to make his case.

“I would be the last person to say that because you get something like Tunisia, you suddenly abandon all your concerns about civil liberties. I was there in the Cabinet in 7/7, I remember it so well and I remember watching Charles Clarke dealing with this as Home Secretary, I was Trade and Industry Secretary at the time.”

In fact, he suggests the Blair Government got it badly wrong in some ways after the London bombings. “We overreacted in the sense of the 42 days [detention] and all of that. And in a way that bersmirched all the valuable things you were trying to do. So you’re always making this balance.”

Yet he now feels vindicated over his long calls for a data communications bill to be enacted. “When I left the Home Office in 2010 - so I am still Theresa May’s immediate predecessor, poor old Theresa’s been slogging away now into her sixth year - the big, big problem was we need a communications data bill.

“I took over in 2009 and we knew we didn’t have time to do it before the election so we were actively planning to do it afterwards, it was the most important thing we could do. The thing about the Coalition is they published the draft bill and went through the scrutiny exercise and then gave up on it.

“OK, it was a Coalition government, the Lib Dems blocked it, I always said Theresa May should have made it a resignation issue. She was the one who knew, her and the Prime Minister, they are cleared to see everything.”

david anderson independent

David Anderson, QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation

The recent review of data comms by the independent reviewer of terrorism, David Anderson QC, offers a way out, he argues..

“Now that we have got the David Anderson report, it’s very important because he talked about the necessity for the security services to have this access to meta data and he introduced this idea of the judges being involved, rather than the Home Secretary having to sign off every warrant and deal with every case. And when you hear people like David Davis saying it’s a good, balanced report, you can see that it’s given you a chance to bring the two sides together in this.”

If security services already have access to telephone and mobile phone meta-data, “I don’t see how they should be locked out of these whole new areas of communication where we have no controls”, he says.

“I do understand the Government’s reluctance to take that away from politicians but there must be a deal there somewhere. Because I’ve had to deal with these things, in the middle of the night, whatever. Maybe there is a category of them where the Home Secretary has to be involved and maybe a cross section of the others should be looked at by democratically elected politicians but I think he’s given us a possible solution to get things moving on that.”

It wasn’t only data communications where the Coalition failed on security, he says.

Getting rid of control orders’ relocation powers was a big mistake too. “Everyone told them that we need control orders for a very few people and they just would not listen. We still haven’t found the two people who scarpered from control orders. Once we introduced relocation, we didn’t lose a single person on it.”

theresa may

Theresa May, police critic

Johnson is adamant too, however, that cuts to police funding have left the UK more vulnerable to terror threats.

“The battle that seems to be going on with the Government and the police and the reduction in funding. The Home Office budget on policing ought to be ring-fenced because the intelligence that’s picked up about the movements of domestic terrorist groups comes largely to a surprising degree - lots come from the security services - from neighbourhood policing teams,” he says.

“They pick up these things. PCSOs they are on the street all the time, they don’t have to go to court. They are on the street looking and listening and they were an essential part of the counter-terrorism fight. We had 3,000 police dedicated to counter-terrorism and we had neighbourhood policing which has been diminished now in lots of areas, in the fight against terrorism. So the government needs to get its act together on all of that.”

Johnson counts his new EU referendum role as covering “the most important political decision of my lifetime”. But some activists, not least those who saw him lose the deputy race to Harman by a whisker years ago, see him as the best Labour leader the party has never had.

A walking, talking human being (a quality underscored by his best-selling memoirs about his childhood, as well his BBC This Week appearances), he had to swiftly make clear soon after the May 7 election defeat that he didn’t want to succeed Ed Miliband.

He last week backed Tessa Jowell for the Labour candidacy for the Mayor of London, hitting out at ‘ageism’ of her critics (“It was David Lammy, David said this shouldn’t be a retirement job. David, for God’s sake.”) Johnson hailed Jowelll as ‘the Kylie Minogue’ of British politics.

Tessa-Kylie mash-up stylee

But given that Tessa is 67, and he’s 65, does that make him the Jason Donovan? He laughs. “That’s very good, I was really saying she’s the Kylie Minogue because you just say Tessa and you know who you mean. You don’t have to use the surname.”

“With Tessa, it’s very clear to me that this was the election in 2016 is going to be Labour’s chance to win back something we’ve lost in two previous elections and Tessa to me was head and shoulders the person for that job and I had not compunction about not backing her.”

But if she’s up to it in her later years, why isn’t he? “You need 10 years. I’m not being ageist. Do I want to spend the next 10 years doing that? Five years to election and five years afterwards and then you are into your mid-70s.” He adds, smiling, “I don’t think there’s an age bar, but Ronald Reagan isn’t my lodestar for Prime Ministers of Great Britain.”

ben bradshaw alan johnson

Ben Bradshaw, Deputy Leadership contender and former ministerial colleague of Johnson's

As for the current national leadership race, he’s nominated Ben Bradshaw. Why was that?

“I backed Ben because he knows I wanted to see him across the line and he knows I wanted to see him in the contest. I know him well and he was my minister of state at health and he’s a friend. What I thought about Ben is he’s in that isolated spot down in Exeter where he trebled his vote, where you look at the West Country and there’s this one little dot of red and that means he doesn’t have a regional machine around him, he doesn’t have like in the North West and North East, where you get your mates in and all that. He was on his own. And I thought he’s a really valuable voice in politics. I told him I might not vote for you Ben but I’m going to nominate you.”

But the stakes are different for the leadership race itself. “With the leadership, I genuinely wanted to watch and listen and see the television debates and how they responded to questions, how they dealt with some difficult issues,” he says. “Now I’m wondering whether in my current position I ought to endorse anyone. In a sense I’ve got to work with whoever the leader is on the ‘Yes’ vote. It might be an opportunity to cop out!

“Jeremy Corbyn would fall to the floor with shock if I said he should get it. And between the other three of them I think they’ve all got their pluses and I could live with any one of them, so I haven’t decided yet. I will vote of course.”

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Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary

As a former general secretary of the postal workers union, Johnson has strong views on the role trade unions should have in picking Labour’s leader. Does he think that unions should not endorse any particular candidate or send out promotional material without consulting members first?

“I don’t think it’s realistic, in the sense that union leaders are perfectly entitled to say ‘this is our preferred candidate’. What I would argue against is the leadership deciding their favourite person and then suddenly that becomes a bit of block vote throughout the union.

“The age of deference is gone and that includes people saying ‘if my general secretary says that’s the person to vote for then I’ll do that’. The T&G were recommending Margaret Beckett back in 1994 and the vast majority of T&G members voted for Tony Blair, we know that and that’s happened increasingly since then.

“So I’m happy that we’ve got one member, one vote. I worked with John Smith on that, it was a staging post to where we ought to be not the final thing. Moving to levy payers making a decision to opt in and not opting out, we should thank Ed Miliband for introducing.

“The fact now that the Labour party owns all the lists and they send out the voting material, not the unions. I wouldn’t be worried about promotional material, that may be a debate in some unions: ‘why are we wasting money doing this, our members are perfectly intelligent enough to make their own decision’. It’s not something we from the outside ought to have effect on.”

And what about the recent idea of a ‘trapdoor’ for Labour leaders, a bit like the Tories’ own mechanism to allow MPs to trigger a vote of confidence? Johnson isn’t keen, and hints just why he rejected approaches late last year to replace Miliband so close the general election.

“I don’t think much of it. You elect a leader and you do everything to ensure that they win in 2020. And they will have good periods and they will have bad periods and there have been previous periods where leaders would have been chucked through a trap door and the very fact that you invoke that mechanism shows that you’re not ready for government yet.

“And to have that two years or a year before a general election is shooting yourself in the foot, quite frankly. My message is elect the person you want to win in 2020, not someone you think ‘ah well, we’ve got a get-out clause in 2018 or whenever it is’, that’s not sensible.

boris johnson

Boris Johnson, double referendum sympathiser

“That’s as logical as Boris saying we should all vote ‘No’ for the EU and then get further powers and then vote ‘Yes’," he says, referring to the Dominic Cummings blog recently which floated the idea of a 'double referendum' approach. Cummings already looks like he will have a big role in the 'No' campaign, but Johnson is dismissive.

"Anyone who’s done any negotiation will know that that’s a stupid way to proceed. And actually it loses you credibility with the people you’re negotiating with if you try and play those games, plus you can’t control it. You’re saying vote No and then vote Yes, well they’re more likely vote No and then vote No again.”

Thanks to his new post, Europe is never far away from this thoughts. But the man whose admirers call him ‘AJ’ is still managing to enjoy himself along the way. His summer reading consists of Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins. “And I’m also reading Kilvert’s Diaries 1870-1880 and he describes the countryside all around Hay...”

A former guitarist himself, he still has a passion for music. “I’m listening to Everything Everything, who’ve got a new album out and they are on in Brixton soon. I love Laura Marling. Tim Burgess [of the Charlatans] who hasn’t had an album for a while, but he’s a big hero of mine.”

It’s an impressively eclectic and fashionable list of British artists. But it seems he has one EU blindspot after all. Does he like any European musicians? Kraftwerk maybe? “No, I can’t stand Kraftwerk,” he says, rushing out of the door for another Commons vote in his civvies, ready to risk more Tory ridicule. “European bands, I need a bit of time on that.”