Five minutes with… Hull West and Hessle MP Alan Johnson

Published: Thursday 28th April 2016 by Tom Drinkall

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Alan Johnson has been Hull West and Hessle MP for 19 years, and has served in a wide variety of cabinet positions over the years, including Health Secretary and Education Secretary. Mr Johnson also served as Shadow Chancellor in Ed Miliband’s first shadow cabinet.

He talks to HEY Today about serving his constituency, his memoirs and the upcoming European Union referendum.

You are in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. What are your main reasons for wishing to stay?

I am in favour and I’m leading the Labour campaign. It’s the biggest commercial market in the world – bigger than China, bigger than the US. It’s a market that we can sell into. British companies without any tariffs, any non-tariff barriers. It’s a market with rules, rules that prevent employers from gaining competitive advantage from exploiting their workforce because there’s a basic level of protection. The social element of Europe that guarantees paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, full-timers to be paid the same at part-timers etc.

And it’s a very important vehicle for Britain’s voice in the world. Britain’s voice is amplified through the European Union, not stifled and in an increasingly interdependent world I think it would be totally counter-productive for Britain to walk off into isolation.

What would a vote to leave mean for Hull and East Yorkshire?

It would be more profound to East Yorkshire than anywhere else. Hull is closer to Rotterdam than it is London. It’s always been a trading port. Our reputation has been built on fishing but the fishing industry didn’t collapse in Hull because of the European Union, it began its collapse before we even joined. It collapsed because Iceland put a 200-mile limit around its coast. Iceland are not an EU country. So once the fishing industry went we waited for another industry of that calibre to come along that could provide not just the jobs we needed but decent jobs at decent rates of pay, skilled jobs and that’s come with Siemens.

So Siemens looked at 104 different locations and in the end plumped for Hull. There’s no doubt in my mind they would not have come to Hull if we had been outside the European Union. Now they’re here they will stay but the question is: Will they expand? They put out a document saying that their position is that they believe that being part of the EU is good for UK jobs and prosperity and they’ve got concerns about the possible effects of a vote to leave. So that statement’s out in the public record and they make the point that they want to expand in Hull and if we’re paying tariffs on stuff coming backwards and forwards between the European mainland and Hull it’s going to damage that.

Hull wants to be the centre of the wind power world. All countries in the world are changing to cleaner energy and offshore wind power is a major part of it. We’ve got an opportunity. The University of Hull is working with Siemens and Hull City Council to put the analytical academic force behind it so the university is desperate for Britain to stay in the European Union. They say they will lose out on research grants that that allows them to do this type of work.

So I think for Hull we would see this salvation in many ways since the collapse of the fishing industry drift away from us if we wrench ourselves away from the European Union. Quite aside from that, the Treasury report, the International Monetary Fund report, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, Oxford Economics, London School of Economics – they all say that wrenching ourselves away from the European Union would mean years of uncertainty that could take as much as 6% off our Gross Domestic Product. That’s jobs, that’s people’s prosperity disappearing over the horizon. 

You’ve been Hull West and Hessle MP since 1997. How do you think your constituents would rate your time in office so far?

You’d have to ask my constituents. All I can say is they re-elect me. My constituents have a chance to decide on who they want to be their MP every four or five years and they re-elected me with an increased majority at the last election and I’m very grateful for that. I’m very happy about that.

What achievement are you most proud of during this time?

Helping to achieve trawlermen’s compensation, without a doubt. When the trawlermen were thrown out of work, something like 7,000-8,000 men, they were working in an occupation that had a mortality rate 17 times higher than coal mining. It was the most dangerous profession. Thousands were lost at sea, working in sub-arctic temperatures – it was a very difficult and dangerous job. And when the industry collapsed because the government agreed with Iceland to put that 200-mile limit around its coast, they were promised retraining, compensation, redeployment – but they got nothing, nothing at all. They were classified as casual workers, not even worthy of the pittance that is statutory redundancy.

They fought their campaign and they fought it for 25 years and when the Labour government came in and I became MP, working with the British Fishermen’s Association, we got every dot and comma that the fishermen had been asking for in terms of compensation. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with those people and it was undoubtedly my proudest achievement. 

Your memoirs, This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood and Please, Mr Postman have received rave reviews. Will there be a third volume?

Yes, there is indeed. The Long and Winding Road is out on September 7. This will be the final one of the memoirs and it will bring it (Mr Johnson’s life’s story) up until 2010. I love writing, it’s great. I get up early and I do a few hours every day. Some writers hate the process but I don’t. I enjoy sitting down with a disposable fountain pen. I do it all with pen and paper and I enjoy the re-editing. I enjoy every part.

Would you say the hardship you experienced in childhood motivates you to serve your community?

I don’t know. It’s a process of osmosis, there’s no kind of epiphany. Everyone is a product of their childhood so who knows? I just went from one thing to another and ended up a member of Parliament and a government minister.

If you hadn’t carved out such a long and successful career in politics, what alternative career path would you liked to have explored and why?

Teaching maybe. I was Education Secretary and saw a lot of really good, excellent teachers. I did a bit of teaching when I was with the union and I quite enjoyed that. Maybe teaching, but also writing as well. If I could have been a writer all my working life that would have suited me.

You turn 66 in May. How long do you see yourself continuing as an MP?

I take it from one election to the next. I’ve got no plans to stop being an MP as long as my constituents want me. The days of thinking about putting your feet up when you’re in your 60s are disappearing rapidly. People are healthier, living longer. I think it’d be different if you’re doing heavy manual labour. If I was still a postman I’d be keen to pack it up by now but I’m certainly enjoying being an MP as much as ever.

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Published: Thursday 28th April 2016 by Tom Drinkall

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