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“This Boy” (2013) by Alan Johnson

AJThisBoyHessle and Hull West MP and former Cabinet Minister Alan Johnson has written a superb book about his early life. What comes across so strongly is the total lack of rancour given the terrible set of circumstances that left him effectively orphaned as a young teenager.

He was left in the care of his 16 year old sister Linda as they had already been fending for themselves due to the chronic illness of their mother Lily, and the fecklessness of Dad Steve who had abandoned them with little or no financial support.

Alan tells their story in simple yet effective prose which drives a narrative of a hard life, grinding and unnecessary poverty but an existence where simple things like a trip out or buying a record can be uplifting. The honesty of the book is what makes it such a great read, and reflects the true character of a genuine and good man. I would liken Alan’s book to fellow Hull writer Mally Welburn’ memoirs of growing up and both books act as a welcome antidote to that horrible genre of “victim lit”.

But, “This Boy” does raise some worrying questions about Alan’s actions as a politician. I mean this regarding policy and ideology as for many of us Alan is the ideal man to be in the Commons. Working class and grounded away from the Bubble. Crucially we all knew that he, along with Hilary Benn would never feature in any expenses scandal.  

Alan Johnson represented whilst Labour was in Government the voice of the ordinary members, and proved that the Trade Unions and the Party were interchangeable and a real “Labour Movement”. Many wished that he had challenged Gordon Brown for the leadership in 2007 and there were plenty who thought he could have won the election due to his easy manner and knack of knowing what to say depending on the context.

Not all however, was as it seemed in terms of perception as to where Johnson stood in the Party. As a former Trade Union leader in a nationalised industry many, me included imagined he would be a dogged defender of public services remaining in public hands. But in 2007 Johnson, as Health Secretary, “said at the health select committee that when the independent sector offers good value for money the local NHS trust can use it to help them.” This referred to the sell off by Kingston and Richmond hospital of elective surgery contracts which were described by London health campaigners thus, “This is NHS privatisation on a scale we have never seen before.” Local Lib Dem MP Susan Kramer weighed in, “why don’t they bring into the NHS new managers and skills rather than adding the complexities of having to deal with a private company.”

We can hardly complain about the mass selloff of the NHS into private hands we Labour built the bridges and the Tories drove their tanks over them.

During Alan’s tenure at Health, Hull was lined up for a private sector take over. In 2008 City Healthcare Partnership was launched taking workers and services out of the NHS whilst still using the logo, a template followed by the Tories. Local apparatchiks took their paid places on the Board which promised, “Not For Profit”. In 2013 the CHP website was changed to say, “For Best Profit”. This year those contracts such as physio, depression and anxiety and sexual health services totalling £30 million were sold off with no robust democratic consultation into the private sector.  

In the 2010 leadership “contest” Alan backed David Miliband, de facto leader of the Progress (sic) faction who have learnt from Militant how to infiltrate the Labour Party, but in this case without public shows of dissent. This party within a party wants to break the Trade Union link and lauds Blair’s privatisation policies.

But perhaps the most disappointing thing that Alan, (whom I know from personal experience to be a warm hearted, generous and compassionate man who goes out of this way to help without ever making you feel he is doing you a favour and has absolutely no “sides” to him) said last year referred to us Trade Union activists as, “fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming”. I found such mean minded language was a big let down from such a guy as Alan. Hopefully it was an untypical outburst to which we are all prone. But I would like to see him make up for it by being more public in his support of local campaigns such as speaking up for Local Authority workers and the NHS.

Alan is credited with being a consensus politician. But when that happens the voices of minorities get silenced. Now is not the time for so called Bi Partisanship. The Tories declared open war on the working class and we should be fighting back and not compromising.

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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