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Why is Alan Johnson the shadow chancellor?

Nick Robinson | 13:50 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010

I once told Alan Johnson that some in the cabinet were arguing that he should replace Alastair Darling as chancellor. His communication skills, wry good humour and common sense were regarded by many as making him the perfect foil to Gordon Brown and more likely to cheer up the nation up than Darling himself.

Alan Johnson

I well recall his reaction - he looked like he'd swallowed a wasp. Unlike the other obvious candidate back then - Ed Balls - he had no economic training and was not desperate to do the job.

So, why has Johnson been given the economic portfolio now?

In part because he is not Ed Balls - whose experience, strong views and pugilistic manner made him a frightening as well as an attractive choice for the job.

In part because appointing Yvette Cooper would look too much like an obvious snub to her husband.

In part because - as I wrote earlier - Ed Miliband needs an experienced symbol of his reaching out to the majority of the Labour membership and Parliamentary party who voted for his brother and who don't want to rip up Labour's past.

Though he's a former postie and union leader, no-one will ever accuse Johnson of being "red" like Ed. In what surely will be his last big job in politics, he poses no threat to his young new leader. A loyalist by instinct, he will now be more likely to give his advice in private than in public.

AJ - as he's fondly known - will not come up with an alternative economic policy on his own but he will be able to deploy his wry humour and connection with the real world to portray George Osborne as an out-of-touch rich kid.

His appointment is a sign of Ed Miliband's relative weakness in his party but also of his determination to heal the breach which began when he challenged his brother.

Update, 14:51: Proof that Ed Miliband has played it safe comes in the form of Alan Johnson's words on the deficit to the Guardian on 24 September:

"We've got to be very careful how we play this," Johnson says about suggestions from the younger Miliband's camp that Labour should soften Alistair Darling's plans to halve the deficit over four years with £44bn of cuts. "We're coming back up in the polls but all the signs are public are not buying this 'Labour cuts' argument: the deficit was something we just did because we just threw money around rather than the fiscal stimulus to save people's houses. They want to be absolutely clear that we are taking a sensible approach to this. They don't want to see the deficit go on forever."

Johnson says Labour must understand why the coalition is ahead in the polls on the issue of the deficit. "I think the reason why they took to the coalition is they thought, well, here's someone rolling their sleeves up and getting down to the job."

Labour will only be able to attack the coalition's more drastic deficit plans, involving £61bn cuts, if it keeps a credible plan itself. "We have to be sure we've got a valid, logical, argument for how we would tackle this differently, and why it would not have the disastrous consequences that I think 25% cuts [will] have."


  • Comment number 1.

    So, we have an "out of touch rich kid", against an out of touch 4 crap jobs in five years former postie who wont rock the boat and will do as he's told.

    Great choice we've got there.

    Thank god I emigrated.

  • Comment number 2.

    As a direct contrast between awfully posh GO? Oh, you already said that.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think Alan Johnson is an excellent choice. It is curious though that Ed Miliband's "new generation" has gone for experience over youth.

  • Comment number 4.

    A fair analysis - but as with the choice of Ed himself, this cabinet does not leap out as a team bristling with talent. The weakening of the FCO post seems indicative of this. It is also a shock to have such a fresh face against Huhne, the most prominent LD, as DECC will be an increasingly important aspect of the jobs agenda going forwards (as EM should well know).

    I guess the proof will be in the doing, but as a Labour supporter who decisively abstained during the leadership election I am not totally convinced it was worth losing David to get Ed yet.

    Ed needs desperately to define himself now that the cabinet is out of the way, or he will be down the same negative media road of Brown before he knows it...

  • Comment number 5.

    A dream, but for who?

    ALAN JOHNSON - SHADOW CHANCELLOR - Old Generation / new generation
    ED BALLS - SHADOW HOME SECRETARY - God help Mr. Ed and he should watch out for the knives, they are being sharpened as we speak!
    YVETTE COOPER - SHADOW FOREIGN SECRETARY - May see this as being sidelined
    ANDY BURNHAM - SHADOW EDUCATION SECRETARY - Will not do too much harm here!
    JOHN HEALEY - SHADOW HEALTH SECRETARY - A dark horse, could be a shining light.

  • Comment number 6.

    Well you do not need many skills to portray George Osborne as an out-of-touch rich kid. Can we rely on AJ to stamp his authority on economic policy - one would expect his communications ability to top that of Darling or Brown but what has he learned about delivery and getting it sorted. As far as reducing the deficit goes no doubt he will say "the cheque is in the post"

    Perhaps in answer to a question about QE he will echo the memorable response of Rab Butler (I think)who said "let me answer that question by asking you one"!

    We now know that with the election of Ed and Yvette there with always be a darling in the shadow cabinet.

  • Comment number 7.

    None of them was statesmanlike enough to advise Gordon Brown to move on during his term as PM so why should we take much notice of them now. In any event, Alan Johnson is a 'yesterday' man.

    It's hard to work out what the Labour agenda is - they haven't said very much that is constructive since the election. Given the unions' predictable antagonism towards the coalition's budgetary measures it will be interesting to see where Red Ed and his team pitch their tents.

  • Comment number 8.

    So, Laugh, have you recovered from that nasty turn yet?

    I should imagine that Boris is pretty busy licking his eyebrows as we speak.

  • Comment number 9.

    This is starting to sound like the shoots of a Labour party shambles.

    A weak leader who's not sure of the best way to keep the party behind him because the choices were limited, especially considering the party voted for these candidates and the 2nd is a loyalist who will sit, bark and fetch at command.

    Good boy AJ, now tell GO he's wrong, that's a good boy, oh what a good boy. Do you need a scratch behind the ear?

    Pretty much sets the tone of the new generation, doesn't it?

  • Comment number 10.

    Well that makes sense, putting someone who has no knowledge of economics in charge of economic policy

    This is just the sort of political manoeuvring which puts voters of politics.

  • Comment number 11.

    It is amusing how the 'new generation'to take Labour forward is looking a lot like the 'old generation'.

    Although, anything is better than Mr. Balls, who's attitude and brash nature is a big turnoff for most people I believe.

  • Comment number 12.

    @6 "..... but what has he learned about delivery and getting it sorted."

    More than most given his former career!

  • Comment number 13.

    'Unlike the other obvious candidate back then - Ed Balls - he had no economic training'

    Ed Balls had training did he ? What did that consist of

    How to run up the biggest deficit in peacetime history
    How to contact manufacturing 3 times faster than in the 80's
    How to bring about record youth unemployment

    If so then he was a good learner.

  • Comment number 14.

    No economic training? AJ has been a minister in the DTI and the DWP. Does GO become an economic genius simply because he is posh? Is AJ to be considered economically illiterate because his first job was as a postoman? GO's record shows that he studied history at university, had a brief spell doing data entry for the NHS before joining Conservative Central office. The fact that he is rich and has rich friends does not give him the upper hand in economic knowledge. This is sloppy journalism and more tory mood music from NR.

  • Comment number 15.

    Someone has noted that when Cameron selected his first shadow cabinet it showed great confidence - Miliband has shown fear.

  • Comment number 16.

    Alan Johnson?

    Wow, I hadn't appreciated what a weak position Red Ed was in.

    And this is the 'new generation'? In what sense? In the sense of out with the old, in with the old but in new jobs?

    They get weaker and dafter by the day.

    This really is a great time to be a tory... having 'limped over the line'

    What's next? Damain MacBride as communications officer?

  • Comment number 17.

    Politically - a very astute decision.
    Economically - much less so.

    Still, at least he's no deficit denier like Balls. That would have been doubly dreadful.

  • Comment number 18.

    This is an excellent post.

    Being Oxbridge myself with a Ist, I would have loved Balls or Cooper to have been Shad Chancellor with their PPEs from 'other place', but we're supposed to be egalitarian as well as meritocratic in Labour, aren't we?

    Is it anything to do with the privatisation of Royal Mail, I wonder?

    Or is it to pay lip service to David Miliband, and his supporters?

    Or as Nick says, does it just reflect the right skills mix?

    I'd better be careful. Alan Johnson is a friend of mine on Facebook!

    I did pick him for Shadow Defence in my sweepstake, which went pretty badly. That was in fact the only prediction I got right.

    Dr Shibley Rahman, [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 19.

    Milliband's first decision and he bottled it. Yvette Cooper was the best for the job. If Balls would have felt snubbed then that's his problem.

  • Comment number 20.

    absolutely thrilled it's a good old kick in the teeth for balls and cooper, i cannot stand either of them becuase of their greed in both claiming housing allownace for the same house, they took the tax payer for a mug and claimed as much as possible and have a cheek to call themselves socialists

  • Comment number 21.

    Well, the main thing is Ed Balls has been snubbed - he is such an oik.
    As for his wife Yvette - shes quite cute actually , but completely out of her depth.
    A thouroughly dismissable and forgetable shadow cabinet..Cameron and his rather wet coalition of the defeated must be rather pleased.
    David Milliband must be seething at the terrible waste of time this all has become..but it does serve him right for trolling out the Prince of Darkness as a supporter. Shadow Cabinet...definately in the shadows and almost certainly of MFI quality - will fall apart in the shake of a stick.

  • Comment number 22.

    "Well that makes sense, putting someone who has no knowledge of economics in charge of economic policy"

    Erm, the Tories started it .....

  • Comment number 23.

    It's rather a good shadow cabinet - and a "former postie?" - I'm glad you emigrated!

  • Comment number 24.

    @12, I think that's the joke @6 was making. You may also, at second reading, notice "stamp" and "in the post" (and possibly "communications").

    Here's a graphical version of this:

    .o <--- Joke

    .0 <--- You

  • Comment number 25.

    maybe now labour will tell us what their plans are to pay off the massive debt they have left the country in, i'm still trying to figure out what johnsons qualifcations are to be appointed shadow chancellor, it doesn't take a genius to walk the streets putting letters through holes in front doors, i'm sure he will be like every other labour chancellor who's first thought are finding ways to increase taxes on those working

  • Comment number 26.

    Totally in keeping for Labour. A complete and utter waste of time given that we have a Labour leader not voted for by the Labour MPs and a Labour Cabinet voted for by the Labpor MPs that the Labour leader didn't wish for. What a total and utter shambles!

    Mind you what should one expect given the total and utter mess Labour left behind.

  • Comment number 27.

    ' economic training and was not desperate..

    For the good of the country especially, that has not proven a barrier before.

    Fortunately, in the case, for now, they are not in power.

  • Comment number 28.

    i really liked this post a lot. In a decision that, as a member of the Labour Party, I don't understand yet at all, this was an extremely helpful, balanced view. Only time will tell whether Ed has got it right, but in a sense it shouldn't matter if Labour in unity has a clear idea of its reaction to the cuts, inter alia.

  • Comment number 29.


    >> "This really is a great time to be a tory"

    Haha! Mm, keep telling yourself that... remember, the power of positive thinking...

  • Comment number 30.

    Well, as a former postie, at least he can count!

  • Comment number 31.

    Johnson is a pretty good communicator and can grasp facts and figures quickly - his stint at the Home Office proved that, where he could trot out the various platitudes needed to be seen to be doing a good job. But there's the rub. Johnson in my view is quite savvy as a politician, but lacks the intellect to develop and lead policy - and that's what we need at this time - a credible alternative to the swingeing Coalition cuts. It ain't gonna come from Mr Johnson.

    Ed Balls is far too aggressive in both his delivery and communication skills to have been offered the job, and is tainted with New Labout too much to be someone Ed Miliband wants to be rubbing shoulders with. Inevitably, there was always going to be some jostling for posts in this time of transition and re-discovery for Labour.

    It's the people on the sidelines of these appointments that we need to be watching; the special advisers and policy unit guys and gals who will no doubt be shaping ther future - both ours and theirs.

  • Comment number 32.


    Maybe the question should be, "Why is Ed Balls the shadow Home Secretary?". And maybe the answer is, "Because Ed Milliband wants to see what Ed Balls does to Theresa May". She is surely not looking forward to it!

    To attempt to answer your question though, I think the Tories are taking a huge risk with the economy. It might come off for them but it might not.

    If it comes off for them I think having Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor rather than Ed Balls, say, might result in the least bad outcome for Labour. If, on the other hand, the Tories get it wrong then Labour can reshuffle and move Ed Balls to Shadow Chancellor where he can let rip.

    I have just heard a Tory saying that Alan Johnson looks like a 'caretaker'. Those words may come back to haunt him.

  • Comment number 33.

    Could I just say I'm fed up of hearing and seeing Nick Robinson's opinion's, Advise & Inform don't preach please

  • Comment number 34.

    They failed to be elected - therefore what they do or say is of little relevance.

    The real threat is the tories, who actually have the power to implement what they say.

  • Comment number 35.

    At 2:01pm on 08 Oct 2010, Fubar_Saunders wrote:
    So, we have an "out of touch rich kid", against an out of touch 4 crap jobs in five years former postie who wont rock the boat and will do as he's told.

    Great choice we've got there.
    Yes, quite. Agreed.
    But given that choice who would you pick? think about it......

    Me too.
    Come to think about it, I'd rather have a tailor's dummy than GO!
    The future's grim.

  • Comment number 36.

    my question exactly "WHY ALAN JOHNSON?" didnt he make enough of a hash of being home secratary. Please God let it be a little joke

  • Comment number 37.

    "This is starting to sound like the shoots of a Labour party shambles" - AlphaPhantom.

    I hate it when paid party political internet interlopers mix their metaphors.


  • Comment number 38.

    Ed had no choice really, given that the Coalition would have loved Balls as CoE and his wife would have left open the "husband seething" thing.

    It will be interesting to see Johnson up against Osborne...a nice contrast. It may work to Labour's advantage to have "down to earth" Alan ripping into "posh boy" George as the cuts hit...

    It may not seem such a bad appointment after all...

    Plus. Can't believe the snobbery on display here. OK for a public school boy son of a multi-millionaire with zero economic experience, but not a former postie with zero economic experience but 10 years senior govt. experience...

  • Comment number 39.

    At 2:40pm on 08 Oct 2010, Jason wrote:
    Well that makes sense, putting someone who has no knowledge of economics in charge of economic policy

    This is just the sort of political manoeuvring which puts voters of politics.
    Stephen Greenhalgh, leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and named Local Hero of the Year in 2008 by the Conservative Home website, said: "My mates are all in the Shadow Cabinet, waiting to get those ministerial boxes, being terribly excited. I went to university with them - they haven't run a p***-up in a brewery.
    "They're going to get a department of state, in one case running the finances of the nation."
    Quoted in The Tories Unspun by Brian Reade

    Pot, Kettle, Black?

  • Comment number 40.

    Apparently, Theresa was last seen crying in the ladies...

  • Comment number 41.

    Re the 14.51 update, AJ made this comment before Red Ed got the leadership job with support of his union buddies. Labour are boxed in because the unions won't support any budgetary deficit measures other than bashing the banks.

  • Comment number 42.

    I like AJ but was quite surprised by this appointment and, as a Labour supporter, I have to confess I didn't immediately punch the air.

    On the other hand, it might be interesting politically having an affable, man-of-the-people type as shadow to George Osborne, who even his most ardent supporters would have to admit is an aloof, cold and deeply unpleasant individual. Cuddly Alan versus reptilian George. Good for the Tories? We'll see.

  • Comment number 43.

    At 2:48pm on 08 Oct 2010, jobsagoodin wrote:
    'Unlike the other obvious candidate back then - Ed Balls - he had no economic training'

    Ed Balls had training did he ? What did that consist of

    How to run up the biggest deficit in peacetime history
    How to contact manufacturing 3 times faster than in the 80's
    How to bring about record youth unemployment
    Can't help with the last two. However The first one is definitely wrong. That record would belong to Lord Lverpool (tory) in 1821-2. He ran up a deficit that was 260% of GDP. Nearly 6 times larger than the one you attribute to Balls.
    On a historical note. you could pick any peacetime year between:
    1712 - 1889 (no Labour Party in existence)
    1919 - 1938
    1946 - 1974
    1976 - 1978
    1981 - 1982
    and find governments with higher deficits (as a % of GDP) than Labour in their last year in office.
    We must also note that if it were true, his record breaking attempts will shortly be eclipsed by the Tory/LibDem Coalition.
    The truth is out there.

  • Comment number 44.

    A disapointing choice in my opinion. Ed Balls seemed to be the only candidate acknowledging that there is another way other than savage cutting for political reasons. A toned down version of the Tories plan is not good enough for "the new generation" of the Labour Party.

    Ed Balls has been acclaimed internationally for his economic stance that we need the state to engage in public building etc to get more people into work to pay tax to reduce the deficit. We had a bigger deficit after WW2 and yet managed to build 1 million homes and the NHS. There is another way, and Johnson is not it.

    Need to agree with leglehid though- Johnson is just as qualified as Osborne. Being rich does not entitle you to run the countires finances.

  • Comment number 45.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 46.

    Clearly both Ms Cooper and Mr Balls wanted the job too, so Mr Ed's first challenge as Shadow PM was to stop two of his Cabinet going through an 'it's all Ed's fault' separation..........

  • Comment number 47.

    AJ is not a bad choice, I work in Finance and sometimes communication skills are a whole lot better than financial knowledge, if you have the right support.

    Let’s face it Osborne who has little to no financial skills has been left in control; come to that he has little to no communication skills either. Does anyone know what skills he does have?

    The present government have not come up with a credible plan to cut the deficit either, just stating that you plan to cut, cut, cut and the private sector will come in on their white horses to replace all the jobs you have just cut is not what I’d call credible or sincere.
    They Tories already tried this for 12 years and it did not work, the fundamentals of the economy have not change that much to make me believe that it will work this time either.

  • Comment number 48.

    Idont Believit

    '1712 - 1889 (no Labour Party in existence)'

    Wasn't that the period when Britain created the greatest empire the World has ever known ?

  • Comment number 49.

    Balls and Cooper were part of the team that screwed up the economy and constantly neglected to tell Gordon Brown that he was an emperor with no clothes. I would hand the job to anyone but those two. Someone who actually knows what is like to have too much month left at the end of the money might, just might, be a better choice.

  • Comment number 50.


    You wont be, Tim. You wont.

  • Comment number 51.

    i could have told he'd have put a Blair-ite in shadow chancellor's role, and i would have done if you'd also been in the pub last night.

    does it matter that he's not a qualified economist? not at all.
    i believe the first chancellor with an economics degree was Lawson, and he's got his own bubble-burst named after him, not even Gordy has that.

    he's not nearly so dumb as being made out

  • Comment number 52.

    The shadow Labour team is weaker without Alastair Darling.

    He alone of the Cabinet stood up to Brown.

    Some of the best ran away (Purnell, Hutton), or ducked for cover (D.Milliband).

    The worst remainded.

  • Comment number 53.

    RE: 48

    The Empire? Well done you were able to destroy other countries by killing its civilians and raping the population of its wealth, be proud of that part of British History!

  • Comment number 54.

    Regardless of who speaks for Labour, it needs to be done quickly. Just heard that in further cost cutting measures GO has turned out the light at the end of the tunnel!

  • Comment number 55.

    Idont Believeit 43

    Actually I was referring to the deficit. I believe you are referring to Govt. debt. Just hope AJ knows the difference between the two.


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