UK Politics

Profile: Alan Johnson

Alan Johnson, the former postman and union leader widely regarded as having that elusive "ordinary bloke" image, has resigned as shadow chancellor for "family and personal reasons".

It is a move that has come as a complete surprise at Westminster - Mr Johnson may have faced accusations he was struggling in his latest role, but there had been no indications he was planning to quit.

His legendary charm - and ability to master controversial policy briefs - had won him a solid following among the party's MPs and rank-and-file members, but he always resisted calls to make a pitch for the party leadership, insisting in typically self-effacing manner, that he did not think he was up to it.

He once told GMTV the idea of him entering No 10 was similar to "the idea of putting the Beagle on to Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure".

He ran for the job of deputy to Gordon Brown instead, being pipped to the post by Harriet Harman by the slenderest of margins.

He was handed the high-profile role of home secretary by way of reward, and then, to the surprise of many became shadow chancellor when Ed Miliband took over as Labour leader, despite having no background in economics.

It was initially seen as a clever appointment, pitching his solidly working class credentials against the perceived upper crust background of Chancellor George Osborne.

Trade union roots

But he had been a supporter of Mr Miliband's brother David, and he was initially at odds with Ed on key policy issues such as a graduate tax, which he did not back, and whether the 50p top rate of income tax should be permanent.

His joke on the day he got the job that he would need an economics primer would also came back to haunt him, as he appeared to struggle with some of the more technical aspects of the role. On one occasion he did not appear to know what the employers' rate of National Insurance was.

Mr Johnson has been the MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle - a constituency neighbouring that of John Prescott, the deputy prime minister - since 1997.

He was the first former union leader in four decades to become a Cabinet minister when he took on the post of work and pensions secretary in 2004.

The previous person to make such a move was Frank Cousins, then General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers' Union, who joined Harold Wilson's team in 1964.

The former joint general secretary of the Communication Workers Union is well regarded by New Labour's high command and his quiet, effective style and easy manner has won him many admirers across the Labour movement - even among those who would not vote for him.

Back in the 1990s he was the only senior union leader to back the abolition of Labour's clause IV, severing the party's historic commitment to public ownership.

He impressed Tony Blair in 2004 with his handling of the politically sensitive higher education brief, steering through the government's controversial top-up fee proposals in the teeth of backbench opposition.

Supermarket shelf-stacker

Mr Johnson later joked of this effort as a "charm offensive", adding that he had supplied the charm, while Education Secretary Charles Clarke had been "offensive".

Mr Johnson was born in London. Orphaned at the age of 12, he was raised by his elder sister in a council flat.

He attended Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea and became a shelf-stacker in Tesco and then a postman, never going to university.

He was already a senior figure within Labour's ranks and a member of the party's ruling national executive committee when he entered the Commons.

Mr Johnson was selected as a parliamentary candidate just three weeks before the 1997 election when the incumbent stepped down at short notice.

He was tipped for early promotion and, after a short spell as parliamentary private secretary to Dawn Primarolo, he was appointed to a junior ministerial role at the Department of Trade and Industry.

He steered the Postal Services Act through its Commons stages.

After the 2001 election, he became a minister of state in the same department, with responsibility for employment relations.

He was regarded by Downing Street as an ideal go-between to manage the government's links with the unions.

Mr Johnson spent 15 months as the minister for lifelong learning in the Department for Education and Skills.

He also held roles as the secretary of state for the Department for Work and Pensions and for the Department of Trade and Industry.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites