The man behind the (temporary) moustache: Dan Hodges interviews John Healey

It’s eight fifteen in the morning, and John Healey has a date with destiny. For a month Labour’s shadow health secretary has been sporting a moustache proud enough to stand comparison with a Sopwith Camel ace or Clement Atlee. But today the “mo” must go.

“It’s my contribution to Movember, the campaign to raise prostate cancer awareness. I was pretty shocked when I took over the health brief to discover the mortality rate from the disease. It’s treatable, but so many men leave it too late”.

A worthy cause. But down in the depths of the House of Commons barbers the fundraising for the prostate cancer charity hits a snag. Kelly the hairdresser bears bad tidings.

“I’m sorry Mr Healey, but I won’t be able to do it. I can’t use a razor”.

No razor. In a barbers?

“No. So sorry. Health and safety”.

John Healey elevates a quizzical eyebrow. “I’m going to have to raise this with Lord Young”.

The Sweeny Todd clause partially navigated, thanks to Kelly’s deft touch with an electric razor, we retire to the Portcullis House atrium. There is no Mo. Anonymity has reclaimed John Healey.

“You should ask him about the squeezed middle”, Ian his advisor had urged. “He was one of the first people to start to develop the concept”. Uncut is reticent. We heard Ed Miliband on the Today program. Twenty minutes of tortured abstraction is not what stimulates a sophisticated and expectant readership. But when in Rome.

“The squeezed middle are the more than seven million families with an annual income between £14,500 and £33,800. They’re what I call the ‘just coping’ class. They do the ordinary work we all rely upon; IT workers, HGV drivers, nurses. They’re the backbone of the British economy and heart of our public services. They’re the people who can least afford the cuts to tax credits, child benefit, childcare and savings support”.

No abstractions from John Healey. Crystal clarity. Others take note.

So what brought this enemy of obfuscation so deep behind the lines. To Westminster.

“Curiously, what got me into politics was working in a mental hospital”.

John Healey anonymous. The man is a headline writer’s dream.

“For three months when I was at university I worked as a nursing assistant on a long stay mental patients ward. I got so into it I tried to delay my last year at uni. Then when I left, I was faced with a decision about whether I went into that sort of work, trying to help people get through and cope with day to day life, or whether I wanted to do the same things but one step removed through influencing policy and services”.

His vocation took him to MIND, where he spent most of the eighties campaigning for those with mental disability. Then on to the trade unions. With surprising honesty for a senior Labour MP, especially one with his background, he doesn’t talk of the union  movement with special  reverence.

“There’s a political disconnect between the party and the unions, but that of itself shouldn’t surprise people. Unions are there to represent their members, and act as an industrial insurance policy. But that process has been magnified by the Labour government years where most of the unions were more concerned with criticising that government than broader political campaigns or first class evidence and argument building for changes in policy. It’s one of the disappointments for me that beyond the TUC the capacity of trade unions, even the bigger ones, to come up with fresh policy thinking and help make the weather in political debate is so limited”.

John Healey is not a man afraid to speak truth to power. Or even get in its way. When he first stood for selection to parliament he bested a rival by the name of Yvette Cooper.

“That was where we first met. We were good friends during the selection  and even better friends after it”, he grins.

John Healey’s diplomacy and Yvette Cooper’s magnanimity saw him admitted to the Brownite inner sanctum. He worked closely with Brown, first as his pps, then as economic secretary and  later financial secretary. Again, his assessment is unvarnished.

“Brilliant intellect. Totally driven. Capable of dealing with fine detail and the big sweep. In the end I think Gordon was held back almost by his own capacity. He was capable of doing so much himself that he did too much himself. What he didn’t do was build around him a team big enough and strong enough to take decisions on his behalf. In Government the volume of work and the circumstances of the global financial collapse brought huge pressures to bear and Gordon just didn’t have a way of working that was suited to that sort of leadership”.

Despite his proximity to Gordon, John Healey is not a factional politician. “I’ve always operated across the broad breadth of the parliamentary party, and I think that’s probably why I got the shadow cabinet election result that I did”.  Only Yvette polled higher.

But though he shuns factionalism, he retains that instinctive loyalty built into the DNA of all true Brownites. The day before we met, Douglas Alexander had made a speech critical of Gordon’s positioning on the deficit in the run up the election – “the repeated refusal by some to use the word “cuts” for many months after the global financial crisis and the repetition of phrases like “Mr 10%” gravely damaged voters’ confidence”. Does John Healey share that analysis?

“No. We’re in opposition now. This early we will box ourselves badly into a corner if we somehow believe we should say “everything we don’t want to see we somehow have to find the balancing money to pay for it”.  Where he’s right is that we need to resist being branded as denying the deficit, but I think we have very strong arguments about that, though we do have to make them more clearly”.

John Healey is not an easy politician to badge. Though not one of natures attack dogs, he is hot on the trail of Oliver Letwin, after receiving a tip off Cameron has tasked him with shadowing the underperforming Andrew Lansley. Nor does he come across as a policy wonk, although he’s preparing a personal submission to Peter Hain’s task force on party reform which contains some radical ideas about reconstructing Labour’s program of community engagement.

For proper definition we must wait 24 hours. The day after our interview Phil Woolas arrives at the High Court to hear the final judgment on his court case. As he strides onto court, past the jostling cameras, he has a familiar figure by his side. John Healey. In a personal capacity. Literally shoulder to shoulder.

The moustache has gone. Uncut suspects the anonymity may follow. Clarity, honesty and loyalty may still get you places. If they can, John Healey is one to watch.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

The Prostate Cancer Charity can be contacted at http://www.prostate-cancer.org.uk/


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4 Responses to “The man behind the (temporary) moustache: Dan Hodges interviews John Healey”

  1. mao zhi shu says:

    ““The squeezed middle are the more than seven million families with an annual income between £14,500 and £33,800. They’re what I call the ‘just coping’ class. They do the ordinary work we all rely upon. They’re the backbone of the British economy and heart of our public services. ”
    He claims he’s the first to develop this concept?! That sounds like the straight-forward working class to me. What a fool, if this is the squeezed middle, then who are the working class exactly? Is this an attempt to make working class politics palatable in a post-Thatcher political landscape? Why not just come out and say what he means?

  2. Chris says:

    @Dan

    When are you going to interview Ed?

  3. Dan Hodges says:

    Chris,

    When he lets me.

    Dan

  4. Mao

    Why does it matter what he calls them? If they are the focus of policy that’s a good thing, no?

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