“Who is John Healey?” asked a friend I bumped into outside Portcullis House on my way to interview Labour’s shadow health secretary. That’s a good question. He may not have the public profile of many of his peers, but he holds one of the biggest roles in the Labour Party. If Labour wins the next election – and perhaps even if we don’t – Healey will be a powerful figure in British politics. But who is he? That’s what I’m here to find out.
John opens his door and apologises for making me wait. I don’t mind (and after all it’s only been two minutes). He’s obviously a busy man, taking on vast changes to the very nature of the NHS with the support of only two members of staff. In his last role as housing minister he had two thousand people working for him. It’s quite a reversal of fortunes, and shows the stark contrast between government and opposition.
Yet Healey has adapted to opposition well. He’s now seen as one of the most important members of the shadow cabinet – and has a role to match. He was even (briefly) mentioned as a possible replacement shadow chancellor in the brief period between Johnson’s resignation and Balls’ appointment. For many, he rose to prominence when he came second in the shadow cabinet ballot back in October, beating two of the leadership contenders and finishing behind only Yvette Cooper.
I ask him whether – in light of this popularity with his peers – being Labour’s next health secretary is the limit of his ambition, or whether he sees himself going further. A deep intake of breath suggests that this isn’t a question he has been asked before. “For each and every one of us in the shadow cabinet and the PLP, the job in hand is now the job we must do 100%”, he says solemnly. It’s not a denial, but it’s the sign of someone who is very serious about their new job. He’s right to be serious; he’s arguably got the hardest job in opposition. As he notes himself, people aren’t seeing the immediate impact of Tory cuts in the NHS as they are in other areas:
“People aren’t seeing these cuts across the board like they are with Building Schools for the Future program for instance, they’re not seeing the Educational Maintenance Allowance taken away, they’re not seeing cuts in police numbers taking place or suddenly the VAT bill going up. These changes are some way off, they’re hugely complex, they’re hard to explain – but our job is to help people see more clearly and more quickly the risk they’re putting on the NHS, and the purpose behind the changes.”
Healey’s interests and concerns stretch beyond his remit as shadow health secretary though. He’s also the man behind the “squeezed middle”, one of the first ideas that Ed Miliband pushed when he became leader. Unlike so many others though, Healey has little trouble describing this group. “It’s the 14 million households who have a total income of between £14,500 and £33,500”, he tells me, before reeling off a list of descriptions that sounds like they came straight from a canvassing session or surgery. He talks of “day to day pressure to make ends meet”, and of those who have “lost most, are under most pressure and are still struggling”. His speech is littered with tiny signposts that this is someone genuinely grounded in the concerns of his constituents, talking of fridges breaking down, the cost of kids going on school trips and using phrases like “for my money” that politicians often avoid. He’s easy to like, and I think he knows it.
His squeezed middle has been ridiculed though in some quarters. Healey believes that the gap – in part financial – between the world of Westminster and the real middle of British society is responsible for this. People who earn sums far higher than the average find it hard to believe how low the middle really is. I ask John if as an Oxbridge-educated politician he sometimes finds it hard to stay in touch with the concerns of the real middle. He thinks that being an MP in the area he is keeps him grounded:
“Being a local MP in a part of Rotherham, Barnsley and South Yorkshire does that. I live there, my family live there, I stand in the same school playground picking up my son on Friday, I stand on the same touchline watching him play sport at school, we use the same doctors, I’m at the same shelves in Morrisons – I pick up probably more surgery cases in Morrisons than I do in the constituency office.”
It’s easy to imagine Healey standing on the touchline of a school sports match or shopping in a supermarket. For many politicians the words don’t ring true, but this time it does. Healey acknowledges that politicians becoming distanced from their communities is a real risk, “when politicians have perhaps less breadth and less depth and experience than some periods in the past”, but in the wake of Alan Johnson’s departure from front-line politics, taking his ability to speak in a way that ordinary people could relate to, Healey says “the rest of us must work harder to match him on that”.
Healey is also unafraid to outline where he thinks Labour went wrong in government, although he’s not prone to making glib statements on the matter. He’s clearly been thinking about this for some time. What concerns him more is how Labour can learn from this, and make the “strong, public and principled arguments” in favour of the most important progressive changes that we will want to make back in government.
John Healey is a man with plenty on his plate, but he seems to carry the load lightly. He’s likeable, he’s knowledgeable, and he’s clearly a serious thinker. Who is John Healey? He’s a human being, and there aren’t enough of those in politics these days…