Darren Johnson's legacy

Darren Johnson has been on the London Assembly since it was established in 2000. As he prepares to step down from the role, the Green Party stalwart speaks to Matthew Butcher and Tom Williams about his time improving the lives of Londoners

Matthew Butcher and Tom Williams

It's no exaggeration to say that Darren Johnson's first ever question at a Mayor's Question Time changed Britain. The newly-elected member in the first ever London Assembly stood up and proposed a register for civil partnerships, giving a political voice to the clamour for equality for the first time.

"It had a huge symbolic value and it was a real push towards change at a national level"?, Darren says today. "Blair may not have been so keen to move towards civil partnerships if it hadn't gone so smoothly in London. Even the Daily Mail didn't kick up a huge fuss."?

Darren had no desire to get a civil partnership himself and still remains happily unmarried. But in proposing the change, he demonstrated a political nous that would serve him and the party as a whole well for the next 16 years.

It was also the first of many successes as the Greens on the assembly slowly set about improving the lives of Londoners for the better.

Now, as Darren prepares to step down in May, he lists off some of his achievements: it's safer for cyclists to get around the city; thousands of staff are paid a living wage; and climate change is a priority for city hall. It's not bad for a man who confesses: "I joined the Green Party with a bit of catering experience, some really poor A-levels and not much else."?

This enviable track record and reputation for judging the political winds meant that Darren was the obvious person to step in during last year's general election with the party facing intense scrutiny from the media. It was an experience where Darren's political skill was, arguably, put to its greatest test.

Those working in the office at the time say that he managed to both inject morale and a sense of fun into proceedings while at the same time taking the campaign by the horns and rapidly professionalising it for the final weeks of the campaign.

"Darren added a stable and experienced voice to the campaign, leading the selection of themes and giving us some much-needed focus"?, according to a member of staff who worked during the election, who added: "His experience with the media was essential whilst preparing Natalie for the leaders' debates. His Nigel Farage impressions made me glad he was on our side - he would have been a formidable UKIP leader."?

Georgia Elander, the Young Greens Press Officer who was volunteering in Head Office, adds: "Darren didn't go about his job with any sort of ego. He totally understood our political priorities, and the need to ruthlessly simplify our messaging. With so many people unsure of how to run the campaign, his presence really was needed."?

Fighting an election in the full glare of the media spotlight was a far-cry from Darren's first electioneering experiences. In Hull in 1989, he fought the entire election for the county council based on what he had seen on TV: "Deirdre on Coronation Street was running for the parish council and so the script for Corrie largely formed the basis of our election strategy"?, he says.

Darren had moved to Hull from his family home in Preston, and during his youth London was an 'exotic' place that he had only been to a couple of times. But when a spare room came up in a friend's flat in the capital, he jumped at the chance and moved to Wembley with no job and an initial plan to stay for just three years.

"If I was that age again, I don't think I would do it now. It just seems like so much bloody hard work and so unaffordable and such a bloody nightmare for anyone in their early 20s to make a go of it in London"?, he says.

Darren Johnson with Caroline Lucas and Adrian RamsayDarren Johnson with Caroline Lucas and Adrian Ramsay

Darren worked as an accountant and became more and more involved in Green politics in his spare time. But being paid to be a politician still seemed a long way off. And after he stood and lost in Brent South in the 1992 election, he nearly stepped away from the party altogether: "For 24 hours, I did seriously consider leaving. But I thought, no, I am going to stick with this and hopefully our time will come."?

The time did come with the election of Tony Blair and the creation of a new assembly for London in 2000. "Whatever you think about the war, New Labour gave major opportunities to the Green Party that would never have existed"?, he notes.

Approaching that first election, Darren guessed all the attention would be on the mayoral contest, so insisted the party stump up the ?10,000 deposit so he could stand against Ken Livingstone, at that time an independent candidate.

That election was fought on much the same issues as today: transport, air pollution, an economy too reliant on the financial services sector and the need for more support for green business. The key difference was that housing was not a major issue in anyone's manifesto.

In May 2000, the hard work of a dedicated group of members paid off, and Darren was elected along with Jenny Jones and Victor Anderson. He won three more times over the next 16 years, serving under Ken and latterly Boris Johnson.

During those years, Darren has seen big changes in London, although he contends: "The atmosphere in the city is much the same as it has always been."?

Sitting across from him in his office, it is clear how much the city has come to mean to him. When asked about the bombings in July 2007, his voice slows: ''It felt tense. People were worried about more attacks. It was a worrying time."?

It was in the aftermath of those attacks that Darren and Jenny Jones had their most public disagreement - a rare point of contention in an otherwise successful partnership. The pair's views parted over whether the boss of the Metropolitan Police should be sacked after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

"Me and Jenny spoke on opposite sides of the debate"?, says Darren. "Ian Blair [Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the time] had admirable achievements, but my conclusion was that the people charged with protecting us had shot dead an innocent man - he had to go. It was a tense time between me and Jenny - from which we soon recovered."?

The challenges and joys of representing Londoners shine through as Darren describes two contrasting events in 2011 and 2012. Just a year before the Olympics, Darren watched in sadness as, in his words, his 'adopted city burnt'. And then the games themselves happened. At first, Darren was sceptical but, like so many in the city, he joined in with the Olympic spirit. The highlight for him wasn't a British Gold, though; instead, it was his own appearance at the Olympic Park following the Chancellor: "Just before George Osborne was on, he got this almighty boo and I thought 'Oh god, I hope that doesn't happen to me', but I actually got some applause."?

From the heady heights of the Olympic Stadium, a new life in Hastings now awaits Darren. "I want a slower pace of life than London"?, he says, "but not so slow that I get driven crazy."? He's already busy outside of politics, with his music reviews blog receiving thousands of visitors and a full schedule of concerts planned for after he steps down.

We ask if he has any regrets. The answer is no: "With hindsight, there's loads of other things I could have done - but I liked doing politics. I wouldn't have done it differently."?

As we leave his office in City Hall, and go to the top floor to look over the city, it seems to us that the politics of this place, and within the Green Party, will miss Darren when he's gone. He wouldn't admit that of course, and heaps praise on his potential successors on the assembly. Does he have any advice for them?

"Just don't try and do everything at once"?, he remarks. A fine sentiment, of course, but given his huge list of achievements, it may not be an dictum he's followed religiously himself.