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Where are they now? John McTernan

John McTernan (Illustrated by Tracy Worrall)

3 min read

Growing up in Edinburgh to a father active in a university academics trade union, and a mother who regularly stood for Labour in local elections, John McTernan says the party was in his family and in his bones from a young age.

“I remember the first election campaign I campaigned in was in 1970 when I was only 11,” he says. “My parents gave me the leaflets to distribute… so I leafleted all of the roads around us… I joined the Labour Party when I was 15 and I have stayed a member since then.”

After moving to London in the 80s, McTernan was elected as a local councillor in East Dulwich. He then went on to help the late Tessa Jowell secure her candidate selection for the-then Dulwich seat, before advising Peckham MP Harriet Harman when the party was in opposition. 

In 2005, McTernan became political secretary to then-prime minister Tony Blair. While he says he never knew Blair to have shouted at any member of staff, when he was disappointed in someone, they would know about it. “Sometimes he would look at a speech,” he says, “and he would redraft a chunk of it, and you would realise, oh ok, that is much better for his voice.”

There were people lined up on Waterloo Bridge just watching us come out… and everybody who went out, including myself, was applauded

McTernan says that coming in at the end of Blair’s premiership gave him unique insight as an adviser. “You learn a lot working at the end of a government,” he says, “because you see how hard you have to work to keep the discipline, the momentum of victory, the euphoria and the optimism.”

But McTernan recalls 7 July 2005 as the most dramatic day he experienced during his time in Downing Street. “Some civil servant came in and passed a note to [former deputy Labour leader] John Prescott, and he read it, and you just could feel a change in the atmosphere,” he says. “The story at the time around the bombing was that there had been an electrical fault on the underground, but you knew this wasn’t right.”

McTernan later became special adviser to Des Browne, who served as secretary of state for Scotland and Defence, then to Scotland secretary Jim Murphy. In 2011, he was appointed as communications director to Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

“I’m willing to be recycled,” he says reflectively. “I think other people have been advisers for longer than me, but nobody has been an adviser like I was for as many ministers and for two prime ministers in different countries, in different hemispheres.”

Now McTernan is a senior adviser at communications agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe, but still makes time for his other passions: music and gardening. “The last decade I have been going to [music festival] Field Day,” he says, “I always say that because of the kids I missed the second Summer of Love – I missed garage and dubstep. I look back on it and go: there were times when I was doing meetings in the town hall and I could have been actually out and watching a scene emerging.”

In looking ahead to Labour’s chances at the next general election, McTernan reflects on the night the party was last voted into power.

“I went to the Royal Festival Hall for the night of the election in 1997,” he says. “Four in the morning, when I was leaving out the back of the Royal Festival Hall, there were people lined up on Waterloo Bridge just watching us come out…and everybody who went out, including myself, was applauded.”

Now, McTernan says he hopes Labour will experience their own ’97 – their own landslide. “It is one of the greatest feelings you can ever have, when the country changes and it changes for the better.”

John McTernan, political secretary to Tony Blair, 2005 – 2007

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