LABOUR is famously reluctant to discard under-performing leaders, but the time has surely come for the party to find a replacement for Ed Miliband.

It is remarkable, given the overall position of the British state, that Mr Miliband manages to be less popular than the Prime Minister.

Labour's leader is being openly and frankly undermined by a range of senior politicians in his own party, yet he seems unable to respond, and right now he also seems completely unable to connect with the British public.

One man who could, without doubt, connect warmly and well is Alan Johnson. Mr Johnson is so eminently suitable for the Labour leadership that I cannot understand why there is not a lot more pressure on him to rethink his self- imposed exile on the back benches. He is adamant that he does not want to return to government, or potential government; his problem is that, unusually for a politician, he is just too modest.

He was a competent, if by no means brilliant, minister in various Cabinet posts. He is very much a Londoner, but he represents a Yorkshire constituency and can never be accused of metropolitan parochialism.

He is a pleasant communicator who never hectors or patronises; he can talk about serious issues with natural, straightforward decency. And, unlike so many senior British politicians of all parties, he has known what it is like to live in desperate circumstances of near destitution.

It is not inverted snobbery to suggest that perhaps it is time for a major British politician in a leadership position to have had some knowledge of what it's like living on the wrong side of the tracks. Mr Johnson knew serious hardship when he was young; he was brought up by his older sister in the most harrowing of conditions. The experience seems to have benefited rather than embittered him. I haven't yet read his recently published memoir of his childhood* but several people have told me it is an inspirational book that I simply must read.

Most importantly of all, Mr Johnson knows and understands the trade unions. Whether we like it or not, Labour needs the unions for financial and political survival. That is unfortunate, but it's the reality. So we need a Labour leader who has the respect of the unions, who understands them, who can work with them without ever being bullied or cowed by them.

Many union leaders are currently truculent and disaffected. Their unions are not campaigning effectively on the key issues, which I reckon are the growing exploitation of vulnerable, low-paid workers, the corrosive uncertainties of part-time employment, and the insidious problem of work being done by people who are palpably over-qualified. The unions should be collaborating with Labour to present cohesive plans to deal with their issues, which are undermining and indeed rotting our society.

Strategically things should be moving in Labour's favour right now. Left-of-centre parties always find it particularly difficult in times of economic difficulty, but at long last there are signs that a modest recovery might just be under way.

Mr Johnson is a cheerful man; he is also notably realistic. He is liked by his opponents and he talks in straightforward jargon-free language. I'm pretty confident that if it came to a crunch issue, he would rely on his experience and his gut instincts rather than what pollsters, focus groups and media advisers were telling him.

This is an absolutely key time for the Labour Party, with less than two years until the next General Election. Here we have an affable former postman who went on to led his union; an atheist who is honest about it; a man who has played in a pop group and is a genuine, rather than a posing, football fan.

A down-to-earth, neighbourly bloke in his early sixties. In other words, the very kind of political leader that Britain has not known for a long time, but that we may need more than we realise.

* This Boy, published by Bantam Press.