Alastair Campbell: “I am and was a control freak”
In the second and final part of The Badger’s interview with Alastair Campbell, Harry Howard talks to the former New Labour spin-doctor about the media, Thatcherism, Michael Farthing and more.
Alastair Campbell knows all about pressure. He was former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s right-hand man for most of Blair’s time at the top, stepping down in 2003 from his role as Director of Communications only when he realised that his health was suffering.
Perhaps not surprising for such a famously effective strategic communicator, it was modern languages, not politics, which Campbell studied at University. He agrees that it was helpful for the path he took, “I think languages is a pretty good grounding for all sorts of things,” he says.
Campbell made the jump from Political Editor of the Daily Mirror to Tony Blair’s Press Spokesman when Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. I ask him, given that he had helped Neil Kinnock – the leader before John Smith – in an unofficial capacity, how his relationship with Blair worked.“I was very friendly with Neil, with Tony, with Gordon, with John Prescott, I had lots of really good contacts in the Labour Party because I was political editor for the Daily Mirror,” he says. Regardless of the dynamics of his relationship with Blair, it didn’t take long for Campbell to establish himself as a fiercely loyal and extremely formidable press secretary.
I ask if comparisons between himself and Malcolm Tucker, the character in the BBC’s hilarious political satire programme The Thick of It, are accurate. Certainly, Campbell is correct when he says that good satire takes a morsel of truth and builds up something funny around it; in this case the morsel of truth was that at the centre of government was a control freak who wanted to control the media and the government agenda. But was he all-powerful below the Prime Minister? Did he dictate to ministers?“I am and was a control freak and I did want to control the agenda but it never felt to me that it was about me being powerful and the only power I had was as an extension of Tony Blair. If I had wanted to do my own thing, promote my own ideas and policies, then I would have been out of a job in five minutes. What I think he needed at that time was someone who was robust enough to take the fact that the media are great at taking it but they don’t like giving it and I was never afraid of them, I think a lot of politicians are and I’m not.”
Indeed, Campbell is scathing of the idea that the media can stop politicians from achieving their aims. He argues that success comes with a long-term strategy. “Look this is a cliché, but elections are won in years not months, and the fact is that the newspapers do make a difference but I’ve never met a single person in my life who says that ‘I voted in such and such a way because a newspaper told me to.” But, I retort, surely the influence of the media is more below the surface? “Yes, it might be,” he says, “but that can work both ways. What the press do is they can frame the agenda, but in my experience they can only do that if you let them do that.” However, Campbell neglects to mention that throughout their period in government, New Labour had the newspapers of Rupert Murdoch on their side; and he might not be so nonchalant about the influence of the media if the likes of The Sun had been against him.
Just as they reshaped the traditional media-to-politician relationship, Blair, Campbell and other key figures also took great strides towards rebranding their party into so-called ‘New Labour’; winning three elections under that banner. Looking back, many regard Blair as a ‘Tory in disguise’ and accuse the New Labour modernisers of implementing a watered-down version of Thatcherism. Campbell is forceful in highlighting what he sees as the crucial difference between Thatcherism and New Labour; “if you take Thatcherism at its purest, it was basically an ideological belief in markets and a belief in trickle-down wealth and that the private sector can always do things better than the public sector; that was at the heart of her [Margaret Thatcher’s] philosophy.” New Labour, on the other hand, “was an understanding that the kind of hard-headed approach to economic efficiency could only happen and was only worthwhile if you also had a fundamental commitment to social justice.”
Part of the avowed commitment to social justice was an ambitious and unprecedented target made by Blair for 50% of young people to go to university. Many critics have since argued that this target – now close to being achieved – was totally arbitrary and has created a glut of graduates with poor degrees, along with a shortage of those deciding to go straight into work after leaving school. Additionally, tuition fees were introduced by the New Labour governments, but Campbell is unapologetic.“I grew up in a generation, he [Blair] grew up in a generation where you could get an education for free. But once you start to say, ‘we want more and more people to have the ability to access an education like that’, which I think is a good thing, there do come economic consequences with that which do require the sort of tough choices we have to make.” He calls it a tough choice, others might say irresponsible. University is no longer the sole preserve of those who have both the desire and ability to study a rigorous subject to a high level, instead it has become a rite of passage for anyone and everyone, with the consequences being a devaluing of degrees, a crisis in funding and a shortage of people choosing to take up apprenticeships.
Campbell is close friends with Sussex Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing; the pair are neighbours and when Farthing was still a practising physician in the 1990s he treated Campbell for colitis. I put it to Campbell that Farthing is unpopular with the student body for a number of issues, the most prominent being the privatisation of services on campus. “When I was growing up,” he says, “Sussex always had this reputation for being incredibly radical… so that [privatisation] is always going to be quite a challenging thing for the university authorities. If I spoke about Michael purely through my experience of him, I would say he is a really good guy.”
The fact that Campbell ever agreed to speak to someone like me – as of yet, a nobody – doesn’t mean that he is a nice guy, although perhaps he is. Instead, it indicates that he has far more time on his hands than he would have done ten years ago. Yet we mustn’t forget the fact that he has been asked back to help his party at every election since he stood down in 2003; this is something that seems to worry him.
He mentions that on the day of the 2015 election, when Labour figures were briefing journalists, that it was stalwarts such as himself, instead of younger party figures, who were thrust in front of the cameras. “The three people that were briefing the journalists were me, Charlie Faulkner and Andrew Adonis and I thought why have we not been replaced by… young people?” Are he and other veterans like him too brilliant to avoid turning to, or is the new talent simply not there? “I think there is some talent coming through but I think it is partly because the New Labour period, in a way, is still defining. For all the criticisms, spin and all the rest of it, there is not a party around the world that hasn’t looked at what we did and how we did it.” Indeed, he is correct on that point. David Cameron and George Osborne are said to refer to Blair as ‘the master’ and there is no doubt that the New Labour modernisation manual – compiled in both actions and words by Campbell, Blair and others – was heavily consulted when Cameron was making every effort to make his party electable again.
Just as Cameron’s obsession with Blair crosses party boundaries, so did Campbell’s close friendship with former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who died earlier this year. Was it the mutual problem of alcoholism that brought the pair together? “No we were always friends, from when I was a journalist and he was a young MP,” says Campbell pensively. Does he think it was a tragedy that Kennedy’s alcohol problems cut short his political career? He was, after all, ousted as leader in 2005 by his own party. “I do, the thing I know about alcohol, in this case for an individual but it applies to a country is that until you admit you’ve got the problem, really admit it, in your heart and in your mind you know you have it… and Charles never quite reached that point.” However, despite Kennedy’s problems, it didn’t stop him from leading the Liberal Democrats to a phenomenal result at the 2005 election, with the party winning 59 seats. I begin to put this point to Campbell but he talks over me, “that [the victory] was about Iraq wasn’t it, that was about Iraq. But he was a very attractive politician… people say that he was very outgoing, but he was actually quite a shy guy in a way.”
So he was friends with Charles Kennedy, but did he get on with former Labour leader Ed Miliband? “Well I’ve always liked Ed,” he says, “but I was always very, what’s the word… I just felt that he did not, from the word go, do enough to push back on this constant denigration of the Labour government by the Conservatives. ‘Mess we inherited’, ‘mess we inherited’, ‘mess we inherited’. He therefore, by not rebutting it, played into it. I felt that he rightly and successfully put inequality on the map as a big political issue, but he lost that sense of understanding that entrepreneurs, enterprise, is a good thing and none of the things we want to do with the economy can happen unless those people flourish. I was at dinner the other night and this business guy came up to me and said, ‘I voted for you guys, but I was made to feel by Ed Miliband that I was a bad person because I wanted to run a business.’”
As Campbell signals that he has to go – he has friends coming round – I ask him one final question. Is he surprised that the term ‘Blairite’ has almost become an insult? He thinks it is a dangerous label for anybody to ascribe to themselves, because, he says, Blair was such an exceptional politician. But “it is utterly absurd that the Labour Party has got itself into a position where our most successful ever leader is seen somehow as a sort of virus. The thing is, even with Iraq, with the public, even though Tony gets denigrated the whole time, I meet people who say, ‘God I wish you guys were back there.’ All the time I get it, all the time. Now I also get the people who say, ‘Iraq was a disaster’, ‘tuition fees were a disaster’, ‘Tony Blair is a war criminal’, I get that as well. But I get far more of the former amongst what I call ‘real people’.
I thoroughly doubt the truthfulness of the last point, surely people don’t walk up to him and tell him that they miss him and Blair? I also doubt that Campbell doesn’t like being asked back to help out. If in a couple of years, he doesn’t get a phone call from the likely embattled Labour leader, pleading for his help, will he be relieved or disappointed? I suspect the latter.