Alastair Campbell: “There’s a campaign in there. So get out and do it!”

The former New Labour spin doctor on winning elections, embracing a second referendum and his recent expulsion from the party. 

NS

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On Thursday 23 May 2019, Alastair Campbell was sitting in his kitchen in London, pen poised over a ballot paper for the European elections. Ever since the 1997 general election – when he spent polling day in Tony Blair’s constituency of Sedgefield, on the eve of his first term as the New Labour government’s spin doctor – Campbell has received a postal vote. Yet that morning, he couldn’t put a cross in the box for Labour. He voted Liberal Democrat instead.

“It was literally one of those things where the pen kept hovering. I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I didn’t finally decide until the morning, and it took me ages,” he explains when we meet in his family’s north London townhouse.

Revealing how he voted on TV afterwards, Campbell was promptly expelled from the Labour Party. He’d been a member for 40 years, having joined at the age of 22 because his partner, Fiona, was a member “and couldn’t really understand why I wasn’t”.

Credited with helping Labour win three consecutive majority governments, he is now out in the cold. But he doesn’t believe he is in exile.

“This auto-exclusion thing, it’s bollocks,” he says. “How many times have people openly voted tactically? Lots of people were doing as I was doing.”

Others who openly voted for rival parties include Cherie Blair and Charles Clarke, a former home secretary under Blair. “And yet, bang, like that [he was out] – whereas all these anti-Semitism cases have dragged on and on; it gives a very odd sense to the public.”

Campbell wants Labour to embrace a second European referendum, and fast: “I don’t think they’re going to get the political credit they should when it happens because people will feel they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming. I think the Labour campaign’s been shit, I think it’s just a total mess.” He said the same to Laura Parker, head of Momentum, before European election day.

With the Tory leadership election under way, Campbell is frustrated at Labour’s response to it. “They’re just taking their foot off the gas all the time – 0.2 per cent of the electorate are choosing the prime minister, right? And meanwhile a People’s Vote is ‘undemocratic’? There’s a campaign in there! So fucking get out and do it!”

Having experienced depression, alcoholism and a breakdown when he was much younger, in the mid-Eighties, Campbell has long been a mental health advocate and believes “these very, very strange times” are unhealthy. “We talk about the body politic… if you imagine a mind within the body politic, I don’t think it’s in very good shape.”

Although he is “never bothered” when attacked on social media, he says, “A lot of MPs get a lot of abuse, and it’s not very healthy. The language of ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal’ is dangerous.”

Yet, he adds, “the politicians don’t help themselves. I will freely acknowledge I sometimes go over the top [on Twitter], but generally I’ve been able to maintain friendships across the political spectrum… But there’s something unpleasant about a lot of the debate now. There’s a danger that politicians prefer sometimes to exploit a problem rather than address it, and I feel that’s where we are in the nature of the debate.”

As he speaks, sitting back on a deep velvety purple sofa in his front room, his excitable King Charles spaniel, Skye, the newest member of the household, takes an interest in my notebook.

For Campbell, Brexit has been a mental boon. His People’s Vote and mental health campaigns provide the “purpose” he needs. “So I would say that’s net good for prrrrp” – he blows a raspberry and jabs his finger at his head – “what goes on up here”.

The People’s Vote rally in March has been described as the biggest public demonstration since the march against the Iraq War in 2003 – a demonstration Blair’s government ignored, ploughing ahead with the ill-judged invasion.

“I understand why people say, ‘What are you doing on a march?’” Campbell laughs. “I just think they’re very different issues – whether you agreed with it or not, parliament backed the war, the government had a clear plan, it had a difficult choice and made the choice.

“I do get the parallel. The Iraq march, I can remember it vividly. It was the middle of our second term, Tony was going to go for another one, you look out your own window and you see that many people, like that – that’s why I think Labour and the Tories should not be ignoring, you know, but we did win again [in 2005]…” he says, interrupting his own thread.

“I think over time people understand leadership is not easy, and one of the massive frustrations the country feels at the moment is just that there’s no leadership.” But should that leadership be coming from Campbell and his fellow anti-Brexit grandees, such as Blair?

“Have you ever seen Nigel Farage stop campaigning because he’s hated by a lot of people? Has Boris Johnson ever stopped campaigning, even though he’s hated by a lot of people? I honestly wish I’d got more involved.” 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news