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The Policy Ask with Alastair Campbell: “Boris Johnson and his kind should never be allowed near public life again”

The journalist and former Downing Street press secretary on populism, Brexit, and the need for a Political Reform Bill.

Alastair Campbell is best known for his role as former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesperson, press secretary and director of communications and strategy. He co-founded the all-party campaign, Equality4MentalHealth, which secured an extra £600m for mental health services, and advised the Better Together campaign against independence for Scotland, and the Remain side in the EU referendum campaign. He currently co-hosts the podcasts The Rest is Politics and Leading with former cabinet minister Rory Stewart.

How do you start your working day?

I’m up at 6am, have a quick coffee while checking emails and, if it’s one of the three days a new podcast episode of The Rest is Politics or Leading is out, I send these out to people via social media. I’m then in the swimming pool by 7am.

What political figure inspires you?

Nelson Mandela, because he said – and proved – that “everything is impossible, until you make it happen”.

What is the most politically challenging period you remember?

I think we are living in it. Populism, polarisation and post-truth politics are challenging the very foundations on which we believed our democracies to be built. In the US, the UK and elsewhere, we have had politicians who should never have made the bottom of the pile, let alone the top, and policies that have little to do with the real needs of people, and everything to do with exploitation of those three Ps.

What one thing would improve our political culture?

Accountability for the liars who gave us Brexit and conned people into voting for it. I am not convinced our politics will recover until that has happened. It’s why the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson is so important. He and his kind should never be allowed anywhere near public life again.

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[See also: Labour is getting bolder on Brexit]

What policy is the UK government getting right?

They are getting an awful lot wrong, and the damage done by the past five prime ministers over the last 13 years has been considerable. Rishi Sunak got a lot of credit for the hard graft needed to agree the Windsor Framework, but in truth he was simply seeking to repair one part of the damage done by Brexit. Added to which, it has failed to see the Stormont institutions up and running again.

What policy should the UK scrap?

There are so many, but a good start would be the nonsense of sending refugees to Rwanda (or not, as the case may be). It is classic populism – a policy designed not to solve a problem, but to exploit it.

What policy or law are you most looking forward to?

I would love to see Labour bring in a major Political Reform Bill, focused on lowering the voting age, compulsory voting, citizens’ assemblies, political education and oracy in all schools, further devolution to the regions and nations, a totally new second chamber, and a review of the voting systems we use. We need more than a change of government – we need big change in how we do politics.

What piece of international policy could the UK learn from?

Every government in the world should be reacting to the US government’s Inflation Reduction Act, not to ape it all, but certainly to learn from it and adapt.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Put the ministerial code on a statutory footing, and apply it to all MPs as well as ministers, because we must repair the enormous damage done on that front by populism, particularly by Johnson. Unless we re-establish the basic principle that politicians who lie to parliament can no longer take their place there, our politics will not restore itself.

What advice would you give Labour ahead of the next election?

Fight it like your life depends on it. Wake up every day determined to do whatever it takes to win, and whatever it takes to avoid losing. And take absolutely nothing for granted.

Looking back at your career, what one thing would you do differently?

I probably would have stood for parliament around the time that David Miliband, Ed Balls and other special advisers were doing it. Then again, if I had done that, I might not have had as varied and interesting a time as I have had since then!

“But What Can I Do?” by Alastair Campbell is published by Cornerstone.

This piece first appeared in a Party Policy special Spotlight print issue. Read it here.

[See also: Britain’s Brexit divisions are re-emerging]

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