Who is the real Alastair Campbell?

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
November 27, 2013

The master of spin gives a PR lesson from the back of his limo

It is a cold November afternoon in Cambridge and I’m waiting for Alastair Campbell to appear. He’s speaking at a symposium at CRASSH evidently  constructed around his own career: ‘Life at the Nexus of Media and  Politics’. Alastair Campbell is best known for his role as former  British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and  director of communications and strategy. Just before the symposium  starts, I see an opportune moment and make a beeline for the King of  Spin. ‘Can I interview you for the King’s Review?’. In less than a  second, Campbell shoots back, ‘You can travel back to London with me at  five o’clock – take it or leave it.’

So I find myself in the back of his  chauffeur-driven car, up close and personal with the man behind the  Blair machine. Maybe it was the heavy traffic, or the sheer boredom of  my company, but the nation’s most infamous PR agent candidly disclosed  his views on a range of issues: the media, New Labour, getting Ed  Miliband into power, feminism, and his own personal experience of class  struggle.

The Authenticity Conundrum

Campbell’s reputation precedes him. With endless streams of op-eds fulminating against him as well as a published book, The Blair Years,  sharing extracts from his diaries, it is fair to assume the public  holds a firm view of Campbell. Much of it true: Campbell does indeed  display a forceful, combative and intriguingly complex personality.

I watched Campbell perform that afternoon  in Cambridge: a heated debate with a pugnacious man. He did not  disappoint the audience, absorbing their expectations, performing on  cue. He answered every question, and even added the odd joke. Boasting  about punch-ups in Parliament, and being slapped on the wrist by  Westminster security, he has his performance down to a T.

During the symposium, Campbell spoke of the  need for authenticity: “It’s really important to be authentic and real,  to connect with the audience on a personal level”. Such a task is  probably impossible for Campbell – and for most public leaders. The art  of political (and other) performance involves raising your metaphorical  guard and maintaining it; hiding the real self to protect from attacks.  And in doing so, some lose the self in the performance process. So it’s  unlikely public figures can truly perform authentically. Some might even  say that performance and authenticity are implacably opposed.  Campbell’s ‘performance’ was as expected; he gave the audience  absolutely no insight into his social reality. So, hardly authentic.

Of course, I want to uncover the man behind  the spin. And that required Campbell removing the ‘public profile’  mask, where he presents himself as abrasive, hotheaded, and ruthless.  Away from the crowds, sitting side-by-side in his car, I just listened.  Finally, I caught a glimpse of the real Campbell: a principled man,  deeply committed to the Labour Party. Campbell spoke with passion about  the history of the Labour Party, the socialist principles underpinning  the Party and the need to make a fundamental change in society.

Glimpsing both sides – public and private –  it becomes clear that Campbell has manufactured, and spun his own  public profile, that of a maverick press secretary prone to violent  outbursts. A well-marketed myth that served the purpose of getting New  Labour into power; and a myth that the public, the press, and ultimately  Campbell relish.

People Politics and Russell Brand

Campbell began the discussion by  emphasising a real concern about decline in voting numbers for general  elections. Campbell attributes the public’s disengagement in politics to  a “culture of negativity” as people in Britain “do not believe in the  cause of politics to create a change.” According to Campbell, the onus  is on politicians, who “should do a better job of standing together and  defending politics and the role it plays in our democratic society,  rather than attacking each other at every opportunity. I call it the  performing seals trick, the way to get a round of applause on Question  Time is to attack politicians.”

Campbell condemns Russell Brand’s recent  attack on politics by encouraging people not to vote. Unlike Brand,  Campbell truly believes in politics and the political process as away of  making a real change to people’s lives. Our vaunted spin-doctor  stresses the need for civic engagement in the political sphere by “the  introduction of compulsory voting and political education from a very  early age”. In his usual bellicose style, Campbell provides a cogent  argument for the introduction of compulsory voting; it works in  Australia where “the turn out is in the 90s and that’s how it should  be.” Furthermore he explains voting is integral to participatory  democracy as “it forces people to think deeply about what drives their  decision.”

In the current climate Campbell believes  people will be encouraged to participate in politics by “politicians and  political activists simply sitting down with them and discussing their  worldviews.” He’s surprisingly passionate about the three-fold function  of focus groups, which are “a useful democratic exercise.” First, “they  involve a discussion about what motivates people to vote.” Second, “you  can use focus groups to find out what makes people change their views  and then you can use this information to change the public’s views.”

Third, “focus groups calibrate our  strategy. I never use focus groups to drive our strategy. For example,  New Labour’s strategy was modernisation, we wanted to change the Labour  Party and the country – that was our basic message. Now, what I used  focus groups for was to check, we were on the right track. At a very  basic level we would find out how much they knew. If they didn’t know  who Tony Blair was, that was a problem. We could use them to test who  was breaking through and why, we could see a pattern, many people for  instance said they liked David Blunkett. What you would find as you  probed them was that they liked what he was saying.”

One Nation?

Campbell compared Ed Miliband’s One Nation  campaign to the success of the New Labour campaign in the 1990s. “One  Nation is not established. It means to the public whatever the public  wants it to mean. Whereas if you take New Labour, we launched that as a  political concept and then we had three years to persuade the public  that it meant something. What One Nation should mean, if the message was  working, is that the Labour party is the political voice and the  political body that will represent the many and not the few”.

Campbell attributes the weakness of  Miliband’s strategy to lack of evidence: “One Nation worked last year  for Ed’s speech but it wasn’t followed through. You have to follow  through with hard-hitting policy; energy prices is a good One Nation.  Whereas by 1994 to 1997 most people had a sense of what New Labour was.”

Speaking on Cameron’s Big Society, Campbell  opines that “Cameron is very tactical. He knew they were not getting  elected because people think they are a right-wing party. Cameron wanted  to row back on Thatcher’s ‘No Society’ speech – to say there is such a  thing as society, so he introduced the big society sound bite. The  problem is he didn’t have a clue what it meant in terms of policy, so  he’s dropped it.”

Drawing on Campbell’s observations, perhaps  Miliband’s One Nation campaign can learn some valuable lessons. First,  by reiterating One Nation in every speech; second, by informing the  public of the meaning of One Nation – a fair society for the majority;  and third, by providing substance to One Nation with policy  recommendations that resonate with every section of society.

Prescriptions for Ed

While Miliband has broken through on energy  prices by gaining public support for regulating the energy market,  Campbell argues that he needs four further strong policies, “one on the  economy, a couple on public services and one about cultural space”. When  Miliband formulates his policies it will be imperative that “he uses a  sustained campaign. Every time someone attacks the policy he has to  defend it. And he has to follow policy through, right to delivery.”

Campbell was at pains to tell me his  prediction for the 2015 general election. “I think it will be Lab-Lib, I  was right in 2010, I knew it was going to be a Tory-Liberal coalition,  it’s what the people wanted.” When it comes to listening to what the  people want, Campbell touched on public support for nationalising  railways, which he believes is a policy “the people can latch onto” and  should be explored further. “The fact that nationalising railways is  even on the agenda now suggests we are living in a different age.  Following the crash a lot has changed.”

The economic meltdown drastically changed  perceptions of the role of the markets and of the State. Miliband may  have the opportunity in 2015 to increase state involvement in private  enterprises that currently control national interests. Echoing a clear  ideological position on the Left, Campbell advocates for an active  state, arguing “sometimes the role of the Government is to take action  and control the markets where necessary.”

Girl Power

As society changes so does the role of  women in modern Britain. “I am seeing a new wave of feminism, definitely  through my daughter,” says Campbell. He describes a new wave of  feminism, which involves a symbolic battle for equality by targeting  oppressive gender campaigns head on. He touches on the ‘no more page 3’  campaign to end nude photographs of women on page 3 of The Sun, a drive  that is gaining ground with the public. Further, he says the  objectification of women is symptomatic of a broader problem in the  right-wing media: “they don’t actually like women. They use women”. He  adds, “I think the Daily Mail are evil. You should challenge them. They  are very hateful and not representative of their readers. People read it  because it’s well marketed, it panders to people’s sense of prejudice  and it gives someone to blame.”

Will the real Alastair Campbell please stand up?

What Campbell says of the Daily Mail may  indeed be true for Campbell. As he says, the public read the Daily Mail  because it’s well marketed, although most don’t actually believe the  tabloid’s invective. Campbell has taught me a valuable PR lesson: don’t  always believe the spin.

You see Campbell has marketed himself. The  maverick PR agent, the joker in the pack, curmudgeonly, irrepressible.  The power behind the throne. All consciously devised myths by the master  of spin himself. After sitting in the car with Campbell for three hours  I don’t believe his own spin. And I can’t believe he believes his own  spin.

It’s all fun and games, but deep down we  know Campbell is a nice suit, committed to the Left of Labour.  Campbell’s affinity with Labour stems from his time at Cambridge, where  he battled with class conflict and feelings of being an ‘outsider’. His  early experiences defined his career trajectory and created a political  predator.

Campbell’s commitment to Labour led him to  sacrifice his own public image for the Party, and for what he considered  to be for the good of society. Campbell let the public believe he was a  conniving bastard. From Blair’s perspective, it was a successful  strategy to have his spin doctor behave like a jackass; and it appears  to be same for Miliband, who continues to work with Campbell. The  apparition of this Director of Strategy, apparently ruthless at any  cost, was a convenient political story, a smooth PR strategy for the  Labour Party, and a pre-requisite for the introduction of bold reforms  under New Labour.

Perhaps the public would rather believe  Campbell is a Iago character, sowing the seeds of evil and watering with  poison, but the truth is that Campbell’s real agenda is getting Labour,  a Party he believes will strive for equality, back into power. In  contrast to his performances, Campbell is a principled man who still  dreams of a fairer nation.

He may spin himself as a loose canon, but  he is exceptionally smart, and plays the role of a PR twat perfectly,  almost as if he created the role himself. Isn’t that what PR is all  about?


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Charlotte Rachael Proudman