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.”
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.”
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?