Words: Callum Sneddon (he/him)
This article features in our third print issue of the year, Ashes to Ashes.
A spectre is haunting Britain: that of New Labour. Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the party is returning closer to the centre-ground, with the hopes of wooing back a middle class increasingly feeling the sharp edge of Tory policies. To people of voting age in the late 90s (or to political junkies of any age), this story will have a familiar ring to it. Achievable or not, Labour dreams of the ground-shaking electoral victory that resulted from Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997. The time seems ripe, then, to reflect on its main architect: Alastair Campbell.
The fact that The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker – one of the greatest and most well-known characters in British political satire – was not-so-subtly based on Campbell aptly illustrates the magnitude of the man’s shadow over politics. Infamous for his abrasiveness and ruthless efficiency, Campbell was key in orchestrating the largest electoral landslide in the history of British politics. Journalist Peter Hitchens claimed in a recent interview that he is ‘genuinely sure that Campbell was the executive Prime Minister for the first years of New Labour’. Campbell himself claims in his diaries that he was the “nexus” of New Labour, and that ministers frequently deferred to him in decision making. This echoes popular opinion about Campbell, seen as the power behind the throne.
The truth of these claims aside, Campbell was indisputably a sharp political operator, who ‘intimidated the entire Westminster press corps’ into line in a way which few have replicated. By many accounts, he was a forceful, acerbic (and allegedly, sometimes violent) Machiavellian, capable of manipulating the media and public perceptions, whilst enforcing discipline in the name of attaining and maintaining power for the Labour Party. Along with his colleague Peter Mandelson, he was defined in the British popular imagination as the figure of the spin doctor: that shadowy person who works behind the scenes, subtly manipulating public perceptions of the government via the media.
My mum – who is from a working-class area of Glasgow and had her first child in 1997 – has often told me about the relief and the hope she felt that her daughter wouldn’t, she thought, be born into a country run by Tories who held people like her in ruthless and cold contempt. Today, however, opinions on Campbell vary widely. The man who won an election on the personality of another is now enjoyed by some as a personality himself – on TV, podcasts, and magazine interviews. For others, he is no more than an unscrupulous spin doctor who hammered the final nails into the coffin of Old Labour. After his Machiavellianism went as far as justifying a war on allegedly doctored evidence, to many he became the picture of an unpunished and unrepentant war criminal, with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands.
In more general terms, we might ask what influence his modus operandi has had on the political landscape of the country. In 2008, Michael Howard accused Campbell on Newsnight of being personally responsible for forever lowering the tone of political and public life in the UK. Certainly, we have seen shades of the type of political appearance he pioneered – or more accurately its photographic-negative – in Boris Johnson’s blustering, unconcerned, pseudo-Churchillian public persona (to say nothing of his own background in print media). We see this more insidiously, too, in Nigel Farage’s ”down the pub”, politically-incorrect appeal. But where Campbell supposedly had a ‘fixation with the daily firefight with the media’ over individual headlines, it certainly appeared in the Johnson-era that the ex-PM was able to ignore the constant media backlash, confident in the strength of his own personality-cult. Similarly, it is reasonable to draw a connection between the degradation of public trust in the New Labour government‘s honesty – through instances like the Iraq ”dodgy dossier” – and so-called ”post-truth” politics, which saw its most succinct distillation in Britain in Michael Gove’s now infamous claim that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
Regardless of the controversies which dog his legacy, the current Labour leadership seem primed to salvage what they can of the master of spin methods, as we see Starmer cosying up to the right-wing print press in the hope that they will open the way into Downing Street for him, as they did for Blair. Whether this strategy will pay off the same way in a post-internet age, and without the help of a morally grey political machine such as Campbell, is yet to be determined.
5) https://youtu.be/gTse1tyVDs0 @ 1:36:47