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Exclusive Alistair Campbell interview on the 2024 General Election: The UK is ‘desperate for change’

By Scott Maclennan

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Alistair Campbell speaking to The Inverness Courier before the Highland Business Dinner.
Alistair Campbell speaking to The Inverness Courier before the Highland Business Dinner.

I asked Alistair Campbell whether he thinks the UK will be a better place after the general election and he told me: “Oh god, imagine turning on the telly and Suella Braverman is not on.” He was joking, but only just.

The reason for that is as he said “the bad in politics has definitely been more dominant than the good in recent years” and he also cares that “fewer and fewer people are thinking about going into politics, which is bad.”

There was no sign of the combative former political operator as he sauntered, hands in pockets and whistling, into the lounge at the Drumossie Hotel in a pair of trainers colourful enough to get you booted out of the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

So what will the election be decided on? “People are just desperate for change,” he said and there are few people in this country who are more experienced on the subject of political change than Tony Blair’s former top advisor.

His CV speaks for itself. He became Mr Blair’s press secretary in 1994, helped mastermind Labour’s landslide victory of 1997, and spent six or so years at Number 10 – his former boss even credited him with coming up with the term New Labour.

Despite a relaxed demeanour, his passion for politics is undimmed though it has understandably taken a different direction and he clearly fires-up at certain points when a subject is mentioned that is close to his heart.

Like when he says “communication is not just saying a line you have been given – it is communicating that line because you believe it, because you thought about it” he is speaking as much about a professional comms strategy as sincerely resonating with the public.

So John Smith and Charles Kennedy came up as people who were respected across the political divide that do not seem to be around anymore but Mr Campbell insisted: “I think there are a lot of good people in politics,” but they are fewer and fewer. Why? The legacy of “Johnson, and Truss.”

Going back to what will the election will be decided on, he said: “The thing about general elections is you've got millions of people with all their own different reasons to vote but I think in general I see a similar dynamic here to the one that is in England, which is essentially people are just desperate for change.

“So I think that the sense for both the Tories in the country as a whole and the SNP in Scotland is that they have just been around for too long and it is time for change.

“It is a time for change I think is a big, big dynamic. I also think that, I mean obviously it's different up here, but if you just start with the country as a whole, I think there's a feeling that the Tories have had 14 years and nothing's really got better and Labour seem to be a lot better than they were.

“Up here, I think you have a similar feeling fed-up with the Tories, that's been the position here for a long, long time, but now also pretty fed up with the SNP and they might give Labour a chance.

“Now, I don't believe Labour are going to go back to when we were all powerful in Scotland, that's not going to happen but I think that sense of change is very, very powerful.”

Is it a concern that there does not seem to be any John Smiths or Charles Kennedys anymore – people who were respected across the political divide?

“I think there are a lot of good people in politics,” he said. “I think you're right that the bad in politics has definitely been more dominant than the good in recent years. I think fewer and fewer people are thinking about going into politics which is bad.

“I think the impact of having had Johnson, and Truss in particular, and up here, the scandals around Salmond and the scandals around Nicola Sturgeon’s husband means that inevitably people will start to say are they all as bad as each?

“And that's a very common sort of thing but I think we have to be very, very careful because ultimately we need good people who are prepared to put their head above the parapet because if the public just spends their whole time saying they are all terrible then we're only going to get terrible people.

“So I think we've got to be a bit careful about this. I think there are still good people, I actually do think that Keir Starmer is emerging in a way that I think is an antidote to some of that stuff.

“He's serious, I think he’s been strong, he’s pretty ruthless – that's important – I think sober is a word that I would say.”

He argues the desire for change is strong on both sides of the border which is bad news for the Conservatives and the SNP. So what happens after their respective 14 and 17 years at the helm, do parties run out of ideas?

“Well, they don't have to,” he said. “I mean we found this, renewing in power is harder than renewing an opposition because when you're in power, when you're in government there's so much you've got to be on top of it, so much you've got to do.

“And I think sometimes that sense of where does fresh energy come from, where do fresh ideas come is very, very hard. But I honestly think, I mean, I can't think of anything in Britain that has really improved. I can't think of a single thing.

“I suppose you could say gay rights, possibly some of the equalities issues but even on that I think there's a danger of going backwards so you look at all the things that people really care about – health service, education, transport – it's just like everything feels like it's going backwards other country feels stuck.”

There was a recent clip from Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister when people were complaining about receiving GP appointments too quickly for convenience.

“Oh I saw that! The other one I saw yesterday was David Cameron calling for a general election in opposition because of the rising prison population and the state of prisons. Now we are literally having to release prisoners early because the prisons are full. And it is barely in the news.

“That was like, I saw that clip, I mean it was almost comic, wasn't it? Why are we having to see GPs so quickly?

“By the way, the other thing that has happened nationally – the machine's been hollowed out so the civil service machine is going to need to be rebuilt.

“When I saw Keir Starmer doing his thing with the six pledged and so forth, I am in support of all of them, but they're all going to be incredibly difficult because the machinery of government has been hollowed out and undermined.

“So the challenge is going to be enormous and to keep people, let's say Labour do get in, to keep the country kind on board for long-term change is a hard thing to do.”

Do you think it is a problem that politicians are getting force fed lines to then go on Question Time or Debate Night?

“I think that is something that we did but we were very disciplined about communication. But communication is not just saying a line you have been given – it is communicating that line because you believe it, because you thought about it.

“And I mean some of this stuff politicians come out with… We shouldn't pretend that we just used to have a sort of country full of John Smiths, we didn't, you've always had good, average and bad, you've always had that.

“But when I see some members of the cabinet. I saw an interview with Gillian Keegan the education minister and I know she's not not relevant up here but she was talking about rolling back sex education.

“It's based upon this idea that children will be shown lots of inappropriate material and the guy at the BBC who was a good interviewer said what evidence do you have for this? And she had none! She said well, we've seen reports. Well, what reports, what are they? Oh well, we've seen things and it's like – what is this?

“Listen, competence takes you so far but you also then do need political skills and drive and all that stuff and I'm hoping that maybe you're going to get that.”

Will the country be in a better place a year from now?

“I sort of feel the country is stuck and desperate for change. I still think Britain is an amazing place and there's lots of good stuff that you can say about it,” he said.

“So I think that a change of government will mean millions of people are going to feel really good and that in and of itself will give an energy and an impetus, which then allied to political change can really sort of give people a sense of possibilities.

“However, that being said, I think it's going to take more than a change of government to really get the country back on its feet. I think we've all got to sort of understand that we are in a bit of a mess.

“One of the reasons that I speak a lot, and my next book is actually for kids to explain politics, so unless we all understand that unless we engage properly with stuff that we are trying to do with the changes in the country that we all know that the country needs and do that from a positive perspective, I think we'll stay in a rut for a long time.

“So I think the change of government is necessary but we're gonna need more than that to get the country going again.

“I'm a great believer in a kind of visualisation. I just keep thinking about, oh god, imagine turning on the telly and Suella Braverman is not on and not hearing about Rishi Sunak’s tenth reset but you're actually thinking here's something new being established.

“So I hope. You've got to stay positive, you've got to believe things can get better and I think they will so I'm hopeful of change and I'm hoping the change is going to deliver something that’s much, much better.”

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