But what can I do? In conversation with Alastair Campbell

Alistair Campbell joins a panel debate at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre
Alistair Campbell joins a panel debate at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre

Popular podcaster, Alistair Campbell, discussed how the next generation can change politics as he joined a panel debate held by UCL Political Science. Ahead of the event he spoke with James Baggaley at the UCL Policy Lab about why he thinks politics can and must change.

There is an indisputable star quality to Alastair Campbell. After a extraordinarily high profile - and controversial - career at the very top of politics, the former Labour spin doctor is now one of the most celebrated political podcasters in the world. And someone who can sell out the Albert Hall in a matter of hours with people who want to listen to him talk about politics.

As such, it was a surprise, as I settle down in his living room to chat, to hear that Campbell now argues that something more than an election campaign is required to change the world for good. For all his vociferous partisanship, which remains undimmed by the years, he insists that the country cannot be turned around with an election win by itself.

"I hope Labour win the next election; you won’t be surprised to hear me say that. But politics needs more than just a change of government. Politics is stuck, and people are angry. It needs to open up and improve how we hold leaders Accountable."

Our conversation takes place just days before a critical party conference season for Rishi Sunak and Keir Stammer. Both will be looking to rally their troops and set out their political visions ahead of the next election. Campbell has been there in the cockpit - working with Tony Blair to return Labour to Power after 18 years in opposition.

What advice would Campbell give to those following the election campaign today? In his new book But what can I do: why politics has gone so wrong and how you can change it, Campbell attempts to set out the recipe for success. Written as a guide for a new generation of leaders and campaigners, who he thinks could help turn politics around, it’s part campaign tool, part inspirational guide and part support manual. After all, Campbell knows all too well how bruising politics can be.

"It started out as a letter to the next generation. But it turned into something very different. Speaking to young people, I soon realised it could be a guide based on what I’ve learnt and what they can do."

Its three-part structure is a formula for successful campaigning. His audience? Well, the book tour has felt as much like a campaign as a sales drive. Campbell is in a fight to prove that, for all its faults, politics can make a difference in an age of apathy and anger.

"It probably is a bit of a campaign" he says, reflecting on the many conversations he’s had with young people up and down the country. The conversation will continue when Campbell comes to speak at UCL in the first event in this years Department of Political Science,  Policy in Practice series.

And what about the country’s issues and challenges in overcoming them? Here again, Campbell emphasises that there is more to change than we might expect.

"Just the other day, I was doing a debate with Gary Neville for Debate Mate" the charity that pairs working class young people with adults to help them gain confidence in debating. "I was arguing that politics was the best route to changing the world."

It was Neville’s job to argue the opposite. And Campbell was taken by what the former Manchester United star said.

"Gary’s argument was fascinating. He argued that much of the change and improvements in Manchester have been made despite politics and not because of it". Neville stressed that this wasn’t a criticism of the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham. His powers remain limited, and much of this work predates the creation of the mayoralty but has more to do with the passion and brilliance of local campaigners, businesses, and communities.

This new approach of embracing different experiences and expertise from outside politics and Whitehall feels a long way from top-down targets.

"I do think to a certain extent the model where you stand up and say ’vote for me, and I’ll give you the perfect job, the perfect life, the perfect school and the perfect hospital’ won’t work today".

Campbell makes clear in speaking to me now that this isn’t 1997, and politicians should avoid grand visions. And perhaps instead, a politics that levels with people is needed.

"I think, a politics that recognises that the country is in a real mess. And that is honest that we won’t be able to fix everything all at once. It’s going to take time and hard work. A politics that says we support what teachers do; we value what nurses do, we know we can’t get anything done without front-line workers, and we can’t keep the country safe without the police and military".

This valuing of those who serve goes beyond the public sector. To those working to bring about change in communities and those outside politics. In the book, Campbell talks about people like Alex Smith, founder of Cares UK.

Inspired by what he saw as a crisis of loneliness across the UK, Alex set up Cares UK to ’help people find connection and community in a disconnected age.’ Alex sits alongside countless other inspiring examples in the book-stories of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.

"With any major change, there will always be a political component. But I think it is incredible what change you can bring about if you get involved on the ground". As we come to the end of our chat. I ask Campbell whether he agrees with his erstwhile Clinton-era counterpart and political strategist, James Carville, that campaigning is a sacred mix of labour and love.

"I love James, but I just don’t see it like that". He says, reflecting on the election victories with Labour.

"I’ll resent, to the day I die, that on those three election wins I didn’t enjoy them. I was already thinking of the next thing."

And perhaps that’s the true lesson of the book for politicians and those wanting to work alongside them. As the great philosopher of politics, Max Weber, once told us: victory is never absolute - our efforts will be added to and supported by many others and they will, in turn, be unpicked by a generation yet to come.

In the end, that’s what it is all about. As Campbell puts it, "we do what we can do" and we hope others do the same.

This interview appears in the latest edition of the  UCL Policy Lab magazine. To find out more about Policy Lab and get the latest news events, sign up for their newsletter  here.

  • The panel debate, But what can I do now, in conversation with Alistair Campbell, took place at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre on Thursday 5th October, 2023.  

  • University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000