John Rentoul, The Indepenent
I have been reading Alastair Campbell’s diaries of a lost world. The latest volume, number eight, covers the five years after Labour lost power, from 2010 to 2015. They were the Ed Miliband years, the years before Brexit, but what seems most other-worldly about them is the hectic travel, the restaurants, the parties and the large gatherings of human beings.
Campbell’s energy is extraordinary. Even without the politics, there is a readable intensity to his account of the places he travelled to, the people he met, the constant interviews and speeches. But we came for the politics, and, despite the differences, there are things about Miliband’s leadership that are relevant to Keir Starmer today — even though he became an MP only on the last few pages.
The diaries start with the Labour leadership campaign, and Campbell’s growing unease about Ed Miliband catching up with his brother. When Ed won, he wrote: “I felt it was a disaster. The wrong choice in the wrong way.” He kept the full extent of his misgivings private, though, and spent the next five years advising the wrong Miliband out of a sense of duty to the party and a compulsive inability to stay out of the centre of events.
Some of Campbell’s advice was given by text message, which produced some moments of low farce. At one point Rachel Kinnock, who worked for Miliband, called, worried that Campbell’s phone had been hacked, because Miliband had just received a text about getting a tattoo on his bum. Campbell checked his phone and realised he had sent a message intended for his son Calum to the wrong number.
Not much later Campbell sent advice for Miliband about how to manage his relationship with Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, to the wrong Ed — to which Balls replied: “Easy mistake.”
Campbell always felt that Miliband couldn’t make up his mind. “His default position did seem to be to go against the past,” which Campbell thought shouldn’t be taken too far, arguing that the party had to defend its successes in government. When Miliband tried to take his advice, Campbell thought his heart wasn’t in it, and yet Miliband held back from going for a full “left position”. Although Campbell wouldn’t have agreed with it, he thought it would make some strategic sense.
One of the occasions when they came together was in attacking Rupert Murdoch’s media empire when the phone-hacking scandal broke through to a new level — the revelation that the phone of Milly Dowler, the murder victim, had been hacked. Campbell had long thought that Tony Blair should have gone more aggressively for the Conservative press and was pleased that Miliband called for the sacking of Rebekah Wade, who had been editor of the News of the World — which Murdoch closed down in 2011. Not that it did Miliband much good in the end.
I haven’t read all of the diaries yet, but I did skip forwards to see how the story ended. If you don’t want spoilers, look away now. Campbell woke to a bright sunny morning on 7 May 2015 “feeling fairly up”, his depression at bay (and one of the admirable things about his diaries is his honesty about his mental health). The “sense around the place” was that “we had done OK and even if we could not get a majority we might be able to stop them again”. He went through the day discussing how to handle the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats if Labour ended up as the largest party in another hung parliament. Until that evening, when he was sitting in the BBC studio and Andrew Neil refused to give him the exit poll figures in advance: “I will tell you this — you are going to be shocked, all of you.”
So they were. Despite a tiny swing from the Tories to Labour in England, David Cameron had hoovered up the collapsed Lib Dem vote and emerged with a majority of his own. Campbell was irritated with Blair, who had remained sceptical about Miliband throughout, and who was “in one of his ‘I know I am right’ modes on the various calls” the next day.
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