By Alastair Campbell
Lots of memories stirred last night as I sat on a panel to help launch the Fabian Society’s latest book, The Change We Need, on lessons Britain can learn from Barack Obama’s victory.
Memories because the venue was Millbank Tower’s media centre, scene of dozens, hundreds of briefings and press conferences in the run up to the 1997 election. It did not help that peering down on us were giant posters – don’t ask me why, but I so keep saying the real spin doctors are the journos – of Andrew Marr, Jeremy Paxman, David Frost and Trevor Kavanagh.
As I filed in with chairman David Lammy, book co-editor Will Straw, Catherine Mayer of Time Magazine and Obama online campaigner Ben Brandzel, I recalled all those times we had to get our key communicators to line up together, walk in looking like they were part of the same team, and then say vaguely the right thing.
Certainly among the many points of agreement across the panel was that the old command and control comms of the 90s was no longer applicable in the same way. Of course you still need a robust strategy, clear lines of defence and attack. But if there is one thing I take from Obama it is that he set the clear strategy at the centre, but then inspired and empowered supporters to take their own risks, and do their own thing, in how they helped promote it.
Ben Brandzel’s chapter has a terrific story of how, during the Livingstone mayoral campaign, he was urging Ken’s team to decentralise the campaign to house meetings and self-organised volunteer squads. He was told it was not really British. Yet that evening, at an event organised by a group calling itself London Citizens, all the candidates were grilled by people who had organised a coherent platform and set of questions based on 1,200 house meetings.
It is always good to get the take of an outsider and his view, and the view of a leading member of Democrats Abroad in the audience, was that British people are closer to this kind of politics than politicians or the media imagine. He predicts that when it happens, there will be an avalanche.
I hope he is right. Because mass participation in progressive campaigns is the best antidote to media cynicism.
A few more observations from last night. Yet another event to disprove the middle-aged myth that young people are not interested in politics. No sense out there of a positive appetite for the Tories. Frustration, as David Lammy acknowledged at the end, that ministers are not doing more to defend the record, take the fight to the Tories, and engage more and better in new communications.
My main point, apart from farewell to Millbank Tower, was that whilst Obama fought a brilliant new campaign, he did the basic old-fashioned stuff well too – organisation, clarity of message from the top, groundwork and so on.
PS — hilarious correction in The Guardian. ‘An article headed “Knives out at New Statesman as Alastair Campbell editing stint sparks crisis of faith” carried a sub-heading saying that the star columnist Suzanne Moore had quit the magazine. Moore was not on the staff of the New Statesman and was not a regular columnist. She had been listed as a contributing editor, an honorary position for which she was not paid. The magazine removed the names of all contributing editors from its masthead three weeks ago.’
So she fills a page in The Mail on Sunday, fee doubtless well into four figures, to say she was sacked from a magazine for which she didn’t work. Can’t wait for the correction in the Mail on Scumday. I’m sure given her self-styled claim to principled journalism, she will want to correct any false impression she and Obergruppenfuhrer Dacre may have allowed to be created.
Thanks meanwhile to cartoonist Martin Rowson for donating the original of his Dacre cartoon for a Labour Party auction. I am open to advance bids, and I will make sure the OGF is kept informed as to how his welcome efforts to help us raise funds is going.
You can read more from Alastair Campbell here.