Book Review: The Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume 1 Prelude to Power 1994-1997

This Book Review was guest written by a Sixth-Form Student

This book gives a day-to-day guide about the events that Alastair Campbell went through from the day that John Smith passed away until Tony Blair walked into 10 Downing Street as the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979. This long diary from 1994-1997 gives an excellent insight into the British media and the personalities that were involved within politics in the 1990’s.

Alistair Campbell become Labour Director of Communications in 1994. He had previously been Political Editor of the Daily Mirror.

If you are expecting to read the side of Alastair Campbell that helped to inspire the fictional character Malcolm Tucker, then you will be quite disappointed. Rather kindly, Campbell does not write about himself in an aggressive way and only briefly mentions arguments and simply sums them up in a few words. Moreover, Campbell occasionally writes about his apologetic phone calls rather than his heated debates which is disappointing for the reader. Apart from a few detailed arguments with the previous Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the reader does miss out on this expected part of the diaries -which is a shame. However, this does not mean that the book is not worth reading, as this book’s main attracting point is Campbell’s excellent political insight around key events, rather than the squabbles between political figures.

The main insight that you get into the character of Alastair Campbell is his relentless hard work and his brilliant political mind when dealing with tough decisions. So often in this book Campbell is mentioning discussions in meetings. One constant focus of these meeting is what to do next with New Labour strategy and policy, and Campbell is often working out the tone of the message that New Labour wants to present to the electorate. The reader also sees the way in which politics completely dominates Campbell’s life by the miniscule extent of which Campbell writes about non-political events, such as time spent with is partner and children. These moments of time spent with family often just get a sparing comment on the last line, when writing his diary.

Campbell considers all the big figures in New Labour.

This book is also very informative about where power lay within New Labour before government. Campbell attends meetings regularly with the ‘big guns’ which include Blair, Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook – with Peter Mandelson also making regular appearances as well. The insight the reader receives about the personal relationships between this team is incredible. The reader can see that Brown resents Blair from the beginning of his leadership as he believed he had the leadership unfairly stripped away from him and this leads to tensions in their working relationship. Campbell often writes frustratingly about Brown deciding to work alone without consulting Blair or Campbell. Also, the media often represents New Labour as a well-oiled machine that rose to dominate British politics when they started off together. However, the book shows that the is utterly untrue. This book highlights the fractured and strained relationship between Brown and Mandelson. Despite this, the New Labour team was able to present a clear message, partially due to the excellence of Campbell’s communication skills, and partially due to incredibly talented politicians, who could get away with there being strains in key relationships.

Rupert Murdoch - Wikipedia
The support of Rupert Murdoch was courted by Campbell and New Labour.

As Campbell was Tony Blair’s press secretary, a lot of the diary is spent looking at what the media is saying about Blair and, by extension, New Labour. Campbell is constantly stressing about the media and this leads to him incessantly briefing New Labour’s message. Campbell spends much time squabbling with journalists about what they have said in their articles, but he also allocates a lot of time talking to Labour MPs about how the media will probably treat them. Campbell is especially cautious about Labour MPs deciding to send their children to grammar or private schools as he knows about the venomous attacks that will be shot by the media. Campbell also spends time trying to appeal to the media and especially to Rupert Murdoch. He makes sure to not present Labour as too left-wing or too pro-European, which reflects in their policies as well, so that the right-wing papers will come and support Labour in the General Election.

An interesting insight that you gain from reading Campbell’s diaries is that he is sometimes unaware of what is going to work well with the media. For example, there was no mention of the famous line ‘weak, weak, weak’ that Tony Blair said to John Major on 30th January 1997. Campbell also writes that Blair was unsure about this line as he believed that Major was good at deflecting personal attacks, due to his friendly character. However, a drawback of this book as it is a diary as opposed to a political history, therefore the reader will miss out on some of the defining moments of the New Labour’s rise to power. This is not a critic of his writing as it is impossible for Campbell to have perfect foresight about what are going to be the defining moments of New Labour’s opposition when he was writing his diary at the end of each day.

One key political event which is covered in this book is the changing of Clause IV. Early on in this book Campbell takes the reader through the lengthy process of discussion after discussion with the ‘big guns’ about what precise words to put in the new Clause 4. From within the New Labour team there is little resistance about the modernisation of the Labour Party even from more left-wing figures such as John Prescott, who only challenged occasionally about minor words in Clause 4. Campbell writes clearly that this was an opportunity to convince the party that they needed to change to become electable and to show the country that Labour had modernised and was now fit for government.

One aspect of politics which is often hidden away from the public eye is the meetings with foreign leaders. We often see two foreign leaders wearing the biggest smiles they can muster whilst shaking the other’s hand as firmly as they can, to try and portray a strong relationship, but the benefit of this book is that Campbell is able to take us behind closed doors and tell us what these world leaders were really like. From Bill Clinton’s ‘huge, enormous hands’ and Helmut Kohl’s ‘huge great jowls’ Campbell tells the reader what he thinks of these people and makes sure to include some hilarious anecdotes in his writing.

Whilst a Labour victory was virtually assured in 1997, Campbell says the effectiveness of the campaign ensured the 179 seat majority.

The final pages of this book are some of the best due to the way that Campbell takes you right into the centre of the cut and thrust nature of a general election campaign. One aspect of the campaign which the reader will notice is Campbell’s constant proximity to Tony Blair which emphasises how Blair was the central figure who was able to win Labour the 1997 general election. Moreover, the reader will also learn about New Labour’s mentality during the campaign. Even with the collapse in trust in the Major government due to constant sleaze allegations creating a clear path to Number 10 for Blair, the New Labour team never took their foot off the pedal in trying to win every vote possible and Campbell writes in his diary about not becoming complacent repeatedly almost to remind himself. This book ends with the country ecstatic about a Labour government, but the mood in the New Labour camp was flat coupled with the daunting realisation of it is now time to govern the country. This contrasting mood goes a long way in showing the reader why this team were able to demonstrate resilience and become the most successful Labour campaigners ever.

Overall, reading this book gives you a rare opportunity to enter a different world of politics mostly hidden away from the public eye and the political analysis, especially around the media and relations between New Labour politicians. This book is second to none and is worth reading for any politics student or teacher. A must read!

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