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British Political Expert Alastair Campbell Explains What Makes Someone a 'Winner'

"I don't feel Machiavellian, but I know I can be. I mean, I've done things that people describe as Machiavellian."

by Hope Whitmore
Mar 2 2015, 5:23pm

Alastair Campbell photographed ahead of his talk for the Financial Times' "Undercover Economist" series. Photos by T-Bone Fletcher.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Alastair Campbell wants to teach you how to win. In his new book, Winners: And How They Succeed, he profiles victors from the fields of sport, politics, business, and acting, creating a blueprint for success modeled on the stories of people far more successful than you. It's by no means a self-help book, but you'd probably benefit from paying it some attention if you ever want to dredge yourself out of that entry-level recruitment job.

As Tony Blair's chief strategist, Campbell helped steer the Labour Party to three consecutive election victories, so there's plenty of personal insight in the book as to what it takes to win. However, I wanted to hear some of that insight applied to what's currently going on around us, so I met with Campbell last week ahead of his talk for the Financial Times' "Undercover Economist" series. We spoke about winning, Malcolm Tucker, and the silliness of modern politics.

VICE: Tell me, is Ed Miliband a winner? Or Clegg? Or Farage?
Alastair Campbell: They all have some of the qualities that you need to be a winner, but the point about the election is that there are only two people who can be prime minister—that's Cameron or Ed.

Is Nick Clegg a winner? He set himself the objective of getting into power in some form. He's done that, so maybe. But I think he'll struggle this time. Farage is somebody who superficially might look like he has real importance, but I don't see him as a winner. I think he'll fade. Cameron, as I say in the book, should have walked the last election, but didn't.

Yeah, that was a weird one, because how many years were Labour in before he was elected?
It was 1997 to 2010—13 years. But it wasn't just the time; it was the economy, it was Iraq, it was Afghanistan, it was MPs' expenses... the media were giving him a really easy ride. So I don't think he's a winner. I don't think he's strategic. The one thing he's quite good at is looking and sounding like a prime minister.

Then there's Ed. A lot of people say he doesn't sound and act like a prime minister, but I think he does at least have a sense of his own strategy, and does believe big things—like the world is too unequal, like the economy should be the servant of society rather than the master. I didn't vote for Ed, I voted for his brother. But remember, he won that, and a lot of people said he wouldn't.

So they've all got different qualities. I think, if you look at the public, they're not sure; they don't know whether they want either to win. So the campaign's going to be important.

Do you think there might be some lessons for all of them in your book?
It is, I hope, useful to people in politics and business. What I'd like to happen with the book is, people in politics, rather than just looking at sport as something interesting on the telly, they see they can learn a lot from it—so you can learn from some of the great stories of teamship, and innovation, and strategy.

Sportspeople and politicians have different views of what strategy is, but people who are interested in strategy should look at the ways in which strategy is used in different worlds. So I wrote a chapter about Mourinho as a strategist—not just as a manager, but as a strategist. Or Gary Kasparov, the chess player, he's a proper strategist.

Yeah, and you say, although he's very anti-Putin, he'd still recognize Putin's mastery.
Well, see, it's obvious he hates Putin. But I think, although most people outside of Russia would say he's got all the qualities of a bad man and wants to be a totalitarian leader and all that, he does have an understanding of strategy.

Are you worried that your book might be used for ill? That someone like Farage might take some lessons in strategy and tactics from it?
I hadn't thought of that. You know, I don't think so, because I'm not saying anything that I don't believe, and I do think a lot of politicians could get a lot from studying strategy more deeply than they do. My hope would be that [it's used by] politicians who want to do good things, but that's a very good question. Nigel Farage... I hope he doesn't use it. I mean, there's nothing to stop him.

Yeah, he could just pick a copy off the shelf.
Actually, to be fair to Farage, he does have fairly clear objectives.

To leave the EU.
Yeah. And his objective for the election is to kind of make the weather—to be the noise. But his strategy is kind of falling apart. He's a bit like Cameron: he's good at tactics, but I'm not sure what his strategy is. Because recently, for example, he said he believes in the health service as a publicly-funded blah, blah, blah, not long after he said it should be a private model. Good question, though, about the book being misused. What if it was used by some evil terrorists, you know? I hadn't thought of that.

You regularly interview people yourself for GQ. What question would you like to be asked?
I love being asked questions I've never been asked before, because I do a lot of talks and you tend to get the same questions again and again and again. That's the first time I've been asked, "How would you feel if somebody took your ideas and used them for evil?" So that made me think.

I'll tell you the question I get asked the most: At Labour Party events it's, "Why don't you stand as an MP?" I also still get quite a lot of questions about Tony and what I think his legacy will be. But I like the left-field questions.

Is House of Cards' Francis Underwood a winner?
Definitely. I put Kevin [Spacey] in the book because of the Netflix story of innovation. It was really interesting, the fact that Kevin and David Fincher refused to do a pilot [for House of Cards]. They said to all the networks, "We're not doing a pilot because pilots are shit. Pilots basically force you to truncate everything and put the whole thing into 50 minutes, and we're just not going to do it." And Netflix were the only ones who said, "OK, right, we'll just pay what you want."

So Francis Underwood is a winner. However, here's an interesting thing: Is Lance Armstrong a winner?

He was...
So Lance Armstrong won a lot, but there's a great quote in the last chapter, in an interview with a runner called Haile Gebrselassie. He says, "Lance Armstrong's got a winning mindset, but he's a big loser, man." He's basically saying he's lost his reputation, and you can't win if you lose your reputation.

So Francis Underwood is a winner now... but President Nixon was a winner for a while, so I suspect Francis may come to a sticky end.

You said you're asked a lot about Tony Blair. If you were running Miliband's campaign, what would you advise him?
Well, there's only ten weeks to go. If you look at this through an objective, strategy/tactics prism, the objective is to win, and the strategy has to be related to what Labour's wanting to do in power, so I think his best strategy is being absolutely upfront about change, because that's how he came to lead the party. He basically said, "Of all the people standing, I'm the one who's going to offer the most change." Now he's got to do the same with the country. He's got to have people feeling that he's more on their side than that of the people at the top, which is where the Tories are. But then you've got to really get back to the point with teamship, energy, fight. There's not long to go; they've got to be out there more, and they've got to be far more aggressive in taking the fight forwards.

Are you a winner?
Well, I've won things, and I've helped to win things, and I definitely have a winning mindset—but I also lose things, and I've had setbacks and difficulties. I think the reason I wrote the book is not to say, "Look at me, I'm a winner," but to show I think I understand those things that people need to know to win, and this is why, at the end, what people say about you doesn't matter that much. It matters a little bit, but not that much.

Yeah, you use a Harry S. Truman quote in the book, which is fitting here: "It's amazing what you can succeed in if you don't care who gets the credit."
Yeah, I love that.

Is that applicable to you?
I think so, yeah. I have a big ego—I really have. But I genuinely am a team player.

But, to serve that ego, you were also credited as being the "master of spin."
When I was doing the job, I think the media changed fundamentally. It changed in scale, so the media age became a reality—24-hour news, social media—and it became much more focused on the means of communication. So I think that's the reason we copped it like we did.

So the role of being the publicity guy changed?
Totally. In the modern world you have to communicate, and you have to communicate on your own terms.

And it seemed you also got more publicity than previous press officers.
Yeah. I remember Andy [Rawnsley] at The Observer saying to me, "You're probably too interesting." I said, "Well, I'm just doing my job." And he said, "Yeah, but most people in politics don't have a backstory of a drinking problem, they don't have a backstory of a breakdown." I think most people do have a backstory of some sort, but that's what he felt.

Also, I was the one who was seeing the media all the time. You know, twice a day, they all came into the briefing room, and I think they elevated me as a way of elevating themselves. That's my theory.

That kind of works. And then they created a character who's a comical version of you.
Yeah, Malcolm Tucker. Do you like him?

I'm not sure I'd like to work for him, but he's very good at swearing. How similar are you to him?
Well, he's a comic character, but I think... I think the idea of wanting control is real, but I didn't want control for me; I didn't want to control the agenda because I wanted to control the agenda. I wanted to control the agenda because that was supposed to help Tony Blair win elections, and then, I hoped, be an effective prime minister. That's what it was about. It was never about me saying, "Look at me, I control the agenda."

Are there any current politicians who you see as having a bit of a Machiavellian streak?
I think Boris Johnson is quite Machiavellian. I don't think what you see is what you get. You see all this sort of pose-y bumbling and eccentricity, but I think that, actually, he's quite a right-wing politician who's desperate to get himself a lot of power.

Who is Machiavellian? The ones they've always talked about are me and Peter Mandelson, aren't they?

Do you think there's any truth in that?
You know, I must admit, I did like it when somebody—it was David Starkey, I think—said that Hilary Mantel's [fictional Thomas] Cromwell was basically Alastair Campbell with an axe. Then Jonathan Price, who played Cardinal Wolsey, did an interview where he said he had me in his mind when he was playing it. I thought that was quite cool. To be both Cromwell and Wolsey—now that is Machiavellian.

I don't feel Machiavellian, but I know I can be. I mean, I've done things that people describe as Machiavellian.

Yeah?
Yeah, of course I have. Everybody does.

Would you say that Peter Mandelson is Machiavellian?
I think we both have traits, but I think we both have values as well. "Machiavellian" has become something of an insult, but actually, Cromwell is all about getting things done. What Kevin said in GQ about Francis Underwood being liked because he gets stuff done—there's something in it, you know? In any organization, particularly politics, to get change to happen you sometimes have to do difficult things. That's part of politics. And the media, you know, the media are the biggest manipulators.

You think?
Journalism is more manipulative than it's ever been. Because, if you take the Daily Mail, in most stories there's a fundamental dishonesty, and that can affect policy. Like if you look at the debate on immigration, it's just... I think I'm right in saying that there are more Brits in Germany drawing German benefits than there are Germans in Britain [he's right—according to figures collated by the Guardian, there are almost four times as many], but the whole debate—you know, even Cameron is saying, "We've got to stop Britain being such a top draw for immigrants."

Now, it's true that Britain's a country people want to live in, and that's great. But the whole debate, I think, is skewed to this premise that's set by not just the Daily Mail, but the whole media landscape, and I think most politicians pay far too much heed to the media.

Would they be better off ignoring it altogether?
I don't think you could ignore the media—they make so much noise. But politicians should focus much more on what they themselves say and do, and worry far less about what people say about them, because, ultimately, politicians still have a lot of power. They're scared, though, of facing up to the idea that maybe they have less power [now] than they did.

And they're also scared of social media, right? Tweet a picture of a white van and it suddenly becomes a huge deal. Do you think politics has become a bit silly in that respect?
A lot of it has become silly, yeah, but I still think politics is terribly important, and I think it's still how changes for the better are made. If you look at a lot of good things in the world—women's rights, racial equality, sexual equality, the stuff I'm doing now on mental health—all the big campaigns involve politics.

The silliness has always been there, by the way, but now—with the dumbed down, downmarket media—I think what it means is that the stuff that used to be a diary story, you now see on the BBC, because they feel they've got to take people to this downmarket center of gravity.

Finally, in the book, you often talk about "making the weather." What do you mean by that?
Setting the agenda, being one of the forces around which others gravitate. So Farage is an example. Or Alex Salmond in the referendum. If you look at the media, I hate to say it, but the Mail make the weather. There was a time when the Sun made the weather more. You'd say, at the moment, because the Telegraph did that sting with Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, that they were making the weather for a day or two.

I would say, within Europe at the moment, Angela Merkel makes the weather more than anybody. Russell Brand makes the weather. He says things that command space and attention, and others make space around it.

I hope my book makes the weather.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alastair Campbell's new book, Winners: And How They Succeed, is available to buy now.

Follow Hope on Twitter and visit T-Bone's website for more of his photo work.