Alastair Campbell: walking with winners
Why should we win? The political strategist admits that’s one question he never asks
Dividing people into winners and losers might seem like weirdly reductive behaviour, but Alastair Campbell was once the British Labour Party’s director of communication and strategy, where he thrived on reduction. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
On the cover of Alastair Campbell’s new book, Winners and How They Succeed, there’s a big number “1” made from the names of the subjects and interviewees within. They include Angela Merkel, Floyd Mayweather, Nelson Mandela, José Mourinho, Narendra Modi, Haile Gebrselassie, Anna Wintour and Bono.
Who got into that big “1” caused some discussion. Disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong nearly got in there. “There was a conversation with the publisher,” says Campbell. “Do I put his name on the cover? If you’re talking about a winning mindset he’s got it. But I’ve got a quote from Gebrselassie saying, ‘He’s got a winning mindset but he’s a big loser, man.’”
Putin was an option. “He’s a winner,” admits Campbell. “But I haven’t put Putin on the cover because his reputation in the world is terrible.”
Rupert Murdoch could have been there. “Is Rupert Murdoch a winner or loser?” he asks “If you look at his bank balance and his power, he’s a winner, but if you assess his reputation he’s a loser. So Murdoch’s in the book but not on the cover.”
Other people made the big “1” without any hesitation. “Tony Blair is a winner without a doubt,” he says.
Dividing people into winners and losers might seem like weirdly reductive behaviour, but Alastair Campbell was once the British Labour Party’s director of communication and strategy, where he thrived on reduction. This book is based on interviews with, as well as a lifetime of interaction with, winning business people, politicians, artists and athletes. With the help of his data-analysing, poker-playing son Rory (“a chip off the old block”), Campbell profiles winners, delights in their aphorisms, adds personal anecdotes and touts a three-point acronymic for winning: OST (“objectives”, “strategies” and “tactics”).
It’s a strangely uncritical book. He likes nearly all of his interviewees and feels they all deserve their success. He spoke to no “losers.” When we talk, Campbell is in an energised and energising mood, clearly pumped up by ideas of how to win.
So he’s a bit surprised by my recurring question: “Why win?” Surely, I say, winning is often just the means to an end. This book seems to endorse it as an end in itself. “Yeah, but it’s called Winners and How They Succeed,” says Campbell. “It’s about how to win.”
In the part of the book where he outlines his objective, strategy and tactics with New Labour, the objective is often simply “to win”. Should the objective not be to achieve something in government?
“But you can’t do that without winning,” he says.
Beyond a will to win, he says, the party had values and he defends them. “People say New Labour was just a pale imitation of the Tories,” he says. “I never bought that. We fundamentally believe in equality of opportunity. We fundamentally believe that a society that just takes care of the people at the top is a weak society not a strong society . . . we wanted to extend wealth. But the thing both of us felt – Tony as a politician and me as a journalist – is that there were too many people in the Labour party who thought there was almost a purity about losing. If you want to put your ideas into practice in politics you have to win.”
He quotes Haile Gebrselassie: “‘If you can’t win what’s the point?’ That gets the mindset to me in a nutshell – If you can’t win, what is the point?”
‘Played three, won three’
He still sees politics in win/lose terms. “People tweet, ‘What the fuck do you know about winning?’ and I just say, ‘Played three, won three.’” And whenever he meets Cameron, who failed to get a majority, “I always say, ‘You’ve never won an election yet.’”
How does Tony Blair’s current bad reputation fit with “winning”? “Sometimes I look at the way Tony Blair and John Major are perceived,” he says. “We battered John Major. We got a landslide against him and he now goes around the place probably making a load of money and nobody questions it. [With Blair] there’s some weird psychological thing with British media – they just want to kill him.”
Of course, Blair did lead Britain into a disastrous, unpopular war. Was going to war in Iraq an instance where they lost?
“I think the jury is out on that . . . In terms of the campaign to get rid of Saddam – that was effective and it worked and I think at the time it was necessary. What people want to say is that everything bad going on in the Middle East at the moment is a consequence of what we did in Iraq. It’s not. It’s much, much more complicated than that.”
In the book, Campbell talks about the importance of visualisation, of painting a picture of an outcome to motivate people to go there. I suggest that visualisation can take you the wrong way. I mention the allegedly “sexed-up” September Dossier which claimed, inaccurately, that Saddam Hussein had WMDs he could make ready for use within 45 minutes (an earlier “dodgy dossier” turned out to have been plagiarised).
“That’s probably not a good one to discuss for the simple reason it’s become so controversial and mythologised,” he says. “At the time we published [the dossier], people said there wasn’t much new in it. It’s only in retrospect, after the whole row with the BBC, that people said it was the case for war. It was never the case for war. It was actually quite sober and measured.”
He changes the subject to the importance of visualisation on the campaign trail. I ask how winning fits into a more “socialist”’ view of the world, and he talks about “teamship” and tells a story about Brian O’Driscoll. At another point I ask whether Blair’s reputational damage came from New Labour’s drive to win at all costs. “I don’t think so,” he says.
Later I wonder, more generally, whether the focus on winning and the cult of leadership might be destructive. “I think that’s possible,” says Campbell. “[In the book] I quoted a thing that Clive Woodward said: ‘You want more than one obsessive but you don’t want a whole team of obsessives.’”
He refers to an anecdote from the book, in which John F Kennedy asks a cleaner at Nasa what his job was and he said: “‘To put a man on the moon.’ He saw himself as part of a wider team.”
I tell him that it doesn’t ring true for me that Nelson Mandela would have more in common with billionaire businessman Richard Branson, than, say, an activist or a nurse. “But who did Nelson Mandela ask to run that Elders Programme and who was sitting there centre stage at Nelson Mandela’s funeral because he had a lot of respect for him?” he says. “Richard Branson.” He pauses. “Mandela obviously has more in common with the guy in a township than he does with a merchant banker, but if you look at some of the qualities I’m talking about in the book, what do you need to win? You need to have a sense of your objective. You need to know your strategy. You need to fight. You need to be resilient. You need to stay calm in a crisis. These are all things Mandela did and they’re things Willie Walsh did when he was running BA.”
His current worry is that his hallowed winners might turn into losers just in time for his book’s publication. “[India’s prime minister Narendra] Modi lost a byelection the other day and I think, ‘F***, that’s bad.’” He laughs. “Or José Mourinho draws against Burnley and I’m delirious because it was Burnley [Campbell’s team], but I’m hoping he wins the Premier League because that’s good for the book.”
He’s a bad loser, he says. He recently discovered the term “maladaptively competitive” and thinks it fits him perfectly. He recalls a recent Labour fundraiser where raffle-winners got to play on his team in a pub quiz. “I think some of the people were taken aback by how much I wanted to win the bloody quiz,” he says. His team lost. “Sue Nye, who used to work for Gordon [Brown], her team won and at the end of it they all came over to my table and started singing songs at me: ‘Where’s your winners book now?’ and ‘You might have won three elections but you lost the bloody pub quiz.’”
The weird thing is, he didn’t even enjoy winning those elections. “At the time I felt slightly deflated. I felt slightly depressed and I thought, ‘Oh my God, now it’s going to get really tough.’”
He was thinking of the next “win”, he says. Winning is addictive and it’s something he’s thinking of weaning himself off. His partner Fiona Millar regularly says “There’s something wrong with you. You never want to settle down. You never say, ‘I’ve done enough’.”
This all comes back to my earlier question: “why?” Winners makes winning seem joyless and obsessive. But when I ask Campbell “why win?” he’s clear: Winners is a book about how to win. When it comes to why, he says, “I suppose the winning mindset doesn’t even want to ask that question.”
Inspirational quotes from Alastair Campbell’s ‘winners’...
“Even if you aren’t sure of yourself, pretend that you are, because it makes it clearer for everyone else.” – Anna Wintour
“Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” – Floyd Mayweather “I had a very simple objective - survival.” – Bill Clinton
... and the ones Patrick Freyne prefers
“To think that just two years ago I was a small-town mayor of Alaska’s crystal-meth capital, and now I am just one heartbeat away from being president of the United States. It just goes to show that anyone can be president. All you have to do is want it.” – Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live
”Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life.” – Terry Pratchett, Jingo
“No child these days ever gets to hear those all-important, character-building words, “You lost, Bobby. You lost, you’re a loser.”… A lot of these kids never get to hear the truth about themselves until they’re in their twenties, when their boss calls them in and says, “Bobby, clean out your desk and get out of here: you’re a loser.” – George Carlin