ALASTAIR CAMPBELL pleads guilty to creating a ‘tribal Labour’, but says the party now must grow – and not shrink through division.
“Why are you trending on Twitter?” is not the kind of text message you expect when you’re having a few days in the Highlands of Scotland, avoiding the news, trying not to think about politics, generally escaping the world.
It adds to the surprise when you check Twitter to find the answer, and discover that it is for doing something you have done at the same time of year – and tweeted about – for several years, namely play a lament on the bagpipes at the grave of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.
Charles was the MP for the area where, for many years, we have seen in the New Year with family and friends. Our friendship, which dates back to when I was a young journalist and he the youngest MP in parliament, was certainly cemented by the times spent in his home patch.
It was a friendship which easily survived political differences. This was so even at the height of the Iraq War, of which Charles was among the most passionate, principled and effective opponents, and in which I became the focus of considerable political controversy. Charles never wavered in his opposition to the central decision of the Blair government to go to war. But he saw no inconsistency between that, and being able to see that it was possible to think and act differently, honourably. He left the conspiracy theories to others, including Tories whose main criticism in advance had been that we had taken too long to tackle Saddam Hussein, and who then boarded any post-war bandwagon they could. Iain Duncan-Smith and Boris Johnson spring to mind.
Charles’ grave is set in what is surely one of the most beautiful, remote, and secluded, burial grounds in the world, high up a hill, not far from the hamlet of Clunes, with a view – no pun intended – to die for. The air is clean, the acoustic environment for the pipes perfect, and it has become something of a tradition, since his death in 2015, that we walk the dog, we climb the hill, I play a few tunes, Fiona films on the phone, and we send a video to his ex-wife Sarah and son Donald, his sister Isabella in Canada, and his partner at the time of his death, Carole MacDonald, as well as post it on social media.
It has always had a warm response, especially from committed Liberal Democrats pleased to be reminded of a leader who helped win 62 seats in 2005, by some stretch their electoral high water mark. But this year the reaction was of a wholly different order. Hence the question… “why are you trending on Twitter?” The ‘likes’ went into the tens of thousands, views of the video on Twitter alone had passed half a million by bedtime, and were still rising fast in the morning.
Charles trended too, and for longer, despite serious competition from newsworthier hashtags such as #WorldWarThree, #IranWar, #AustraliaOnFire, and top of the lot #Sharon, after climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg changed her social media name in honour of British quiz-show ignorance. He would have chuckled at that one.
The very fact of him trending on Twitter though, dead or alive, would have seen Charles shaking his head, tut-tutting and wondering ‘what on earth is going on with the world?’ (pronounced ‘wurrowled’).
When social media first became a thing, I tried – and failed – to persuade him that he should embrace it, and would be good at it. He did have a Twitter account, eventually. However, he never really got past the “why would anyone care what I had for breakfast?” stage.
A rather more consequential failure concerned the many discussions we had about alcoholism, the disease which eventually killed him, aged 55. On one of our stays up north, he agreed that I could make contact with the residential rehab centre in the Borders which had helped to set my son Calum on the road to sobriety. But cometh the day, came diary pressures, fears about publicity, fears of exploitation by media and political opponents, lack of certainty that the time was right, he never went. We will never know if it would have helped him to conquer, finally, his alcohol problem. But it might have done.
So why such a response this time to my rendition of the Gaelic lament played at his funeral? The overwhelming themes in the comments, which ran into the thousands, fell into two categories. First, how Charles was missed, and how much the country could do with politicians like him right now. Second, the appreciation of the fact that it was possible to have friendships that cross political boundaries. Yes, inevitably, there were a few unpleasant ones in there. I am used to those. But they were, for once, in a tiny minority.
Among the unpleasant ones, inevitably Iraq came up, with some of the critics claiming to know Charles’ mind better than I did. But there was a smattering of comments like the one from someone called Alan Helliwell who said my graveside tribute “was taking your conversion to the Lib Dems a tad too far”. Far more took offence to that one than concurred, but it spoke to a tribalism which is a very real force in politics.
Indeed, ‘tribal’ is a word with which I have often been associated. Tribal Burnley. Tribal Labour. Tribal People’s Vote, until it imploded. Tribal Clan Campbell… a short drive away was Glencoe, scene of an infamous massacre of the MacDonalds in 1692, setting now of a pub, the Clachaig Inn, outside which is the sign “no hawkers or Campbells”. A joke for the tourists, maybe, but, a few years back, I went to the bar to order a round of drinks, and the barman asked “Can you not read?” I’ve not been back!
Tribal Labour is certainly a charge to which I would have pleaded guilty for most of my life. Indeed, though I have never hidden my doubts about either Jeremy Corbyn, or what has come to be called Corbynism, I voted Labour at the general election, and this despite having been expelled from the tribe for voting tactically for the Lib Dems in the European elections.
Even now, as Boris Johnson settles in to a job he probably thinks is his for a decade and more – how else to explain such a long winter holiday when so much was happening in the world, and he had promised to “work night and day”? – I yearn for the Labour Party to become not merely the main force holding him to account, but the political force that replaces him in power.
But to do that, whoever ends up as leader must recognise – and devise strategy accordingly – that the tribe must grow not shrink. The Conservatives have been, historically, the dominant party of government, because the broadly progressive forces have so often been split between the Labour and Liberal traditions. Yet again, in the recent general election, we saw how that split helps the Tories.
Perhaps the big response to my tribute to Charles was the expression of the desire that we should not always see opponents as enemies; that we should never imagine that only one party, let alone one person, has all the answers; that we should strive, in these troubled, divided times, to look for agreement as well as dispute in the way we conduct our politics.
There is so much that the new Labour leader will have to do: oppose Johnson, who will be buoyed by a sizeable majority; lead in the development of ideas, policies and an overall narrative which the public will relate to, understand, and support; restore the trust, and reduce the toxicity, in our politics.
A more open, more mature, less hostile and dismissive approach to those not in or of the Labour tribe – and indeed to those within it who do not much take to cultism – might help with all of the above. Though I don’t have a vote, I do have a voice, and I would be minded to raise it in support of whichever candidate best seems to understand that new approach is needed, as a minimum, if Labour is to recover from the parlous position to which Corbyn has led it.