It is an irresistible irony that a spin doctor has lost his position for telling the truth. But for Alastair Campbell, former comms guy for prime minister Tony Blair, that is where we are.
On the night of the European elections, ‘People’s Vote’ Campbell, to use his Twitter name, told the BBC he had voted for the Liberal Democrats, citing Labour’s lack of a coherent policy on Britain’s exit from the EU and its lacklustre campaigning in the elections.
In short order Bad Al was turfed out of the party he had until now always voted for. “Them’s the rules” was the rough explanation of Dawn Butler, shadow women and equalities secretary.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader and longtime Campbell foe, later added: “It’s a question of what Mr Campbell said two days before the election, in which he apparently appeared to be supporting the Liberal Democrats, and whilst he is a member of the Labour party that is clearly not acceptable. But we look forward to hearing what Alastair has to say about this and look forward to his support in the future.”
The spat has understandably invited comparisons with the Labour party’s slowness in dealing with antisemitism allegations. To take one prominent example, it took the party two years to expel former Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker after she we was suspended. Campbell’s ousting took days.
Adding to the complexity is that other party members have said they also did a Campbell and voted for other parties. And the spin doctor himself in an article for remoaner paper the New European, said that “there are people in head office who voted Lib Dem, MPs who voted Change UK, peers who voted Green”.
The loss of faith in Labour’s Brexit policy is further evinced by YouGov polling, which suggests only 45% of Labour party members backed their own party at the European elections. (The problem is even starker for the Tories, with only a fifth of members backing their party in the same elections, but that is a separate mater.)
All that said, the rules banning Labour party members from supporting other parties are clear. What is noteworthy about the squabble is that it highlights the deep tribalism in Labour that has propped Corbyn up, even as his enemies within Labour have done everything they can to oust him.
Campbell’s claim to the BBC that he is “still in the Labour party as far as I’m concerned” is one example of this. John Prescott, a former deputy prime minister, went further on Twitter, saying: “Like millions of others, I voted Labour in the Euros. Just as I have in every election for the past sixty years. Never voted for another party. And I never will.”
“My party, right or wrong” is as stupid a slogan as the country equivalent. And this love of Labour as a party has been a problem since Corbyn took over the party. Despite their misgivings about Corbyn’s leadership, moderate MPs have been reluctant to decamp elsewhere for reasons that go beyond pragmatism and the difficulty of setting up a rival group.
Neil Kinnock, a former Labour leader, told a meeting of the party’s MPs back in August 2016: “Dammit this is our party! I’ve been in it for 60 years! I’m not leaving it to anybody!”
Why not, Kinnock? And why not Campbell, if it comes to it? Labour is sitting out the most urgent question in British politics, to the extent even its membership have abandoned it in elections. Blairites and Labour remainers increasingly look like a lovesick spouse clinging to a failed marriage.
Image based on Alastair Campbell, March 2015 by University of Salford Press