David Miliband said yesterday that foreign governments, and opposition parties, found it odd in the extreme that Britain’s Conservatives were actively campaigning against Tony Blair becoming the first ‘President of Europe’.
However TB may be seen at home, where he divides opinion strongly, among the political classes in most countries he is seen as a winner, and as someone capable of managing and delivering change, and communicating the process of change well.
It has been noticeable, for example, how much the new Japanese government, formed by the Democratic Party of Japan, has been studying the Blair government as they make the transition from Opposition to a first term in power, committed to a major programme of reform.
As someone who worked closely with TB over some years, I have found myself in the unexpected position of being much in demand by the Japanese media, and print below an interview which has just appeared in the Nikkei [Nihon Keizai Shimbum], their Financial Times equivalent. The Mr Ozawa referred to is DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, who I saw when he visited London recently to study our system of government, and in particular to examine how we went about managing change.
1. How important is the role of communications in modern politics?
The development of the media age means anyone constantly being defined in the public eye has to be strategic in their communications. Communications strategy cannot be devised wholly separately from policy development and implementation, but must be a consideration throughout.
2.The Blair government was popular but at the same time criticized as a populist regime with spin doctors. How do you view these criticisms?
With a mixture of annoyance, scepticism and indifference, and some recognition that we were too slow to see how the issue of spin was developing as a problem. That being said, the real spin doctors in Britain are the journalists, owners and editors with an agenda, reporters paid to follow that agenda, and a culture of negativity designed to paint politics in a bad light. We had a fair media wind in the early days but that quickly changed and I think it is to the government’s great credit that despite the culture of media negativity we achieved a great deal and maintained sufficient popular support to win three successive general elections.
3. With the Labour party seen as losing its support how can the government revitalize itself?
By defending our record properly, by attacking our opponents better and by showing that on matters of substance and policy, we have better ideas than our opponents. This has the merit of truth. The Conservatives are trying to make the election about presentation not policy.
4. There seems to be fewer differences between Labour and the Conservative party than ever before. How do you see the future of the two party system in the UK?
There are enormous differences, not least in the different approaches to the economy, public services, welfare, the constitution. There are immense differences on Europe. It is true the scale of difference is perhaps less than when Europe’s politics was defined by a battle to the death between capitalism and comminism, which ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But there remain big differences.
5.In your meeting with Mr. Ozawa, you emphasized the importance of “speed” in implementing policies promised during the campaign. Why is this? How long does it take till the public loses interest in the new government?
The public will always be fairly interested in what the government is doing. The point I made is that momentum is important. Some of the most significant policy changes we made were early after our first win in 97 – bank of England independence, devolution, the minimum wage, the new deal on jobs. Also Tony Blair decided early on to make peace in Northern Ireland a priority. We established some clear strategic themes early on and then tried to work to those priorities. Perhaps we could have done even more earlier on.
6. How does a new government prioritize its new policies? Where should the focus be?
It should be on the key promises made to get there. For us that meant showing we could be trusted on the economy, public services, introducing promises made on changes to the Constitution, and a new approach in Europe. Setting priorities and making sure they are understood is a key aspect of leadership.
7.What kind of publicity strategy did you advise? What must they avoid?
I emphasised that Japan’s political and media culture is different, but that the golden rule of communications for me is to be clear about objectives, work first on the strategy to meet them, and only then think about all the tactical considerations.
8.What was Mr. Ozawa interested in? What kind of questions did he ask? How did you answer them?
He and his team wanted to know how we made the transition from opposition to government. They were very interested in practicalities, not least of how to manage the permanent civil service. I tried as best I could to explain what we did and I hope it had some relevance to them as they make a similar transition.
@ Alastair Campbell worked for Tony Blair as spokesman and communications director from 1994 to 2003 and was also communications director of Labour’s 2005 election campaign. His book, The Blair Years, extracts from his diaries, was a Number 1 best-seller