Ex-number 10 comms director Alastair Campbell discusses New Labour, pensions policy, and hard Brexit
The government of Tony Blair laid down much of the pensions landscape we are familiar with today. In the early 2000’s, New Labour introduced the Pensions Regulator and Pension Protection Fund, and set the ball rolling on auto-enrolment, among other achievements.
As Blair’s chief press secretary and later director of communications, Alastair Campbell, had the inside view on these developments.
“It was always up there as a central issue for Number 10 and Number 11, without necessarily having a high profile,” he says. “The Chancellor and Prime Minister were very involved because there was a strategic purpose that was being driven from the centre, and also because there was enormous potential for it to go wrong.”
Changing demographics meant pensions was going to become incredibly important, and potentially even more complex
Campbell, who will be speaking at Workplace Pensions Live in May, says there was always a keen sense that retirement policy was moving up the agenda fast. “Changing demographics meant pensions was going to become an incredibly important, and potentially even more complex, part of the debate,” he explains.
But this has not always been reflected by the attention given to pensions inside and outside Westminster. “Pensioners have an extraordinarily powerful position in the political debate and I think you saw that in the last election and in the Brexit debate,” says Campbell. “But pensions policy is something that struggles to get as high up the agenda as it should.”
He believes that the coalition government that followed the Labour administration make some good moves in the pensions field – not least pushing through the former government’s auto-enrolment project. Campbell says it’s clear the coalition pensions minister Steve Webb had a long-term interest in the area had some success in pushing his agenda. But he adds that the downgrading of the role to undersecretary of state in the current regime “doesn’t seem like a very good idea”.
Campbell understands the importance of gaining and keeping the public’s trust. Convincing the electorate that Labour could be trusted to govern after 18 years out of office was his primary task before the 1997 election. An erosion of trust was also a key factor in in the Labour government’s failure to hold onto government in 2010.
I understand that the trust issue became a problem for us, because of Iraq, and tuition fees and general wear and tear
“I live in the real world and I understand that the trust issue became a problem for us, because of Iraq, and tuition fees and the general wear and tear of being in government,” says Campbell. “But at a deeper, cultural level this trust thing is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. It was a startling moment in the Brexit debate when Michael Gove said people had had enough of experts – once that becomes a world view, who do you believe?”
And Campbell thinks this general erosion of trust has affected pensions and the wider financial services industry more than most sectors. As a former-employee of Robert Maxwell, he appreciates this is partly down to examples of terrible behaviour.
But how can a sector deal with this kind of poor reputation? “By making a decision that it’s a problem, by recognising that the only way to deal with the problem is to admit it, and by putting together a strategy to get out of the problem.”
Without coming together as an industry, and carrying out this kind of honest self-appraisal, Campbell says the pensions sector will struggle to get its message across to a sceptical population.
This collapse of trust in institutions was most graphically illustrated by the vote to leave the European Union last summer. Campbell was a high-profile remain campaigner and has been outspoken in his criticisms of the government’s handling of the process since the referendum.
It was a wretched campaign on both sides and a lot of the debate we should have had then, we are only having now
“It was a wretched campaign on both sides and a lot of the debate we should have had then, we are only having now,” he says. “In those circumstances, I don’t think it is sensible for the government or opposition to say that anything is ruled out for ever.
“This is partly me having been on the losing side, hoping that argument can be revisited. But that would only happen if it became if there was clear evidence that people felt this wasn’t what they voted for or that Theresa May was taking this in an unexpected direction.”
Campbell warns against the “shrill message” that the will of the people is clear and emphatic. He believes interpreting the referendum result, and negotiating the manner of the country’s exit, requires “leadership, statesmanship, and debate in parliament”.
“But I think it’s highly unlikely that’s the way it’s going to go,” he concludes. “I think they’re hell bent on a hard Brexit.”