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Politics is high stress psychological work – politicians would benefit from psychological support

Posted on 15 February 2015 | 9:02am

When you write a 450 page book on winners, with a stack of interviews with some of the greatest winners of our time, you can never be quite sure what the papers will go for.

When I sat down to do the first interview with the Sunday Times, I suspected their dream headline would contain the words ‘Miliband’ and ‘loser.’ That was easily avoided – by talking up Ed’s considerable qualities and by emphasizing that I was totally committed to helping Labour win.

Given the proximity to the election it was inevitable the paper would want a political headline for the news pages. And one of the main themes of the book is that politics has a lot to learn from the best of business and the best of elite sport. Both in the book and in the interview I have talked of how top sports stars now routinely have psychological support, though their work is physical, whereas politicians tend to shy away from having such support when their work is mainly intellectual, mental.

Cue headline ‘Every MP needs a shrink – Alastair Campbell.’ I do not complain. I was a journalist myself for a long time and I know that headline quotes often summarize in dramatic fashion what is actually said. Namely that 100 all politicians would benefit if they had psychological support.

The Sunday Times quotes me accurately as saying politicians are deterred by the fear of headlines like ‘Cameron has a shrink’.

Anyway guess what headline the Telegraph used when they lifted the story? ‘Ed Miliband needs a shrink, says Alastair Campbell.’

That is straightforwardly dishonest and deliberately misleading. But all of a piece with where much of our media is right now – anything which can be twisted to damage Ed is duly twisted.

But as I said yesterday I think Labour can take heart from this. It shows how scared the Tories are and how desperate their supporters are becoming, not least because of Ed’s leadership role on the issues that led to the Leveson Inquiry.

I do genuinely think that people in senior positions in politics, business and indeed any walk of life would benefit if they properly understood the fragility of the human mind and did what they could to strengthen it. The book focuses on many stories of sportsmen and women who work as hard at the mental as at the physical. And when it came to high pressure moments like giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry I know I benefited from knowing and using Andy McCann, one of the country’s top sports psychologists.

The book also has a section on the benefits of mental instability and the oft seen link between mental health problems and hyper achievement – Churchill, Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King. MLK was a manic depressive. His mania gave him the energy and drive he needed to lead. His depression gave him the empathy and understanding to hold together a very disparate team.

Teamship figures large in the book, again with sport supreme, and I do believe if New Labour had been as good at Teamship as team-building, we would still be there.

As for which extract the Sunday Times went for, interestingly it focuses neither on politics not sport, but on the Queen. As I went through all the various qualities and characteristics required of winners – strategy, leadership, teamship, resilience, innovation, boldness, adaptability, crisis management – it dawned on me that she had the lot.

I am still at heart a Republican. I still see the Monarchy as the pinnacle of a class system that has held Britain back and is doing so again now the Bullingdon boys are back in charge. But she is a class act, one of the undisputed long term winners of our lifetime. And I wish my Mum – born in the same year as the Queen but who died last year – was here to read a book in which I describe the Queen as a winner. Our arguments about Royalty as a child were what fired up my politics in the first place.

  • Dave Simons

    So someone who, by sheer accident of birth, is one of the most rich, most privileged, most job-secure, most advantaged and most protected citizens in this nation, is lauded for possessing all the various qualities and characteristics required of winners! That’s how it’s done then – not with hard work, merit and training, not with ‘charisma’, not with the bitter experience of failure – but by getting born in the right place! Let’s all queue up to be born in the right place if we get another incarnation!

    • Michele

      Oh for heaven’s sake stop being so bitter.
      Can you imagine what it’s like to have lived your life in a goldfish bowl and have no choice about your career and no satisfaction of just really owning something?
      Most rich? Really?
      Just imagine the formalities.
      I own things and daresay you do too, the Queen doesn’t.
      Do you imagine the fear of snipers is something it’s good to live with? I’d want to chuck the whole lot up in the air if I was her, she doesn’t own her life but knows she’s clueless about how to cope in other places and knows she’d have no idea what to do if she stood down.

      It must be absolutely debilitating, like being remotely controlled.
      She must have been so shocked about how little she knew about life in the post-Diana Spencer period, it’s amazing that people could have been so cruel (doubtless very very few of them had endured the shock of RTA bereavement).

      • Dave Simons

        Bitter? Who’s bitter? I’m merely trying to be helpful! I see myself as, how can I put it, a – well, ‘liberator’. Yeah! I want to liberate the queen and her oppressed family from what you call the debilitating effects of being remotely controlled. I want them all to be able to lead normal lives, liberated from the heavy burden of formalities like Christmas speeches, opening Parliaments, sniping pheasants, attending banquets, shaking hands with dictators, etc. I want them to have the choice of being like you and me, honoured components of a fragile biosphere on a rock in space, destiny uncertain and unknown. I think the queen would sit comfortably at an Asda check-out, able to be spoken to before she opens her mouth. I’m sure she’d find us plebs more interesting and congenial than she ever could have imagined, cushioned by toadies.

        • Michele


  • KDouglas

    Alastair, you shouldn’t be giving the monarchy any ground. I think it’s a great shame that the Blair government didn’t leave them with enough rope to hang themselves. But you leapt in with all that People’s Princess stuff and saved their arses. Wasn’t that your strategy rather than theirs?

    • Michele

      Why don’t you write the scenario of what would have happened then till now if the Queen had been kicked out after Diana’s death?
      Should the UK really been turned upside down by a few dirty-minded hacks and camera-wielding snoops and a drunk driver and ooooh let’s not forget the billionaire publishers eh?

  • Ehtch

    Just saw Kirstie Allsopp, a daughter of an establishment Baron, on C4, doing a cookery programme this time, rather than a crap property programme, talking like a secondary school kid again. I spewed, again.