Alastair Campbell on why politics matters to children

Tony Blair’s former spokesman tells Lisa Salmon politics touches every part of young people’s lives and he’s keen to get them involved.

Explaining politics to kids: Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell (PA) Explaining politics to kids: Alastair Campbell

Politics isn’t usually something most children and young people enjoy, or even understand. But Alastair Campbell is on a mission to change that.

Campbell, who was former prime minister Tony Blair’s spokesman in the late Nineties and early 2000s, believes young people have become so disengaged with politics that the future of democracy could be at risk.

He says: “I worry that the cynicism about politics is so deep that unless we challenge it, I think we’ve got a problem with the future of democracy, I really do. We have a very cynical and apathetic electorate turning away from politics, and unless we reverse that trend with the younger generations, I think democracy’s in peril.

“The key to this is political education – in people taking politics more seriously, understanding why it matters, and for younger people to understand that it can be really good fun.”

Campbell, 67, is aware persuading children and young people that politics is fun could be a hard nut to crack, but he’s using his exceptional political knowledge to convince them in his two new books – Why Politics Matters, which is aimed at primary school-aged children, and Alastair Campbell Talks Politics, for older children and young adults.

Alastair Campbell Talks Politics
Alastair Campbell Talks Politics

The publication of both books has been brought forward so they’re available by the General Election.

But how do you make a book about politics fun and interesting for a child?

Speaking from France, where he says he’s been “dragged into the election”, Campbell explains: “First of all, I don’t talk down to them. How I’ve made the teenagers’ book, I hope, interesting is that everything’s based on a Q&A – what is politics, why should we care about politics, what skills do you need to be a politician? I’ve tried to make it very clear, very simple.”

But although the books are aimed at children and young people, Campbell suspects adults might gain some interesting political knowledge by reading them too.

“When it was first announced,” he recalls, “I got a message from a Labour MP who’s been there a long time who said ‘I’ve read that you’ve written another book and this one’s going to explain how politics and Parliament works – can you send it to me, because I still haven’t got a ******* clue’!

“I think adults will read it. I’ve made it very neutral – there’s no ‘Vote Labour’ in it, it’s very politically neutral. But I hope parents think children do need to know about politics, and maybe this will help them.”

He believes that an important way to get children and young people engaged with politics is to help them understand how it relates to them and their day-to-day lives.

“I’ve been in dozens and dozens of schools in the last few years, and my sense is they get properly engaged when you can explain to them how it relates to their lives,” he says.

He uses the example of the recent teachers’ strike to illustrate his point – he says when he’s asked them about it, children will often have strong opinions about the strike which will spark a debate. “And then the next time any of them says they’re not interested in politics, I’ll say, ‘Were you interested in the debate about your teachers going on strike? Because that’s politics’.

“That’s how I try to make it relevant.”

He continues: “They ask some great questions – one that really threw me today was ‘Which person in all the world right now would you like to sit down and talk about politics with?’. I was probably over-influenced by the fact that they were young people, but I ended up saying Taylor Swift, because I want to know if she’s aware of how much political power she has by being such a phenomenon.

“When I go into schools, there’s way more awareness than they get credit for. They’ve got a take on it all.”

A father of three grown-up children himself, Campbell is well aware that young people are more likely to not bother to vote in elections – a 2022 UK parliament  report  said 60% of 18-25 year olds think politicians don’t care, and only 54% of young people aged 18-24 voted in the 2019 election, the lowest of any age group.

But he wholeheartedly agrees with Sir Keir Starmer’s belief that the voting age should be reduced to 16.

“I’m totally in favour of it,” he declares, “and I have been for a long time. It’s one of the few things Tony Blair and I disagree about. I support lowering the voting age – I think one of the best things about the Scottish independence referendum was that 16 and 17-year-olds could vote, and it changed the nature of the debate.

“I would also back compulsory voting, and I think there should be proper political education in all schools, including primary schools. I think kids can cope with that.”

He stresses that when they’re old enough to vote it’s important that young people use their vote, no matter how disenchanted with politics they are.

“What I would say to young people is one of the reasons you’re probably cynical about politics is because politicians spend too much time worrying about older people, and one of the reasons is because they know older people vote.

“But by not voting, young people are sending the message ‘carry on as usual’, so they’re actually becoming part of the problem.

2AYY43E Alastair Campbell attends the annual Edinburgh TV Festival at the EICC for “In shaping the news”.Credit: Euan Cherry
2AYY43E Alastair Campbell attends the annual Edinburgh TV Festival at the EICC for “In shaping the news”.Credit: Euan Cherry (Alamy Stock Photo)

“If politicians knew every young person was going to vote, it would probably change the nature of the debate. Sunak wouldn’t have kicked off with national service and pensions, he’d have kicked off with something to do with mental health or education or whatever.

“Everything young people care about has politics attached to it. They can make a difference, their voice does count.”

Addressing the potential young readers of his books, he adds: “When I was in primary school, I didn’t have a clue what politics was. If you’d told me I would work in 10 Downing Street, and be involved in big decisions that would change the country and the world, I’d have wondered what planet you were from.

“But that happened. It could happen to you too. In fact, you could even become prime minister. Someone has to do it – why not you?”

Why Politics Matters
Why Politics Matters

Little Experts: Why Politics Matters by Alastair Campbell is published by Red Shed on July 4, priced £9.99.

Alastair Campbell Talks Politics is published by Red Shed, priced £9.99. Available now.