Ex-politicians giving their opinions on current affairs isn’t new – filling stadiums to do it certainly is.

Political podcasts seem to have taken off in recent years. The frontrunner is far-and-away the confusingly titled ‘The Rest is Politics’ (TRIP), hosted by former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and ex Tory MP Rory Stewart. The ‘pod’ will be recorded live at the O2 Arena this autumn – a venue not typically home to niche political figures.

I promise, the show is surprisingly compelling.

Campbell and Stewart discuss policy at length, often with a global focus, and an eye on their past experiences in politics – providing an inside view usually restricted to lengthy and dragging political memoirs. Campbell and Stewart have managed to stay relevant in a way ex-politicos typically aren’t; the pair are now more well known than ever.

TRIP is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s no surprise that there are an absurd number of popular political podcasts, each with hundreds of episodes and dozens of ‘distinguished’ guests. These fit quite neatly into a few ‘genres’ that might help explain the oversaturation of political podcasting.

The success of TRIP has led to what could generously be called ‘inspired’ podcasts – ‘Political Currency’ sees ‘frenemies’ George Osborne and Ed Balls, former Tory Chancellor and Labour Shadow Chancellor respectively, mostly fail to capture the magic that makes TRIP so listenable. Both podcasts emphasise that parties should take the ‘centre-ground’ and decry the ‘hateful’, polarised, and soundbite-focused political landscape. These podcasts are either the most interesting or most irritating listens, due to the potentially droll conversation, or because you prefer to take your politics radical, and roll your eyes at the milk-and-two-sugars approach of ‘centrist dads’ Stewart and Campbell.

It’s popularity, considering that the format is nothing hugely exciting, is difficult to explain. Past the pitch-perfect pairing, it might be due to a lack of public trust in politics. Neither Sunak nor Starmer, both pitching themselves as technocrats, crack positive trust or approval ratings. A lack of political ‘heroes’ in Parliament creates a vacuum that political podcasts fill. Hearing what could be, what should be, is less dejecting than watching seven party representatives snip at each other across a BBC stage. These days, the best politicians, aren’t politicians.

The least new format is two or three journalists from a major newspaper summing up the week in politics – most are named some variation of ‘politics’ and ‘week’. The appeal here is to people who read major newspapers, or those who would but prefer to have their news in audio format. The popularity here is not hard to explain. Every broadsheet has good reason to put out a podcast – less and less are actually reading their articles. Millennials (now the largest demographic in the UK) aren’t likely to be found pouring over a copy of the Financial Times.

The News Agents offers an interesting spin. Three journalists who resigned in frustration at the BBC’s impartiality policy present a show with the look of a typical broadsheet podcast, but with the relaxed attitude ‘new media’ allows. Really, it competes with TRIP in the 24-45 audience bracket.  

A very different form of ‘new media’ are political podcasts with a clear agenda – some even quite radical, usually left. The hosts are young, the audiences younger – PoliticsJOE (left-leaning), Pod Save the UK (comical anger), and Novara media (socialist) are independent media organisations running political podcasts that (seemingly) exist to take shots at centrists. YouTube, the ‘only platform that counts’ for under-25s, is the medium. Jokes, satire, and anger make for an engaging listen – even if you don’t agree, they’re worth a go, perhaps just to see what the ‘hard’ left are up to post-Corbyn. Stewart from TRIP made an appearance on Novara, his positive comments on Corbyn clipped into oblivion – the bias isn’t hidden.

The others sound quite dull in comparison. Many, some even at best, are. Yet I cannot stop listening. Neither can (admittedly, a small section of) the public. Podcasts are not novel concept; TRIP itself is a spinoff of the Gary Lineker-owned The Rest is History. Yet only recently have podcasts captured the politically minded; ‘serious’ politics is usually something that happens on TV and in newspapers.

A keen focus on policy, a diversity of opinion, and civil debate, are good for the political sphere. Its easy to get wrapped up in the ‘characters’ of politics in general – with some luck, podcasts won’t go the same way. The appeal of TRIP and like podcasts isn’t the hosts as people (Campbell and Stewart aren’t exactly popular, and certainly not ‘populists’ – a movement they frequently criticise). Most come to listen to anecdotes from the past – often concerning their ‘distinguished’ colleagues, or otherwise (‘human hand grenade’ ex-PM Liz Truss is frequently brought up). Campbell likes to refers to Mosses Naim’s ‘three Ps’ undermining democracy: polarisation, populism and post-truth – perhaps another ‘p’, podcasts, can fight this.

These podcasts usually attract top-level politicians; a longer discussion, often two hours, offers much that a TV interview or debate can’t. With so many platforms competing for attention, media that offers a longer discussion of issues, shunning the usual fare of political catchphrases and branding, is an attractive concept.

The New York Times sums it up; ‘What Comes After a Career in Politics? In Britain, a Podcast.’ Why bother writing a memoir? You can probably find two or three ex-MPs to talk your ear off about anything: it’s not clear they’re truly done with politics.

Podcasts are now just another aspect of the political sphere. An ‘inside view’ from ex politicians who might be accused of backseat driving. They aren’t exactly fun, but inside jokes and a conversational tone are a nice break from the usual suspects. If the news media is guilty of one thing, it’s making politics a drag.

It’s hard to feel there isn’t an overabundance; can we really bear more politics, straight into the ear canal? I only listen to a few; I don’t imagine anyone is sitting down and going through every new podcast at the end of the workday. There’s already enough variance to appeal to anyone’s political sensibilities.

If things go as they are, the podcast-ification is far from done. The next step logical step is current politicians doing podcasts. Many already feature as guests – podcasts are part of the ‘media circuit’ MPs must endure. Nigel Farage podcasting from the backbenches of the Commons is unfortunately not off the table.