I’ve always been fascinated by Peter Mandelson.
Those who thought Blair was a decent bloke, good for winning elections, right-wing only because he was led astray by the likes of Mandelson, were wrong. I personally found Blair repellent: shallow, self-obsessed and, actually, not very bright. These are all impressions unintentionally confirmed in this book.
Mandelson, on the other hand, always appeared a much more stylish scumbag: intelligent, and with a genuine understanding of the Labour Party and how to move it rightwards. New Labour is his achievement.
His autobiography is interesting for several reasons. Perhaps most important, it confirms how close the left came to driving the right out of the party in 1981, and how, even much later, the hard New Labourite right was really only a tiny clique, dragging others along on the promise of election victories.
It also reveals the ongoing fear of the left felt among the Labour Party establishment; when Mandelson relays his time as a dissident councillor in Ted Knight’s Lambeth, there is none of the humour which accompanies his later entanglements with opponents in the centre or the right of the party. His visceral dislike of Knight’s policies comes through strongly, even 30 years later.
Mandelson nearly joined the SDP at the time of Tony Benn’s deputy leadership campaign in 1981; “I believe that a Benn victory would have led to a kind of tectonic political shift. The moderate, sensible centre of Labour... could very well have left en masse for the Social Democrats, and reformed the Labour Party in that shell.” This confirms how close the left came to reshaping the political landscape. With a much larger chunk of the right gone, the bourgeois “pole” in the party would have been greatly weakened. The Labour Party would have come closer to a real workers’ party based on the unions. Instead, we got Neil Kinnock.
Mandelson relates that Kinnock later regretted not denouncing the miners’ strike altogether. He also writes that “the only benefit from his [Kinnock’s] months of agony [!] was that he and those around him had used the period to plan for a fightback against the far left, and a determined effort to reposition the party”. What better time to plot a witchhunt of socialists than while they are busy helping the working class defend itself against the most brutal of Tory attacks?
Links to the SDP remain strong in later years. Thatcher once famously said that her greatest legacy was New Labour. Roy Jenkins could perhaps claim the same thing, given his position as a mentor for Mandelson and others. Mandelson mentions in passing that Blair shared with Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown the view that Labour should never have split with the Liberals. This is not new, but still shocking in that it is tantamount to an admission that Blair was a Liberal who joined Labour only because it was big enough to help him fulfil his ambitions.
New Labour’s rise to power is described without much reference to ideas or politics. The desire to win elections appears far more important than changing society for the better. In the workings of the party or, later, of government faceless, apolitical advisors and assistants play a much greater role in how decisions are made than Blair or Brown’s elected colleagues.
Democratic defeats, such as when Mandelson himself loses in a battle with Ken Livingstone for a seat on Labour’s Executive, merely provide evidence that the system needs to change. In fact, all democracy within the party and all social democratic policy needs to go in order for the country (i.e., the right-wing media) can see how much Labour has changed. According to Mandelson, Labour lost the 2010 election because it hadn’t tapped into the nation’s ideas of “fairness” in relation to benefit scroungers and migrants.
Mandelson expresses the hope that the future of the Labour Party lies in internal reform (read: reducing the role of unions) and future co operation with the Lib Dems. We can only hope that the obliteration of the Liberals puts paid to this cross-class right-wing dream once and for all.