The psycho-politics of a collapsing elite
The most revealing thing about the leaked Mandelson emails is the amateur psychologising of a cut-off government.
It is testament to the media’s complicity in the backroom personality politics of the New Labour elite that their analysis of the Mandelson-Draper email exchange focused on the fact that – surprise, surprise – Mandelson is not a big fan of Gordon Brown.
That was the least revealing thing about the emails. Far more telling was the childish, immature way in which national government is conducted today, and the reliance of New Labour leaders on cheap cod-psychology both to explain their leader’s own behaviour and the actions of the electorate. Looked at from this perspective, the emails cast some light on why, despite a collapse in electoral support and public expressions of disgruntlement by some Labour officials, Brown and his coterie still cling to power.
The emails between one of New Labour’s main architects and current secretary of state for business, Lord Peter Mandelson, and New Labour spindoctor and adviser, Derek Draper, were sent between January and May last year and were leaked to the Mail on Sunday at the weekend. They have been pored over in the press under headlines such as ‘Mandy raps edgy Brown’ and ‘Lord Mandelson says Brown is angry’, after Mandelson said in one of his emails that Brown has got to stop being ‘so angry’ and must try to ‘visibly relax’ (1).
For ‘Mandy’, this is mild stuff. Only those lucky enough to have spent the past 12 years of Britain’s political life under a rock will not know that Mandelson, Tony Blair’s right-hand man, dislikes Brown and spent much of the mid-1990s campaigning against his bid to replace John Smith as leader of the Labour Party. (That Brown is now relying on Mandelson to hold his government together is a stirring indictment of his isolation.)
What is more striking in the emails is the childishness of those running government. These two major players in the New Labour machinery spend much of the email exchange debating whether Brown should say publicly that he watches The X Factor, the annual British TV competition to find a pop singer.
Utterly unable to define what a Labour leader should represent, Draper suggests Brown must try to ‘be himself’ by, for example, talking about his TV viewing habits. Mandelson tries to make the case for pushing public policy over personality, but he can’t do it. ‘Telling people you watch The X Factor’ is not ‘a substitute for policy formulation and taking well-prepared, well-ordered decisions that the government collectively owns’, he insists. Yet in a later email he says Brown must ‘visibly relax’. ‘[He] will be enjoying himself. Not so angry. And then he will start talking about himself. Finding his voice. Talking about X Factor or whatever.’
Throughout the emails, Mandelson and Draper share their thoughts on how to shape a public personality (Brown’s) rather than having any idea about the ideas that Brown should embody. Like a dimestore Oprah, Mandelson says: ‘He is a self-conscious person, physically and emotionally. He is not as comfortable with his own skin as, say, Tony was (is).’ He says Brown is bad at ‘masking and managing his insecurities’. He also says that ‘a new public persona cannot be glued on to him; it cannot be found; it has to emerge’ – but he doesn’t mean through political leadership and engagement but through Brown becoming, well, happier. ‘[A new public persona will come] from self-confidence. When things go right for him. When he is being successful and receiving approval.’
The emails give a glimpse into how the politics of personality – the bizarre behind-the-scenes cultivation of a psychological persona – can backfire and create tension. Draper says the problem with Brown is that ‘he will leave voters cold, for sure’. Mandelson responds by warning that ‘you guys’ (there was a team of media advisers trying to ‘remake’ Brown) ‘have to be careful that you don’t make it worse/more difficult for him to change his public personality by telling him he has got to do so and inundating him with opinions as to how he does it’.
For example, says Mandelson, in ‘his first few months [in power]… he was told that he was seen as courageous, turning back floods, wrestling terrorists to the ground, curing ill cows, etc. So everyone went around saying and briefing how courageous he was. It’s fine to make the point but after a while these things should have been allowed to speak for themselves. Not keep saying so on every occasion as his people did on every interview. It became self-congratulatory and slightly absurd. Then the election debacle came along and the rest is history.’
Remember that, when Brown first came to power and was widely advertised as ‘Mr Courage’? He even published a book in June 2007, the month he was granted accession to the throne by Tony Blair, titled Courage: Eight Portraits, in which he sought to place himself alongside other brave and courageous leaders from history, including Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Aung San Suu Kyi. Later in 2007, he gave a big interview on courage, in which he said: ‘Churchill said courage is the greatest quality of all because it is upon courage that everything else depends. I think you can have all sorts of good feelings and good sentiments, but if you don’t have the courage to see it through, then your sentiments can often mean nothing.’ (2)
Now we know that this promotion of his own and other people’s courage was the product of his being ‘inundated with opinions’ from backroom men and women about what psychological persona he should promote. ‘I know’, one of them must have said: ‘He’s seen as a bit dour and stubborn, so why not courageousness?’ As Mandelson says, it became ‘slightly absurd’. Especially when Brown reneged on holding a General Election later in 2007 and came to be known by some as ‘Bottler Brown’, the very opposite of a courageous politician. Yes, the public persona of a leader is important, but only as a way of communicating clearly and attractively a body of ideas and a public policy programme. In this instance, the formation of a public persona was a substitute for those things, giving rise to an invented personality utterly at odds with Brown the man or Brown the politician.
Perhaps even worse than Draper and Mandelson’s chat about Brown is their cod-psychologising of the electorate. The email exchange makes clear that New Labour officials see the politics of personality as important because they think voters are dumb and over-emotional and are more interested in voting for ‘nice people’ over ‘political people’.
In response to Mandelson’s fleeting suggestion that the spindoctors should promote policy, Draper says ‘I continue to worry that won’t be enough. The point isn’t X Factor per se, of course, it’s that people vote according to a (partly unconscious) emotional motivation, as much, if not more than, a rational one.’ He advises Mandelson to read Drew Westen’s book The Political Brain, which argues that Americans and other voters ‘vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments’, and which was slammed on spiked for depicting electorates as ‘irrational and emotional’ (3).
New Labour’s reliance on cod-psychology, on trying to create the right emotionally in-tune leader to win the votes of a febrile, feelings-driven electorate, captures its utter dislocation from, and its contempt for, the people. The new psycho-politics, where more and more politicians and commentators imagine that people can be easily enticed and manipulated to vote and behave in certain ways, has risen as traditional mass politics and differing visions of society have declined. Cut off from the populace like never before, our leaders now look at us, not as groups of people with certain needs, desires and political expectations who can be won over by ideas, but as a strange blob of mixed-up emotional beings who must be massaged into voting a certain way – for example by planting the subconscious message that Brown is ‘nice’ because, like us, he watches The X Factor.
In their fevered discussion of their leader’s psychological profile and their view of the electorate as ‘unconscious and emotional’ and not given to rationality, Mandelson and Draper come across like old-style courtiers discussing how to make a monarch more palatable to the lower orders. Indeed, after holidaying in Versailles, Draper emailed Mandelson to say he ‘always had a soft spot for Louis XIV – l’etat ce moi and all that’. ‘I am the state’ just about sums up New Labour’s aloof, even dictatorial streak.
This helps us understand why Brown, assisted by Mandelson and other advisers, still clings to power. It’s because he thinks he has some God-given right to rule, and because his officials see the over-emotional public as something to be wary of. Like all cocky psychologists, Brown & Co imagine that they know better than we do ourselves what we really want – which means that even if we ‘unconsciously’ and ‘emotionally’ chose not to vote for them over the past week, they still think they’re the best men for the job.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Read the leaked emails in full here.
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