Mandelson’s revelation: New Labour is already history
The ‘Prince of Darkness’ has published his party’s political obituary – and been pilloried by erstwhile Labour allies as they still cling to the corpse.
We can now see the most important result of the May 2010 UK General Election: not the assumption of power by a Lib-Con coalition government, but the complete disappearance of the Labour Party from the national political field. The party that has claimed to be the British champion of progressive politics for more than a century is now the invisible man. It is often said that parties get the leaders they deserve. That Labour currently has no leader at all is a fitting symbol of its headless status.
In the immediate aftermath of the indecisive May election, it was clear that all of the major parties had effectively lost. But it also seemed to some that, when the results were compared to pre-election speculation, the Labour Party had done less badly. While David Cameron’s Tories had fallen well short of the overall majority that many of them had confidently expected just a few months earlier, Gordon Brown’s New Labour had avoided the sort of total meltdown that many feared at the end of 13 years in government, and Brown even entertained some hope that he could cling onto power in a coalition.
Less than three months later, things look very different. Cameron’s Conservatives (backed up by their new Liberal Democrat sidekicks) are the only game in town. They command the political scene as surely as if they had won an electoral landslide. On the other side, Labour appear so ineffective and absent from debates that one might imagine they had been reduced to a mere 25 MPs rather than 250-odd.
Politics is not just about numbers of MPs. To have influence and authority you also need something to say and somebody to listen. New Labour has neither. It is so discredited that it has even allowed the Lib-Con coalition to look strong and liberal (!) by comparison.
For some of us, this comes as no great shock. The powerful Labour Party of the twentieth century died some 25 years ago, its state socialist politics exhausted and its movement moribund. The hole where the heart of Labour used to be has been covered up for the past 15 years by the glitzy showbiz circus of New Labour, especially under Tony Blair. Now that show is over and there is nothing left behind the curtain.
How and why New Labour has disappeared so completely from the national stage is perhaps best illustrated by the furore surrounding the publication of Peter Mandelson’s memoirs, The Third Man. Mandelson, the ‘Prince of Darkness’, has always been a totemic figure in the rise and fall of New Labour. Whilst he modestly claimed to have saved the Labour Party after the disasters of the 1980s, the old Labour activists blamed him for killing their party. Neither image was strictly accurate. In political terms, the Labour Party was already a cadaver when Mandelson, Blair and Brown took it over in the early 1990s. They dressed up the party’s corpse in New Labour’s image-conscious frippery.
When the veneer of New Labour was seriously cracking up a couple of years ago, Brown brought Mandelson back from the crypt (aka the European Commission) to help rescue his government. Suddenly the rump of Labour activists embraced the man they had always feared and hated, cheering Mandelson at the party conference last year as if they hoped he might possess powers more messianic than demonic. This transformation of Mandelson’s image into a potential one-man saviour was testament to the fact that Labour had ceased to exist as a political party in any meaningful sense, reduced to clutching at the driest of straws.
Now, in publishing his memoirs almost before the ink is dry on the election results, Mandelson has taken centre stage in a different role, as the author of New Labour’s instant obituary. For the offence of telling all about what went on at the top of the party over the past two decades, he has been returned to his role as the Labour Party’s favourite hate figure, castigated by all of his old colleagues and by the candidates for the leadership as if his book (which none of them had yet read) was to blame for all of their ills. This reaction probably reveals more about the deceased state of Labour than anything in the book itself.
To judge by the extracts published in the media, The Third Man appears to contain plenty of scandal but few surprises. Much of it seems taken up with the gossip, personality clashes, media-obsession, cliquishness and tantrums that were the stuff of New Labour debates in the absence of any substantial politics. It confirms, for example, the non-shocking facts that Mandelson has a tendency towards self-obsession, that Blair and Brown were in almost constant conflict over the New Labour leadership, and that Brown’s cabinet colleagues were too cowardly to oust him before the election, even though they were convinced that he had no chance of winning.
The one passage in the extracts that stood out for me comes when Brown is manoeuvring (again) to replace Blair as prime minister, and Mandelson tells him they need to overcome the ‘dysfunction’ at the heart of the government: ‘Gordon scowled. “That’s your favourite word, isn’t it?” he shot back. He said he didn’t agree with me at all. Ideologically, there was no divide between him and Tony at all. I conceded that Gordon might well be right. The two of them may have represented different versions of New Labour, but in every other way, the relationship at the heart of government was dysfunctional.’
In other words, as Brown insisted, the conflict between him and Blair was never about ideology or political principles or any struggle for ‘the soul of Labour’. They were both New Labour to the core. It was simply a personal power struggle, like the courtly back-stabbing of medieval times. That should be tattooed on the eyeballs of all those naïve enough to imagine that Brown would change New Labour for the better when he replaced Blair in 2007, and then bitterly disappointed (again) when he stayed true to himself and did nothing of the sort.
Such rare nuggets aside, however, it is not so much the book’s revelations as its existence and timing that give the game away about the end of New Labour. Mandelson must have been working on it even as he was supposed to be running Labour’s election campaign, which shows he was already certain they had lost and was preoccupied with his immediate ‘legacy’ (or as a spiked colleague put it to me, with pissing against the tree of history to leave his little mark).
Mandelson’s willingness to dish all the dirt on his former allies so quickly might seem shocking by conventional political standards. But it only confirms that New Labour – like the other major parties today – lacks any basic political glue to hold its people together in a common cause, to encourage them to show restraint or make sacrifices for the greater good. All New Labour has been is an empty election-winning machine – and once it could no longer win an election, there was little or nothing to keep its leaders together or stop Mandelson cashing in on their secrets.
Mandelson’s affronted former allies have pointed out that memoirs such as this (or more diplomatic versions of them) are traditionally written later, after you have officially retired from frontline politics – and suggested that he must now do just that. But that is missing the point. This book is not just an obituary for his career, but for their party. Its instant publication as a document of the past is effectively an announcement that New Labour is already history, soon to be consigned to the dusty remaindered bin, less than three months after losing power. And the responses of the candidates for the party leadership to Mandelson also confirm that none of them has anything to put in its place.
Mandelson may have a deserved reputation as a schemer of low cunning, but his critics among the ‘new’ New Labour leadership appear lower still. Their complaints are not really about what Mandelson has written – it would be hard to pretend that Blair and Brown were bosom buddies after all – but that he has written it at all. In effect they are declaring, in true New Labour style, ‘You CAN’T say THAT’. Incapable of facing up to the reality of their political demise, they resort yet again to calling for censorship as a final solution to all problems.
The main, interchangeable, candidates for the Labour leadership – David and Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – do not want to talk about the disastrous Brown regime. They were all too intimately involved to face the facts. Indeed it is striking that all of their efforts to distance themselves from the past seem aimed at Blair rather than Brown – as typified by the discovery by both of the Eds that they actually were against the Iraq war all along, 10 years too late. Such is their opportunism that they have even allowed hopeless Diane Abbott to pose as the principled candidate because she publicly opposed the Iraq war at the time. When any of them can honestly say that they opposed Blair’s Kosovo war rather than cheering it to the rafters, we might just take them seriously as anti-militarists.
As Mandelson’s obituary for the party makes clear, New Labour is dead and only awaiting a decent burial. Yet these miserable political ghouls still cling to the rotting corpse because they have nothing else to offer and no politics with which to breathe life into a new opposition. In the end, Labour will have a leader of sorts and, given the troubles ahead for the coalition government, it may even make some headway in the polls. But as a force for political change it is deceased, no more, etc. And whoever leads it is likely to make the likes of Mandelson look like political giants by comparison.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume urged us to face up to the fact that the end of left and right is a reality. He also looked at the lingering death of New Labour and the depth of the political crisis afflicting the party. Emily Hill said you can’t blame Brown for everything and in the week of his departure from office, Tim Black exploded 10 myths about Gordon. In 2005 Josie Appleton asked why New Labour stands for nothing. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.