The unsuspecting people of Hartlepool, no doubt going peacefully about their business, were recently subjected to an unwelcome blast from the past. Peter Mandelson, who served as the local MP for 12 years, was back in town to campaign for Labour candidate Paul Williams ahead of the forthcoming by-election and local elections. Both represent an important test of Keir Starmer’s performance as Labour leader; some of his allies, seemingly anticipating a disappointing showing, have been pre-emptively getting their excuses in.
Mandelson has, over the last year, been a ubiquitous presence in the press—even more so than usual—sounding off about what Starmer’s Labour should and shouldn’t be doing. Prior to that, as he put it himself, he’d worked ‘every day’ to hasten the demise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Having succeeded in that mission, he appears to have Starmer’s ear, having reportedly been welcomed into the Labour leader’s inner sanctum. Admittedly, Labour doesn’t have too many other surviving election winners it can turn to for advice.
Even so, Mandelson’s renewed prominence in Labour circles would seem to be somewhat at odds with its recent attacks on Tory ‘sleaze’. In recent weeks, Starmer has gone in hard on Tory corruption—while carefully avoiding using that term—in the hope that it will work much as it’s thought to have done for Tony Blair in the 1990s. The aim is clearly to tarnish Boris Johnson and speed up his political downfall. And it might yet work. Now that Labour is no longer a serious threat to the establishment, it has returned to its domestic squabbles—and Boris Johnson’s enemies in the Tory-friendly media are landing some impactful blows.
But both Mandelson and Tony Blair himself have popped up over the last week to pour cold water on the row and undermine Labour’s attacks on the Tories (some things never change). It’s not surprising that they should want to switch topics. Mandelson, of course, resigned twice from Blair’s cabinet amid accusations of impropriety: first over a £373,000 home loan from colleague Geoffrey Robinson, and secondly after allegations that he had intervened to assist the passport application of billionaire Indian business magnate Srichand Hinduja.
Despite Paul Williams’ insistence that Mandelson is ‘well-respected’ in Hartlepool, there are reasons to be doubtful. Mandelson was the town’s MP when Labour lost the local mayoralty to its football mascot, ‘H’Angus the Monkey’, alias Stuart Drummond, who went on to serve as mayor for over a decade. Drummond’s alter ego had run on a manifesto which included such promises as free bananas for Hartlepool schoolchildren; when Labour lost, Mandelson directed his ire at the editor of the local newspaper, who was subsequently ousted.
Much ink has been spilled about Labour’s collapse in the so-called ‘Red Wall’, but it’s impossible to understand this without an appreciation of Mandelson’s role in it. Tom Hazeldine makes the point in his book, The Northern Question, that New Labour lost 1.5 million votes in the North of England between 1997 and 2010. Complacent assumptions that the region’s working-class residents had ‘nowhere else to go’—allegedly the view of Mandelson himself—proved to have disastrous long-term consequences for the party.
So what exactly is it that Peter Mandelson wants of Starmer? In March, he called on the Labour leader to launch a policy review—into which we can assume ordinary party members would be given minimal input—junking the commitments of the 2019 manifesto, apparently an albatross that Starmer still has ‘around his neck’. To rid himself of this albatross, Mandelson argues, Starmer should avoid making ‘too many specific commitments early in the parliament’ but instead adopt ‘radical, credible, affordable’ policies.
There are numerous criticisms that can be levelled at Labour’s campaign in 2019, but the policies in its manifesto generally polled well, even if many voters were understandably sceptical that the party—at war with itself for four years, by that point—would be able to implement them in government. One policy that did go down like a lead balloon was the proposed second Brexit referendum, which Mandelson had agitated for as a leading light in the People’s Vote campaign (while telling his corporate clients that Brexit was inevitable).
We should also approach Mandelson’s idea of credibility with caution. What constitutes ‘credible’ in the eyes of the Blairite right isn’t so much policies adequate to the challenges that actually face us—building a fairer society after the pandemic, or the climate emergency—but, rather, those which are unthreatening to capitalist interests and thus won’t frighten Mandelson’s oligarch acquaintances. To raise the spectre of affordability seems absurd, too, when the Tories are throwing their own fiscal playbook out of the window.
Needless to say, Starmer won the Labour leadership on a totally different prospectus. His promise to the Labour membership was to retain existing left-wing policies while uniting the party and providing a slicker media operation. Had he told party members that what he was actually going to do was go to war with the left and bring the likes of Mandelson back in, he wouldn’t have won. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign made mistakes, but it must be very difficult when you’re up against opponents who play so fast and loose with the truth.
As Alex Niven recently wrote for Tribune, New Labour did deliver genuine improvements to many working-class lives. But a lot of these gains soon evaporated when the financial crisis struck in 2008, and today, the acolytes of the New Labour project not only have no answers to the crises piling up in front of us, they don’t even seem to recognise their severity. Starmer looks to the New Labour gang for guidance in the hope that they still have some magic dust left to sprinkle on his faltering leadership, but in reality, they’re yesterday’s men.
If Starmer takes Mandelson’s prescriptions at face value, it’ll be to his own detriment. Mandelson is less concerned with getting Keir Starmer into 10 Downing Street than ensuring that the Labour Party is permanently rendered a safe, toothless establishment party that never again mounts any real challenge to capitalist class power. What Mandelson wants, in short, is to restore the status quo ante. Everything he says and does is a means to that end, and Starmer’s prospects of becoming prime minister are really neither here nor there.