‘I don’t think it’s the job of our generation to come back and lecture people about what you should be thinking. Ask for our views, draw on our experience, share thinking but don’t regard our views as the Holy Grail. Times change.’ This was Peter Mandelson’s opening observation to those gathered at the NUT’s Stoke Rochford Hall for Progress’ second political weekend.
Detractors of the New Labour approach that won three successive elections often seek to portray its advocates as living in the past. In doing so, they fundamentally misunderstand the modernising tradition that has existed throughout the Labour party’s history, of which New Labour is an important part. Rather than simply proposing New Labour’s greatest hits of yesterday as the policy prescriptions for tomorrow, Mandelson instead argued that the philosophy of New Labour needed to reflect the challenges of 2015, rather than 1997.
Honesty about the centre-ground
Mandelson’s analysis of the centre-ground contrasted the landscape facing New Labour in the 1990s with the Britain facing Ed Miliband’s team today. Following the crash, Mandelson argued that public attitudes towards the state, business and the economy have shifted, but warned that Keynesianism has not undergone a rebirth and the centre ground has not experienced a particularly leftward shift. What has changed since the 1990s is the ‘belief that markets can solve everything and government messes things up.’ When he claimed that we are now ‘less laissez-faire and more state activist’ he was probably reflecting, in part, the different approach he took as trade and industry secretary in Tony Blair’s government to the activist stance he pushed as business secretary under Gordon Brown. But, he continued, ‘people still believe in the basics of a market economy … They are not in love with government.’
He similarly contrasted attitudes towards business and the banking sector in the nineties, to the public mood today. ‘People are more sceptical about the responsibility and capability of big business and big banks … [But] people still believe that it’s business success that creates jobs and builds the economy … The sense that we should only tolerate business, as opposed to support its success, is not going to be supported by the public.’
But the man who famously said he was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’ is attuned to public anger about a lack of responsibility at the top. ‘People are much angrier than they were about people at the top taking reqards that are excessive and not seen as earned’, said Mandelson. ‘Sharp and polarised inequalities are not tolerated. The ‘99 versus the one per cent’ has some resonance in our society.’ But ‘resentment of the very rich has not turned everyone into egalitarian socialists’, he warned, continuing ‘… the primary desire remains that people want to do better themselves and for their families.’
Warning on the economy
While arguing that the voters’ attitudes do not indicate a radical leftwing shift, Mandelson warned that the economy and the politics of the kitchen table budget would be at the centre of voters’ concerns at the next election. ‘Fairness’, he argued, would play second fiddle to more immediate concerns about the economy and job security. ‘Who [is] best [placed] to run the economy? Who do I trust with my job (and not just ‘my public sector job’)? Who will make the economy grow better? Who will make me and my family better off? These economic questions among voters trump fairness, which may come as a disappointment to some in our party.’
On spending, he argued that we are not living through a Keynesian revival. ‘People still do not believe that government can spend their way to economic prosperity and a better society.’
Perhaps his most serious warning was that unpopular spending cuts do not necessarily lead to electoral meltdown, comparing the unpopularity of the coalition government’s cuts with those of Mrs Thatcher. ‘I don’t think there was a single spending cut of Mrs Thatcher’s that was popular … but people nonetheless tended to side with her because they thought she was making – unpalatable decisions, yes – but tough and necessary decisions.’
‘Ultimately, the largest minority of voters concluded that the economic fundamentals of our country were in better shape.’
‘That will, broadly speaking, determine how people will cast their votes in 2015.’
Mandelson carefully avoided critiquing the performance of the current shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband and argued that Miliband’s vision was becoming clearer and more defined with time. It wasn’t the New Labour brand that Mandelson was advocating, but the New Labour paradigm: ‘[I’m] genuinely relaxed about what you call it … but I nonetheless think that formula remains.’ That formula, he argued, included rebuilding our reputation for economic competence and fiscal discipline, realism about where the electorate is, promoting equality of opportunity and social justice, support for private enterprise, responsibility as well as rights and strong European engagement as a central plank of the UK’s economic and foreign policies.
He attacked ‘monolithic, centralised public services’ and called for a radical redistribution of power, as well as emphasis on choice for citizens. He also argued that Labour should have seized the ground on the ‘big society’ before Cameron. The ‘big society would have been a tremendous idea if they’d meant it or had an ounce of understanding about what it was.’
Asked about whether print media was as important today as it was in 1997, Mandelson argued that even in 1997 the importance of print media had been overstated. The rise of social media, the immediacy of news and the 24-hour news cycle has changed the landscape dramatically. Mandelson also addressed the issue of Labour’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire directly: ‘There was a tendency to suck up to Murdoch that pervaded our government over 13 years and I rather regret it.’
Comparing the great victories of 1945 and 1997, he reflected on the modernising approach that characterised both achievements, contrasting the strategic definition of 1945 and 1997 with its absence in the 1960s and in 2010.
‘In both years [1945 and 1997] we made ourselves a national party, not a sectional one, and embraced ideas from others … We are a national party or we are nothing.’
Peter Mandelson may have left the political frontline, but he’s still got it.
Wes Streeting is deputy leader of the Labour group in the London borough of Redbridge and is a member of Progress
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.