Twenty years after Tony Blair’s election as party leader, Peter Mandelson tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell why winning the centre-ground is more important than ever
Peter Mandelson’s autobiography bills him as the ‘third man’ of New Labour, an indispensable part of the modernising triumvirate which, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, built the foundations of Labour’s 1997 landslide. But, by his own telling, in the battle for the party leadership 20 years ago this month, the third man was more the invisible man.
In the initial jockeying for position between Blair and Brown which followed John Smith’s death, Mandelson initially attempted to remain equidistant between the two. Both men were friends and political allies whose careers he had helped to promote in the late 1980s when he was Labour’s director of communications and they were rising stars on Neil Kinnock’s frontbench. Mandelson’s overriding concern was that there should be no division within the modernisers’ ranks which would prevent the election of their candidate. Very quickly, however, it became clear that the choice, not only of the party but of the voters, was Blair. The then shadow home secretary had picked Mo Mowlam and Jack Straw to co-chair his leadership campaign. For fear of unsettling either, and to maintain the broadest appeal within the party and prevent his bid being seen as driven by a modernising faction, Mandelson’s actual role as Blair’s campaign manager was kept under wraps. Only Blair’s reference to his affectionate codename – ‘Bobby’ – in his victory speech gave the game away.
Two decades on, has Mandelson ever wondered how the New Labour project might have differed had Blair, not Brown, stepped aside in the leadership contest? ‘In fundamental terms, Gordon was no less New Labour than Tony in those days,’ he responds. As ‘an electoral realist’, Brown used his position as shadow chancellor to regain Labour’s reputation for economic competence and fiscal responsibility. Brown was, however, more of a creature of ‘the Labour movement and the Labour machine’ than Blair. Though canny enough not to take unnecessary risks with his support within the party, argues Mandelson, ‘in a straight choice between pleasing the voters or placating the party, Tony would just be a few notches further towards the public than where Gordon was.’
Despite this, Brown and Blair shared with Mandelson a common analysis of the position that Labour found itself in two years after its fourth consecutive general election defeat. ‘Too many in the party retained the belief that the Tories’ unpopularity in 1992 could see us elected,’ he recalls. ‘But the truth was, however fed up people were with the Tories, they were not going to switch to Labour in sufficient numbers unless they were absolutely sure of what we were going to do in government … We had to demonstrate that we really could manage people’s money and steer an economic course that would deliver sustainable economic growth and jobs.’
The modernisers also agreed on the need for Labour to reach out to centre-ground voters. ‘There was still a sense of the country’s electorate falling into two halves: a half which leaned left and the other half that leaned right, with a small but significant centre-ground that needed to be won by left or right to gain victory,’ argues Mandelson. Kinnock, he says, was ‘very aware’ of this but there were ‘still people in the party who were too ready to accuse the Labour leadership of compromising too much with voters. That in reaching into the centre-ground for those voters’ support, we were lurching to the right or “selling out”. They wanted ‘purity’ even if it meant losing.’
Mandelson was at the heart of New Labour during both its rise and its fall. After managing the 1997 general election campaign, serving twice in the cabinet during Blair’s premiership and then spending four years in Brussels as a European commissioner, he returned to government under Brown in October 2008 as the financial crisis hit. For the next 18 months he was not only at the forefront of efforts to stabilise the economy, but to revive Labour’s sagging electoral fortunes in the run-up to the 2010 general election. He disputes the suggestion that, in the wake of the great recession, there has been a shift to the left, and he draws a parallel with the 1990s. ‘That electoral arithmetic, which was pretty plain then, is even more stark now,’ he believes. ‘Since then, electoral support for the centre-left and centre-right parties has declined significantly. Those who don’t give their political loyalty automatically to left or right – whose votes, therefore, are up for grabs – are a greater segment of the electorate now than they were when New Labour was being created in the 1990s. Therefore, it is even more important now to win the centre-ground to win electoral victory. Just as it is essential still to win on leadership and the economy, and to demonstrate that we are a party of conscience and reform that will talk to people’s values and concerns, not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views. That is why I get frustrated sometimes when people argue now that the country has moved to the left, therefore if we are more unambiguously leftwing and raise our ideological vigour, we are more likely to win the next election.’
But what of the charge that both then and now the advocates of New Labour simply wanted to detach the party from its core values? ‘Of course our brand is of the left, our values are those of social democracy, we always want to lean again inequalities in society, [and] of course we want a country underpinned by fairness and social justice,’ Mandelson replies. ‘But we also have to recognise that whilst people can be won for those goals, they are not going to vote for those things at any price or any cost to themselves. That is the centre-ground that is available to us but not yet in our pocket. We have to work for their support and it means both appealing to their decency and their sense of civic responsibility and [also to] their sense of self-interest. There are many things people will vote for and support in our policy programme but not if the consequence of them doing so is public spending that gets out of control and taxation that goes through the roof. That is just electoral commonsense. It is reality. We are not going to make progress by wishing it were different and burying our heads in the sand so that we can’t hear what the public is saying to us.’
Mandelson is, however, scathing about the suggestion that New Labour was indifferent to the party’s defining belief: the need to tackle inequality. ‘Emphatically not,’ he suggests. ‘I too share the view that what defines us as social democrats is our desire and ability to reduce inequalities by every means at our disposal.’ He cites the Labour government’s emphasis on early years learning and nursery schools, its drive to improve primary and secondary school standards, and to widen access to further and higher education. ‘I would characterise New Labour’s policies across the board as putting that desire to limit and reduce inequality absolutely at the heart of what made us tick,’ he suggests. ‘And I would defy anyone to identify a single policy area where we did not make progress in using those policies to reduce inequality. We may not have pulled off everything that we sought to do, at times our ambition might have been blunted, but it was never for want of trying during the whole of New Labour’s time in government.’
While he does not accept the charge that New Labour lacked concern about inequality, Mandelson identifies two principal weaknesses in its record. First, a failure radically to reform government and the political system. These remained ‘too centralised, too focused on Whitehall and decisions in London’, he believes. The government should, he says, have been ‘more radical in decentralising power and spending away from the centre’. Second, the manner in which party reform came to an abrupt halt at the time Labour went into government. ‘We did enough to ensure that the party and its trade union base could not block modernised policies and a broad appeal to the electorate,’ Mandelson argues, ‘but we did not sufficiently transform the party’s structure and membership. We went a third of the way. We needed to go a lot further.’
And Mandelson gives short shrift to New Labour’s critics within the party during the period of Blair’s leadership, arguing that they lacked any alternative. ‘The reason why some in the party found it so difficult was because, while being unable to disagree or challenge the logic of New Labour and the need for policy revision, nonetheless, [they] hated the idea that this meant defeat for the tribal left they identified with. They could not devise an alternative to New Labour but nor were they prepared to embrace New Labour, which led them to a political no-man’s land in the party,’ he says. While such critics were never strong enough to stop or derail Blair, Mandelson accepts that they held him back, particularly when it came to the reform of public services. There were ‘certain sacred cows and taboos, like you must never touch the NHS; it was perfect from the day it was created and any rethinking or tinkering was sacrilegious, similarly on comprehensive education’. This thinking, Mandelson indicates, affected some of those around Blair: ‘From the very beginning, they were always counselling caution. You know, the mantra of “Will Prescott wear it?”’ But it was the inevitable divisions in the party caused by Iraq which finally gave New Labour’s opponents the opening they had long been seeking. ‘It gave them a stick to beat Blair with, knowing they were going to get media support, the rightwing media because he was Labour, and the leftwing media because he was New Labour. They hated his electoral success and Iraq was the opportunity to dislodge him.’
Whatever the limits of Labour’s modernisation, Mandelson believes that the Tories ‘didn’t even touch first base’ in their effort to respond to the three election defeats they sustained at Blair’s hands. ‘They didn’t understand the need to go as far as we did in converting the party and our supporters in the country to new modern thinking … What David Cameron and George Osborne have relied upon is a couple of fresh faces at the top using a different language, which has remained almost completely alien to their own party and many of their grassroots in the country,’ he suggests. Cameron believed he could ‘airbrush the Tory party’s nastiness, its illiberalism, [and] its core project – which is to pare back the state.’ That strategy has, however, proved a failure in Mandelson’s eyes, with deep consequences for the Conservatives and their electoral appeal: ‘The airbrushing faded over time and when I think of, for example, the Tories’ deeply uneasy relationship with Europe that characterised Mrs Thatcher’s last years, it is clear that the Tory party has come full circle, back to that point of departure. Again, a very uneasy relationship with Europe and policies that are constantly being pulled to the right by its activist base and MPs.’
Mandelson goes on to draw a sharp distinction between the current prime minister and Blair. Cameron ‘may have greater electoral sense than his predecessors and see the danger in going to the right and, indeed, he may have more decency than most of his MPs’, but those attributes have not stopped him ‘following his party to the right because of his weakness and because he never converted the Tory party to fresh modern thinking in the first place’. By contrast, Mandelson labels Blair ‘the genuine article’. ‘He often said the bad news was that he was prepared to put forward policies that would win us elections. The worse news, for some in the party, was that he really meant them and was going to implement them. Now, you couldn’t say that of the Tory leadership,’ he argues.
‘The era of New Labour’ may have been declared over at home, but the new prime ministers of Italy and France, Matteo Renzi and Manuel Valls, consciously model themselves on Blair and are attempting to persuade their parties to undergo a similar process of reform and modernisation. For Mandelson that suggests the ongoing relevance of the project of which he was a key architect: ‘New Labour’s success was rooted in economic realism: in our ability to harness the benefits and advantages of globalisation but reconciling these to a society firmly rooted in principles of social justice.’ The experience of the European centre-left, he warns, is that those who ‘cannot adapt to those social and economic changes are those who will be rejected and will fail. We have seen this time and time again across Europe.’ Successful centre-left parties, Mandelson believes, are those who have ‘made the jump into the 21st century, who understand the need for the dynamism of markets to be allowed to work, businesses to grow, to generate profits to invest and create further jobs. This is the basis of our economic system.’
He does not accept that such a politics equates to neoliberalism or an acceptance of the unfettered free market – ‘markets [must] not simply be allowed to ride roughshod over consumers or working people’ – but cautions against ‘turning yourself into an economic dinosaur by putting all your emphasis on social protection’. Such a stance, he argues, is an electoral dead end: ‘However insecure people may feel, they are not going to turn to that solution because they can see it is redundant in the 21st century. And in Italy, as in the case of the French prime minister, they are trying to wake up their party and their country to new realities, new demands, the need for reform and modernisation of their economy and society, which, for many, is very difficult and painful to digest but no less necessary to achieve.’ Two decades ago, in 1994, Labour’s new leader and his allies embarked on a similar journey – one that would bring the party huge victory at the polls in three successive elections. The ‘third man’ may have been invisible that summer, but the results of his endeavours – that unparallelled run of electoral success – remain visible today.
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