Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'A limited political thinker' is how former high flying Labour MP Bryan Gould describes Peter Mandelson. 'Writing was never his strong point,' says Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary. 'A wooden speaker' is how his admirers sum up his presentational skills. So how did such a man rocket through the ranks of the Labour Party to the heart of government? The short answer is that he has channelled his considerable energies and ambition into what he believed was the rising political current of the day, and courted anyone he believed could further him in that cause.
At Hendon County, a state grammar school in north London where I was a fellow student two years his junior, the young Peter was known for being the grandson of former deputy Labour leader Herbert Morrison. He became a prefect and everyone expected him to become head boy before going to Oxbridge. But these were the radical days of the early 1970s, so all did not go to plan. The student revolts of 1968, the victories of a militant working class in Britain, and the battle over whether Hendon County should become comprehensive all changed the mood at school. A group of sixth formers campaigned against the prefect system and won. They also campaigned successfully for the comprehensive system against determined opposition from the fiercely right wing headmaster, and recruited students to the radical National Union of School Students. A socialist newspaper was produced and sold, and a militant Schools Action Unit (SALT) was set up.
Routledge's shoddy book claims that it was here that Peter 'exhibited early signs of leadership'. The truth, however, is that Peter was drawn into the campaign which was led not by him but by a group of socialists--some members of the Young Communist League (YCL), others members of the Young Socialists. He was one of the group, but by no means the leading light.
Routledge also claims that Peter was 'instrumental in promoting' a one day strike organised by the SAU. In fact, Peter never attended a single SAU meeting, and the one day strike was a rather short mass meeting on the school playing field. The key point about this period is not that Mandelson showed his leadership qualities, but that he was drawn into left wing politics--and came to see his future in such politics--because they fitted the spirit of the times.
Peter joined the YCL. Routledge makes much of his links to the Communist Party, speculating wildly and without relevance about whether he was a stooge of the Soviet bloc or a stooge of British intelligence. What is relevant about this period, a point Routledge misses entirely, is that as a member of the YCL Peter absorbed Stalinist methods of organisation. He learnt how to caucus, how to organise meetings to get the right outcome, how to use standing orders to end debates--in short, how to silence and marginalise people who did not agree with the leadership. He soon abandoned the political ideology of Stalinism, but he never forgot its organisational methods.
His early radicalism, as it turned out, was quickly dampened by his 'year off doing voluntary work in Africa. At Oxford he attached himself to the Labour Party group and after completing his degree searched around for the best place to work to further his political career. He plumped for the TUC, again in tune with the times, as contact with the trade unions was then considered essential to aspiring Labour politicians. To get the job, he used a method he returned to again and again throughout his career--he flattered someone with influence. Then, somewhat to that person's surprise, he asked him or her to be his referee or sponsor. In later years John Prescott, Roy Hattersley and many others fell for the trick, much to their subsequent embarrassment.
As he hopped through occupations as a local councillor, television producer, PR man and press officer at Labour's HQ, he was caught up in a new political fashion--this time it was the widely held belief that Labour was unelectable as it was. His party would have to ditch any ideas of socialism to win the approval of labour's traditional enemies in the media and big business, and, probably, form an alliance with the Liberals.
In the late 1970s he joined forces with his close friends Roger Liddle and Matthew Oakeshott in Vauxhall CLP to fight the left. In 1981, when the SDP split from the Labour Party, his two friends joined the renegades. The fact that Mandelson did not go surprised many, but this did not cause any rift with his SDP mates. He later co-wrote The Blair Revolution with Liddle, the original synopsis of which had a chapter calling for an electoral pact. That chapter was mysteriously absent when the book, full of pompous and patronising political drivel, was finally published in 1996.
As the years went by, Mandelson kept cultivating influential friends. Inside the Labour Party he won over Neil Kinnock, then Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. All were persuaded by Mandelson that only Mandelson and business friendly New Labour could win elections, and he became part of the inner circle. His powers of persuasion must be enormous. All the spinning in the world about Labour's 1997 election victory cannot mask the fact that the same man and the same wizardry orchestrated the dismal defeat in 1992, an election that might have been won if Labour had expressed popular anger about the poll tax instead of concentrating on gloss.
Outside the party, he cultivated ever more powerful friends in the media and business worlds. Throughout Routledge's book, such people are quoted as saying, 'Peter and I just clicked.' The diverse types of people who 'just clicked' with Mandelson are a tribute to his courtship skills: in royal circles, Prince Charles and Princess Margaret; in the media, Elizabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert), Lord Hollick (Express newspapers and Anglia TV), Dennis Stevenson (boss of the Pearson Group) and John Birt (head of the BBC); in business, Bob Ayling (of British Airways), the Heinz family and many others; and in politics, Lady Carla Powell (wife of Sir Charles Powell, top adviser to Margaret Thatcher), James Palumbo (son of Tory peer Lord Palumbo), and numerous Liberals.
Such people cannot be courted by sweet murmurings of egalitarianism. In exchange for not attacking New Labour, they had to be assured that their privilege and wealth would be secure under New Labour--and Mandelson helped push through policies that made them feel safe. Clause Four went. One Member One Vote came in. Trade union block voting inside the party was curtailed. Mandelson's chums were also promised that a New Labour government would not burden the rich with extra taxation, would not renationalise anything and would generally be nice to capitalists.
Because he was constantly socialising with the wealthy, it is not surprising that Mandelson wanted to be seen as an equal member of this elite club. Hence his 'borrowing' of £373,000 from another megarich person he had 'clicked' with, fellow Labour MP and former associate of Robert Maxwell, Geoffrey Robinson. When the story broke, Mandelson's beloved media turned on him. Despite furious spinning, he was out.
Of course, the loan was scandalous. But neither the newspapers nor Routledge's book have dealt properly with the much more serious scandals associated with Mandelson and New Labour.
Mandelson oversaw the spending of millions of pounds of taxpayers 'money on the Millennium Dome while the NHS and education, the things the labour Party are supposed to promote, continue to disintegrate. Mandelson proclaimed that 'horny handed' people were not wanted as parliamentary candidates for a party that was formed for one reason only--to ensure that the 'horny handed' were represented in parliament. Under Mandelson's influence, New Labour published a government paper on competitiveness which argued for freedom for big business and restrictions for workers--this from a party that was born to represent the interests of workers against big business. He masterminded another government paper, 'Fairness at Work', which reneged on many promises made by New Labour to trade unions-- this from a party that was formed out of the trade union movement and is still, much to the chagrin of Mandelson, largely bankrolled by ordinary trade unionists.
Mandelson has also brought to the heart of government many of his closest non-Labour political friends, including several SDP renegades such as Roger Liddle. Yet the Labour Party was formed precisely because the interests of workers could not be represented by Liberals.
Mandelson has helped make Labour a party that is sleazy to the core. The shadow of powerful unelected figures can be detected in almost every government decision, whether it be the level of the minimum wage or the proposal to allow private companies to run schools that are 'failing'. The Millenium Dome was 'rescued' by sponsors such as Mandelson's friend Bob Ayling of BA and by BT, companies that want to show off the benefits of privatisation and about whose operations the government may well have to adjudicate in the future. Bernie Ecclestone gives 1 million pounds to New Labour and his motor racing is spared the ban on tobacco advertising. Derek Draper, a Mandelson protege, boasts that for a fee he can offer introductions to the 17 most powerful people in government. A man of no ability, Geoffrey Robinson, splashes money around New Labour's stars and suddenly becomes paymaster general. Ministers jet around the world and are advised by the rich. No contact is made with the poor, and nothing is done for the poor.
In all this, perhaps what is most shocking is how little resistance there has been to Mandelson and his like from trade union leaders and Old labour fighters. Partly this is down to Mandelson, who has fought hard to dilute democracy in the movement and sideline activists. He has ruthlessly used the Stalinist organisational methods he learned in his youth to intimidate dissidents and to make it virtually impossible for anyone to challenge the New Labour orthodoxy. Public meetings have almost disappeared. Party conference is stage managed to curtail debate. The inner circle caucuses, sets up unaccountable 'focus' groups, and sends out the latest 'party line'. Anyone who steps out of line is 'removed'. Even cabinet meetings have been reduced to half an hour.
The lack of resistance is also down to something else--the 'new realism' that infected the left in the 1980s. This ideology gave up on workers, believing them to be incapable of voting for, let alone fighting for, socialist principles. Such politics, symbolised by the rise of Mandelson in the Labour Party, have helped to dampen people's aspirations and confidence, and have delivered a government that is barely distinguishable from its Tory predecessor.
Mandy. The Unauthorised Biography of Peter Mandelson by Paul Routledge, Simon & Schuster £17.99