1990s >> 1999 >> no-1134-february-1999

Greasy Pole: Variable standards

It may not have happened, that civilised life in this country was shaken to its roots when Peter Mandelson resigned, although to judge by some of the media comment something very like that had happened. He forgot that his government are always telling the rest of us that we can’t have what we want – and what they promised us – for a while; that we have to be patient.

This variable standard extends beyond Peter Mandelson, to the other players in this latest episode of sordid double dealing, who have the kind of embarrassing political past which now, in the days of ascendant New Labour, they must be desperate to bury.

For the Labour Party of Blair and his cronies there is a crime greater than trying to fiddle a mortgage application or borrowing a lot of money from a man whose affairs are under scrutiny. That crime is to have doubts about where their party is going and to question whether it was worth winning power from the Tories in order to run things just as if there was still a Conservative government. Of Labour MPs, loyalty is demanded above all else. Blind acceptance of the will of their leader, of the instructions of the whips and the pagers, an eagerness to feed ministers with cringingly soft questions in the House; these are what will ensure a Labour MP gets on in the world and can look forward to a ministerial job—perhaps even the kind of position that Mandelson carved out for himself, with its contact with the rich and famous, the royal and the influential. In this situation it is dangerous to have a past as a Left Winger—and if anyone has such a past they have to establish beyond all doubt that it will not be resurrected.


How do the players in the Mandelson affair match up to this? First, the man himself. Mandelson was once an organiser for the Young Communist League—a trouble-maker of the left. Now he is invited to Prince Charles’s 50th birthday bash (the only member of the Cabinet to be so patronised), he escorts Princess Margaret to a swanky lunch party (perhaps needing to grit his teeth throughout the meal) and he is friends with a clutch of very, very rich people like Carla Powell and the American Linda Wachner. It can safely be assumed that whenever Mandelson is with these people he is able to resist any temptation to stir up trouble in memory of Stalinist Russia or the ghostly Communist Party.

Then there is Geoffrey Robinson, who was willing to take friendship to such a recklessly generous extent. Robinson is not just a very rich man but one who has played an important part in some of the biggest jobs in British capitalism. Like British Leyland and Jaguar cars; like the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (a wheeze of the Wilson government which was supposed to keep British industry ever profitable, ever expanding). But in the 1970s the followers of Tony Benn, who were such thorns in the side of the embryo Labour “modernisers”, regarded Robinson as one of them and held him in high esteem. Indeed one of the most prominent of the Bennites at that time, the late Eric Heffer MP (who walked out of the Labour Annual Conference when Neil Kinnock made his famously passionate attack on Militant and what it was doing in places like Liverpool), wanted him to be head of the National Enterprise Board.

Of the lesser players Stephen Byers is one of the keenest supporters of the concept of New Labour. He came into Parliament in 1992 and since then he has risen very fast. Straight after Labour’s victory in 1997 Byers was rewarded for his compliant work in opposition with the job of Schools Standards Minister. The possibilities of this seem to have been immediately apparent to him and he launched ardently into the idea of “naming and shaming” schools—in other words attacking hard working, stressed out teachers who are struggling against the odds in oversize classes in run-down schools whose catchment area includes some of the most impoverished and depressed concentrations of population. This appeal to some of the nastier and more ignorant prejudices among the voters has obviously done Byers’s career no harm; in the fall-out of Mandelson’s resignation he emerged as the new man in charge at the Department of Trade and Industry. But Byers is another one with a political past; he was once a supporter of Militant and when he was a councillor in North Tyneside he was regarded as a hard-line Bennite.

Alan Milburn is such a favourite of Tony Blair that in the reshuffle last July the Prime Minister kept a job warm for him when there was not enough room to promote him—promising that his time would come soon. He is now Chief Secretary to the Treasury ( which means that he does rather more than send out agendas and type up minutes of meetings—much of his job consists of scrutinising and cutting departmental budgets which can have its effect on things like Social Services and medical care). Milburn is another whose star is rising fast; so fast that he seems able to forget his past when he worked in a left-wing Newcastle bookshop called Days of Hope and was an activist in CND.


None of this need disturb us very much, unless we allow ourselves to become particularly irritated by the blatant cynicism of leaders who promote themselves as the guardians of working class interests when in fact they stand for a social system which exploits and degrades its people. We are, after all, well accustomed to the business of left-wing dynamos smartly changing into right wing monuments when there is even the slightest possibility of them achieving power.

What should concern us is the fact that when these people are on the left, when they are spouting their spurious non-arguments, they are heavily critical of the case for a revolutionary change in society, in contrast to being diverted into every blind alley of immediate issues. Left wingers tell us that in their never-ending campaigns and marches and demonstrations they doing something to change capitalism. They assert that when they campaign over jobs, wages, pensions or zebra crossings or whatever else catches their fancy as an issue which can be flogged as a vote-winner, they are actually bringing nearer the end of this social system. They are scornful of the argument that to effect a real change in society there must be a proper understanding and desire for that change instead of for keeping capitalism with one or two modifications in policies and leadership.

This government, with its gaggle of leaders who have come through all that left wing nonsense into what they will say are the realities of power—by which they mean the real, hard world of trying to run capitalism as if it is some other kind of society—exposes this powerful myth. The one big problem is that the myth is not only powerful but persistent. The likes of Mandelson, Robinson, Byers and Milburn may have changed their line and have been exposed but for every one like them there are others out there still agitating, still campaigning, still deceiving themselves. It is a massive, frustrating irony that affairs like Mandelson’s resignation, whatever else it shakes, does nothing to affect that.


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