Greasy Pole: Mandelson – Coming Up For The Third Time?
With a little help from his friend in Number Ten, Stephen Byers kept afloat for as long as he could but in the end he was dragged down by the sheer weight of his exposure. This was an opportunity for Blair to re-arrange his ministers, unexpectedly promoting Paul Boateng to the influential, money-filtering job of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Boateng does not have a reputation for being sympathetic but he is the first black Cabinet minister, which ensured that his appointment dominated the media. On the following day the front pages were given over to huge photographs of him and the inside pages were lavished on profiles of him. There was hardly a mention of Alistair Darling, the new minister in the hot seat of Transport and even less of the discredited and embarrassing Byers, who had now sunk almost without trace.
We have become accustomed to the Blair government’s aptitude for this kind of media manipulation. At one time it was the speciality of Peter Mandelson, who like Byers is now fallen from grace but who does not consent so easily to being airbrushed out of the reckoning. In fact Mandelson, although he was twice forced to resign from the government when he was blamed for some particularly blatant sleaze, rather fancied himself as a successor to Byers. In a recent interview he discussed his possible response if Blair were to offer him the Transport job: “ I love being a minister. I love being in government, it’s what I was put on earth to do.” This wistful musing was a change from his vengeful, tub-thumping reaction to being re-elected for Hartlepool in the election of 2001:
Before this campaign started, it was said that I was facing political oblivion, my career in tatters, apparently never to be part of political life again. Well they underestimated Hartlepool and they under-
estimated me, because I am a fighter and not a quitter.
Has Mandelson changed, then? Is he no longer the Prince of Darkness, the presence in the background who plotted his party’s rise to power with such diabolical skill – and then applied the same talents to undermine anyone who was less than ardent in their admiration for blessed Tony Blair? Is he re-assessing his essential role in politics, so that he is not a fighter or a quitter but a joiner? One step in this direction is the publication of an up-to-date version of his 1996 book The Blair Revolution, of which there were extracts in the Guardian on 17 and 18 May. When Mandelson originally wrote that book Labour had been out of government long enough to make it safe for Blair to spout meaningless promises about “. . . a new social order in Britain, a genuine modern civic society for our time, based on merit, commitment and inclusion”. A lot has happened since then, a lot of reality has penetrated the verbiage of Labour leaders; two landslide election victories for them, Mandelson twice in and twice out of government, the comprehensive exposure of New Labour as not significantly different to the Tories – even in the matter of sleaze, which in 1996 seemed to be exclusively Conservative territory.
And now we have him, perhaps because he sees it as the only way back into favour with the leadership, re-assessing the government’s record in a manner which must have demanded all his guile and talent for obfuscation. Too carping an approach would have made him seem to be sulking. Too obsequious and he would have been included in that contemptible bunch of lapdogs on the Labour benches. Something better mannered, more constructive was needed. Like this:
- In acquiring skills to deal with the media, we created spin
- In winning business to our side, we lost some workforce confidence
- . . . having promised less than we thought we could do, we started hyping more than we were actually achieving…
- . . . too many of the worst estates and deprived communities remain unchanged – bleak ghettos depressing the sprits of all who live in them . . . too often becoming centres of danger and desperation
- New Labour government mark one has been too controlling in the way it tries to run the country and Whitehall
These comments will be recognised by many people whose reservations about New Labour in government have often provoked a dangerous hostility from Mandelson. So the apparent conversion of the man who, more than almost everyone else in politics was notorious for creating spin, control-freakery and “losing workforce confidence” must provoke a few questions. Should we take what he says at all seriously? Has he ever given us any reason to believe him? The evidence against him is overwhelming.
To begin with, Mandelson was once an active member of the Young Communist League. Nothing much wrong with that, it might be argued; we all have the right to change our minds if we have reason to and there are plenty of ardent Blairites in the government who cut their political teeth as left-wing hell-raisers. In Mandelson’s case that argument is weakened by his attempts to conceal this murky bit of his past, saying that he “. . . wasn’t sure whether I was technically a member” of the Communist Party.
Luckily, by the time he was in the government in 1998 he had transformed himself into a mature politician, assuring an audience of business executives, in case they had any qualms about New Labour having silly ideas about equality of access, that the government was “. . . intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. (The word “relaxed” was a favourite with New Labour just then – it was a handy euphemism for breaking promises and acting against what they had claimed were their sacred principles.) In fact Mandelson had been relaxed about getting into the Commons in the first place because, in June 1989, just before he sought out the nomination for the rock safe seat at Hartlepool, he “categorically” denied having any intention of standing for parliament.
Hartlepool is not famous as a place where the rich have discreet villas and keep their yachts – which may have caused a few problems to its new Member of Parliament. During a visit there Mandelson was persuaded to enter a fish and chip shop. Blanketing any possible disdain at where he found himself, with a show of gourmet enthusiasm he asked for “some of that guacamole” – meaning a portion of good old working class mushy peas. (Guacamole, for those who do not frequent the same exalted circles as Mandelson, is made from avocado, tomatoes, mayonnaise and seasoning. It is a popular dish in the kind of trendy restaurants favoured by left-wingers). Rather than slumming it in a chippy Mandelson was more at home in another class of company. Like the ministers in the first Labour governments in the 1920s, he wallowed in the attentions of the filthy rich. His first parliamentary assistant, Derek Draper (who was no mean social climber himself) wrote that Mandelson “. . . loved mixing with rich, glamorous, exciting people. He seems to go ga-ga when he has anything to do with them”. His eagerness to have a home appropriate to his ambitions tempted him into borrowing all that money from Geoffrey Robinson (for the same price he could have bought something like a whole street in Hartlepool) and his reactive tendency to conceal the truth led him into the attempted cover up, which in the end cost him his ministry.
A readiness to double-cross made a bitter, implacable enemy of Gordon Brown. In the leadership election after the death of John Smith in 1994 Mandelson seemed to be assuring Brown of his support at a time when he was actually committed to Blair. Of course that’s politics – and so are the dark arts of lies and manipulation. Where does Mandelson stand on this? In 1986, when he was Labour’s Director of Campaigns and Communications, he wanted to get rid of his deputy, John Booth. It may have been that Booth was becoming a bit of an embarrassment to Mandelson; for one thing he had found out that his boss was in regular contact with the Times, in spite of a Labour Party executive decision to break contact with Murdoch’s papers over the sacking of hundreds of printers during the move to Wapping. Booth contested the matter, whereupon Mandelson assured him that if he had to be sacked “I will make any fabrication of the truth and stick by it faithfully”. To make the point clear to a wider audience, in August 1997 he informed us of the function and uses of spin doctoring: “to create the truth”.
These matters are the tip of the very nasty Mandelson iceberg. But we should not lose sight of the fact that whatever he did was not briefly experimental. It was done with the collusion of his party’s leadership, because they saw it as an essential contribution to their victory. He fawned on the rich and socially parasitic while Blair told us that New Labour was on the side of “ordinary people, against privilege”. He specialised in underhand trickery to serve the interests of a party which promised “open government” (as if there can be such a thing). He did all this when he was a member of a government which was committed to turning its back on the years of Tory sleaze. It was at one time convenient to punish him so that New Labour could claim he was an isolated case. The truth – the uncreated, undoctored truth is that the politics of capitalism, like the system itself, must be founded in deceit.