Mandelson: the great returner

by Dave Talbot

Moments after the close of the first debate of the general election, Lib Dem officials were breathlessly rushing around the Granada studios in Manchester. They were hailing their leader’s performance as a potential “game-changer” in an election that had seemingly been thrown wide open. I had travelled up north, more in hope than expectation that Gordon Brown would defy all his critics and speak in Shakespearian tones that would galvanise the nation. It was not to be. Somewhat bored and slightly tired, I turned to a Spanish journalist next to me:

“Nick Clegg did well”, I ventured.

“He has been like a gift from God for me”, he replied in his Catalonian tones. “There was no interest in the election before, none. But now Mr and Mrs Clegg will be on the front page. The Spanish people still fantasise that five hundred years after the Armada we are finally going to put a Spanish catholic woman in Number 10”.

“Probably not”, I replied. “Who had the Spanish press found the most to write about thus far”, I asked?

“Well Clegg, of course. But my favourite is Mr Mandelson. He is the most grotesque character”.

As if on cue, Lord Mandelson then slithered into the press room, ready to begin the spinning. It was, I noted, an utterly futile task to convince anyone that Brown had won the debate and that Labour were on course for a fourth term.

But the very fact that he was even there was remarkable. This was a man who had announced, in early 2008, that he would not seek a second term as European commissioner, purely to deny Gordon Brown the pleasure of sacking him. And yet, he had not only returned to the top echelons of the Labour party, but had became instrumental in holding the party together in its final flourishes of government.

Mandelson returned to the political scene this week with an address to the Labour party pressure group, Progress. Contrary to widespread opinion, Progress is not the devil incarnate of the Labour party. I will declare an interest: my first job in Westminster was as a lowly intern at Progress towers. But the impression that I formed there, two years ago, has remained resolute. They are a group of like-minded people determined to strive for Labour victories.

Chaired by the indefatigable Blairite, John Rentoul, the seminar could have taken on the appearance of a wake for the defeated. But Mandelson, as ever, had words of wisdom to dispense. The former secretary of state warned the party against returning to the infighting which had so characterised and debilitated the Labour party during the 1980s and throughout the worst of the Blair-Brown years. More strikingly, he resolutely backed Ed Miliband. But he urged the Labour leader to be “more innovative and more courageous” in order to assert himself in the public eye.

It was a call for party renewal from the architect of New Labour. From policy to party funding and candidate selection, genuine root and branch reform is required. Political projects that fail to renew themselves are soon swept away and deserve to be. Renewal is what keeps progressive political movements alive.

Parties can survive for long periods as defenders of particular social interests, as standard bearers of once powerful ideologies and as instruments of individual political ambition. They may even from time to time get elected. But without a relevant governing project, in touch with changing social and political challenges, they will not prosper. The left has always been at its best when it has modernised and the basic lesson of Labour history is not that we modernised too much, but that we never modernised enough.

Mandelson is shrewd enough to have known that his efforts last May, in the Granada studios, were to be in vain, but his intervention this week is not to be dismissed. A year on from a traumatic defeat, the Labour party has yet to find its voice. Polls confirm that the party is tottering just ahead of the Conservatives, with Ed Miliband facing challenging personal ratings. Miliband’s quip, during the leadership election, that he believed in “dignity in retirement” for Mandelson now seems premature.

Whether a grotesque character or not, Mandelson has reiterated that the desire for change and renewal should never abate.

David Talbot is a political consultant.

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2 Responses to “Mandelson: the great returner”

  1. Tim Sewell says:

    It depresses me when I hear Labour members and supporters’ ferocious denunciations of Peter Mandelson. The man has a towering intellect and, personal tastes for luxury notwithstanding, has given his entire working life to the furtherance of the Labour Party.

  2. Tim Sewell says:

    A working life during which, I forgot to add, he could, given his undoubted abilities, have become intensely relaxed about making himself filthy rich instead.

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