These days the attack dogs are too nice. Where’s the modern Peter Mandelson?

by Dan Hodges

Michael Dugher is not the new Peter Mandelson. We know this because last week Dugher told us so.

He didn’t just come out and issue a bald statement to that effect, obviously. That would just have been plain odd:

“Which senior former Labour politician aren’t you going to be tonight Michael”?

“Well, tonight Matthew I’m not going to be Peter Mandelson”.

No, the new shadow minister without portfolio was responding to a tweet from  “eyespymp”, the voyeuristic web site that tracks and broadcasts the movement of our Parliamentary representatives as the go about their daily lives.

According to our eyespy eavesdropper, Dugher was overheard “telling someone he’s going to be ‘Ed’s Mandelson’”. To which the member for Barnsley East responded with a characteristically blunt: “Load of bollocks. I’m currently at home with my kids”.

The kids’ gain is Labour’s loss. A new Peter Mandelson is exactly what we need. A Prince of darkness. Master of the dark arts.

Ed’s got lots of masters of the pastel-coloured arts. Tom Baldwin is an accomplished spinner. But he’s not a real attack dog. He tries. He affects a kick ass, access denied, off the guest list, card marked, co-operation withdrawn, lead-lined boots demeanor. But his heart’s really not in it. He’d hate anyone to know it, but he’s actually quite nice.

Then there is Stewart Wood, another shadow minister without portfolio, who is Ed’s “political mastermind”. Wood has a sharp mind, and a few tricks up his sleeve. He’s got a reputation in Westminster for being a straight shooter. Though if he has to, he knows how to bend the odd bullet round the wall. But he’s also got a serious flaw. Again, he’s quite nice. In an interview he gave to Suzie Mackenzie, Gordon Brown’s biographer, Mackenzie recounts:

“Wood acknowledged that the routine rudeness – the ‘just Gordon’ behaviour – had begun to trouble him. It became ‘more important’ after Brown became prime minister. He suggested that the ‘apologies’ they made for Brown had gone on too long. ‘How you deal as an individual with human beings is a core part of the job’, he said”.

How you deal with human beings? That’s all very good. But it’s hardly Prince of Darkness material is it?

Not that we need to be gender-specific about this sort of stuff. After all, there’s Lucy Powell, still Ed’s acting chief of staff. I used to work with Lucy in Westminster. She’s sharp and she’s bright. But, yeah, you guessed it. She’s quite nice.

That’s the trouble. They’re all nice people. Ayesha and Polly and  Bob. And that guy who sounds a bit like a Scandinavian washing machine designer: Torsten Henricson-Bell.

And of course, Ed himself. People really like Ed. Well, his brother’s still a bit pissed with him obviously. But everyone else does. “He listens”, said one Labour MP.

And that makes a refreshing change. People like me may hanker for the machismo and testosterone fuelled days of the New Labour ascendancy. But even I have to concede that on occasion things went a little far. “You have to remember, you only have to break one of their legs, not both of them”, Tony Blair once told an overzealous aide. But everyone knew he didn’t mean it. Both legs had to broken, on principle.

Niceness is good. As is inclusivity. People will always go that extra mile for those they like. Steve Norris once told me how Margaret Thatcher always placed a premium on the human aspects of her party leadership; always careful to ask after the children and spouses of her MPs, and generous with her time if there were issues involving them. That generosity didn’t often extend beyond the Parliamentary Conservative party, but it stood her in good stead when the going got tough.

But it’s also true that, unless you have a bit of steel in your operation, the going will quickly get very tough indeed. And that’s what Ed currently lacks. A lurker. A shape-shifter. Someone to glide out of the shadows, dispense some hard-headed advice, then slide off back into the gloom.

Peter was very good at that. The gliding I mean. He was excellent at the advice bit, clearly. But he also had this ability to emerge out of nowhere, breeze towards you as if  he was on casters, then turn and breeze away again. I once jokingly asked an aide if he was on roller-skates. The aide didn’t joke back.

Okay, the gliding bit is optional. But the hard-headed advice is essential. Politics is all about grace under pressure; the ability to make the right decision when the chips are down. That was Mandelson’s gift. “The thing about Peter”, said someone who had worked with him, and not entirely enjoyed the experience, “is that when you were presented with a real problem he would always seem to come up with a line instantaneously. And invariably, it would be the right line”.

That’s what Ed needs. Someone who, when presented with the tough, borderline decisions, comes up with the right call.  “Ed. There are some people camping on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. They’re defecating inside it, daubing graffiti on the walls and abusing British Legion poppy sellers. Should we back ‘em?”. Enter prince or princess of darkness. “No Ed. You shouldn’t”. Exit prince or princess, stage left.

Is Dugher our black prince?

He has the credentials. He used to work for Gordon Brown. And lived to tell the tale.

If he got punched, he wore the scars with impunity. And discretion. Which, coincidently, is important. If you want to be a master of the dark arts you must learn to keep your counsel. Until there’s a closely fought leadership election, at which point you publish your memoirs, spill the beans, and scupper yet another leadership challenge by David Miliband.

“He’s got the relationships with the lobby, but he’s a very different character”, says one close Dugher acquaintance.  “He loves a good lunch, but he goes home to his kids”. But is he nefarious? Capable of real skullduggery? Does Michael possess something of the night? “Well, to be honest, and I know this isn’t quite what you’re looking to write, but no”.

And that’s the problem. Dugher is nice. Ed is nice. The whole of our benighted party is nice.

The schemers, the plotters, the assassins, the poisoners, the agent provocateurs. They have been banished. Or fled. Embraced by big tobacco, or the arms industry or the Jeremy Kyle show.

And what’s left? People of honesty. Decency. Principle. People who say “Ed should be Ed”, and let him.

This is what twelve months of Ed Miliband’s leadership has done for Labour. Transformed us into the “nice party”. It is a tragedy.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


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16 Responses to “These days the attack dogs are too nice. Where’s the modern Peter Mandelson?”

  1. swatantra says:

    What Ed needs is a George Wigg, someone who can keep his eyes nose and ears and close to the ground and spot potential troublemakersnd report personally back to Ed so that he can neutralise them at the first opportunity.
    And that goes for Party backstabbers as well as our political enemies. Peter Mandelson was just to nice to be an attack dog.

  2. Ben Cobley says:

    So would you say the Tories’ reputation as “The Nasty Party” is something admirable and Cameron’s desperate attempts to detoxify are all a waste of time? I am afraid this piece, though a good read, seems like yet another example of sour grapes. There is nothing wrong with being the “nice party”, especially if it means being nice to each other.

    However we do have problems, no doubt about that. Among them are a distrust of disagreement and debate, which are invariably personalised and rooted in differences from a long time ago. But on the media, spin side, as I see it we have a combination of a high level of control being exercised over messages with weak messages.

    Of course it would be good to have better messages, but I also favour letting the leash off a bit and encouraging our people to be a little more human in their interactions with the outside world – they are so constricted at the moment and generally struggle to express themselves in a reasonably normal way.

    For more on this, see an article I did on LabourList a week or two back: http://labourlist.org/2011/11/we-need-to-stop-being-boring/

    Basically, the argument is that being nice is fine, but we cannot combine it in opposition with being boring – yet that is where we are now.

  3. The Future says:

    I have no idea what to say about this article!!

    So I will point out one thing that made me laugh out loud.

    ” If you want to be a master of the dark arts you must learn to keep your counsel. Until there’s a closely fought leadership election, at which point you publish your memoirs, spill the beans, and scupper yet another leadership challenge by David Miliband.”

    I guess this is the final stage of coming to terms with a loss that hurt you deeply Dan. Humour. Always a good sign.

  4. Wilson says:

    Also needed: a new loan, a new Geoffrey Robinson, a new Keith Vaz and a new Hinduja brothers.

    Oh, wait…we still have the old Keith Vaz…

  5. Robert Eve says:

    Labour – a nice party?

    Pull the other one.

  6. aragon says:

    What can I say – Yet again Dan Hodges is both wrong and short-sighted.

    Like most people Dan doesn’t like it when his views are not shared by the leadership. Hence his shape-shifter also supports Dan’s ‘Hard Headed’ (aka unimaginative, and wrong) policies.

    Re: Saint Paul’s, as I have posted before in a comment, the meme is correct, even if you can’t give the protesters the time of day.

    The status quo of the economic system is not working for the vast majority of society.

    You don’t need a bludgeon if you are adept with a rapier.

    But I am not familiar with Team Ed …

    p.s.
    I am so mythical, it has been said, I don’t exist.

    “The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

    The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

  7. Job application, Dan? :-)

  8. Forlornehope says:

    And Michael Foot, now there was a really nice man!

  9. madasafish says:

    ” The whole of our benighted party is nice.”

    Best joke I’ve read today.

    Any Party with the following as members:
    Damian MacBride
    and Derck Draper

    tolerates people whose words and actions are despicable and beyond the pale.

    And any Party with Ed Balls and Gordon Brown as MPs tolerates bullying and dirty tricks.. see above.

    I take it this article is a bad joke…

  10. Jane says:

    I honestly do not want an attack dog. Indeed, we do not need one as we have far too many already which I find very off putting. Further, there is no one of Peter Mandelson’s abilities around at the moment. He may have been considered an attack dog by those in the know, but I found him to be well able to put an alternate argument in such a gracious manner that he was highly persuasive. Much better skills than those at the moment who whinge, hector or bully everytime the government seeks to do something necessary. Much better to have someone who persuades and who does not seek to rubbish opponents.

    Oh well I live in hope. Finally, I would not trust anyone who worked closely with GB nor would I ever vote for them.

  11. Dr Iago says:

    All very interesting but is Ed Balls simply the exception that proves the rule?

  12. Millsy says:

    Entertaining article – and correct as well. You should be nicer to Ed Miliband though!

  13. Keith says:

    How can anyone claim that the party that allowed Gordon Brown and his nasty acolytes, like Balls, Wheelan and McBride, to infect their poison in the party is beyond me. Labour will never win again until it rids itself of their ilk.

  14. Keith says:

    How can anyone claim that the party that allowed Gordon Brown and his nasty acolytes, like Balls, Wheelan and McBride, to infect their poison in the party is nice is beyond me. The fact that they applied their dirty tricks on their own colleagues means that Labour will never win again until it rids itself of their ilk.

  15. Cat says:

    @Dan

    Oh wait, you’re not going to flounce out of the torygraph to be Ed’s new prince of darkness are you? Congatulations on your new job btw, I am impressed by your rapid ascent from dodgy clairvoyant to telegraph columnist and all of the back of a few snotty articles.

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