The man we loved to blame – Dan Hodges defends Peter Mandelson

Soon after England’s  penalty loss to Germany in Euro ’96, (remember the days when we could still take people to penalties), a pizza advert appeared featuring Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and Gareth Southgate. Waddle and Pearce, who had missed similar penalty attempts during the 1990 World Cup, were seen coaching Southgate in how to come to terms with his own career-defining failure. The advert rebound as spectacularly as  the Aston Villa defender’s spot kick, with many criticising his tasteless attempt to cash in during a period of national trauma.

Gareth Southgate and Peter Mandelson are not two men who naturally meld in the consciousness. But as I watched Peter advertising his new memoirs whilst reclining in a deep leather chair, affecting the air of a Victorian gentleman successfully acquitted of poisoning his wealthy wife, meld they did.

It has always been a source of fascination that Peter’s talent for political communication spectacularly malfunctions when the politician he is attempting to promote is himself. And on this occasion he excelled himself. Ditching Labour’s cloth cap image is one thing. Swapping it for a cravat and smoking jacket while preparing to stab and tell in the pages of the Murdoch press is really rubbing the party’s nose in it.

But then Peter has been rubbing the party’s nose in it for years. And, the truth is, the party has quite enjoyed it.

If Peter Mandelson hadn’t existed, someone in the movement would have had to invent him. Not because he was so vital to the communications strategy that navigated our path to power. Nor because he provided the scaffolding around which the Blair/Brown axis was constructed. But because he provided the psychological ballast which enabled the party to come to terms with the New Labour project. This was his abiding, if somewhat paradoxical, achievement.

When it was reported that Tony Blair had stated that his mission of modernisation would not be complete until the Party had learned to love ‘Mandy’, the comment was ridiculed, and rightly so. But not, as commonly perceived, because the party could never bring itself to love Peter. Rather, because the party couldn’t afford to.

For those on the left, Mandelson fulfilled a crucial and historic role. To break completely from the leadership of the party during the period of our greatest political  success would have meant political oblivion. But nor could they remain silent, and meekly acquiesce in the face of the New Labour challenge.

Step forward the Prince of Darkness. Sinister courtier. Southern dilettante. Pantomime villain and left-wing hate figure drawn from central casting. Here’s  just one response to his 2008 return to Cabinet:

“Peter Mandelson is possibly the most divisive figure in recent Labour party history. It undermines the recent bounce we have had in the polls. As a prime minister would you really feel secure with him in the cabinet when you know he is a regular plotter, someone who is willing to stab anyone in the back?”

So spoke John McDonnell, long time leadership loyalist and Prime Ministerial confidante.

But it’s not just the left who benefited from Peter’s peculiar brand of triangulation. John Prescott developed an entire vaudeville act of gags, crabs and jags carefully calculated to  set himself apart from the Blair inner circle, whilst creating the space to move behind the principal himself. ‘My mate Peter thinks mushy peas are guacamole’, was an integral part  of the routine, and the laughs it generated masked a serious political message: ‘That Mandelson’s a bit suss, but Tony’s all right’.

None of which excuses Peter’s many failings. The excessive enthusiasm with which he embraced the trappings of power cost him and the party dear. His inability to recognise that the New Labour project had reached the limit of its elasticity was equally damaging. And his role in the post-election ‘Lib/Lab coup’ was a disgrace.

But there is  a major element of cant in the current attacks on Labour’s Third Man. Look at this quote from a ‘source’ in the Daily Telegraph:

“Why on earth does Peter want to pick this moment to dredge up all this stuff from the past and divide the party again? We are just starting to hurt the Tories on cuts, and we’ve got a leadership contest which is energising and unifying the party”.

Hold on a second. I thought the whole point of the leadership contest was that we wanted an honest and open debate about the past and future direction of the party? If people want to know where the bodies are buried, now is precisely the time to start digging them up. Everyone inside the Westminster village knows that Ed balls was working to get rid of Blair, David Miliband flirted with getting rid of Brown, and his brother had a punt at getting us all hitched to Nick Clegg. So why not let the rest of the movement  in on the secret?

And at the end, as at the beginning, it is Peter that we turn to while we cast around for our post-electoral alibi. Charlie Whelan, again in the Daily Telegraph:

“Peter ran the worst general campaign in Labour’s history. Nobody knew what the message was at all. It was a disaster from beginning to end.”

Damn that Mandelson. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory like that. There we were, cruising to power , and he comes blundering onto the scene.

The reality is that Peter Mandleson’s critics are right. He was divisive, he was manipulative, he was ruthless. But he was also skillful, driven and, like it or not, one of the reasons we spent 13 years in power.

Yes he used us. But we used him. And now he’s gone, we’re going to miss him.

Dan Hodges is a contributing editor of Labour Uncut

Tags: , , , ,

6 Responses to “The man we loved to blame – Dan Hodges defends Peter Mandelson”

  1. cyberdoyle says:

    speak for yourself, the people won’t miss him, he was the dark force behind the totally flawed digital economy act. He did more harm to our economy through that than many years of good government could put right. He will go down in history as a man bought out by the music industry lobby, who went on to force a bill through washup that shames our nation. The whole process was televised and stained our reputation for democracy. It was a farce, and all those responsible should be ashamed too.

  2. Sure, but if the only good things we can say about him are that he acted as a lightning conductor for anger about Blair and kept lobby journalists entertained, I’m not sure you can say we got our money’s worth from Mandelson.

    Yes, he got the left to accept Blair, but that was going to happen anyway, if a little bit more messily, purely because we badly needed to win an election. But in the meantime he helped to give Labour a reputation for spin and dirty politics that meant that we were actually terrible at spin – nobody believed us even when we were telling the truth. That’s at the kernel of Labour’s loss of support.

    Never mind Iraq, never mind PFI, never mind the recession, never mind the Blair-Brown wars, never mind Gillian Duffy (well, OK, mind all of them, because all of them bar the last was important, but you know what I mean). The reason all of those helped to drag us down is because Labour was not viewed as trustworthy. The slimy aura Mandelson gave Labour meant that people found it that much harder to disagree with us and still vote for us.

    And more than that, it denied us ideological credibility. We weren’t seen as believing in anything. That, as much as the persistent attempts of certain politicians to cater to the tabloid agenda whether or not it was smart politics, is the reason we didn’t take this country as far to the left as we should have done. And whilst Cameron might not be Michael Howard, the devastating ideological tilt to the present cuts would not be possible if we’d dragged the country a bit more towards our way of thinking.

    So yes, Mandelson was not the Prince of Darkness. But let’s not pretend his pantomine villain act hasn’t harmed us.

  3. vern says:

    Labour will be best remembered for destroying British politics during their 13 year power trip. Most people with more than a passing interest in politics have now simply given up on politicians.
    Spin, was their new tool and Mandy,Blair, Brown, Darling and Campbell all used it but Mandy was the master. He is a truly despicable individual who cannot resist the limelight. Even now he is cashing in on the misery he and these rogues caused. Lets not forget he got booted out twice!

    For a party that was supposedly “behind the working classes” and then to treat these people the way that you have is seen as hypocritical and is the reason why decades will pass before you get close to winning another election.

    I am fairly certain the guys at shop floor level never anticipated Blair to launch his own business ventures and feathering his own nest whilst leading the country!

    Good riddance to the lot!!

  4. Brilliant article, very well written.

  5. Amanda Ramsay says:

    Without Mandy and Prezza there would be no Blair and Brown in Downing Street for 13 years

  6. ian crighton says:

    it was thanks to the snake Mandelson , that i and a good many of my friends did not vote labour this time around

    slimey -astard

Leave a Reply