Peter Mandelson: I’m glad we stayed and fought during Labour’s darkest hour
Peter Mandelson says the public see Keir Starmer as "a possible prime minister", but warns Labour has a "steep mountain to climb" before it can return to power
Peter Mandelson was a key figure in the Labour Party’s long march back to power in the late 1980s and 1990s. As Keir Starmer embarks on a similarly arduous task, Mandelson is hopeful a new generation can climb the “steep mountain” ahead
For a man who has spent much of his career being pejoratively referred to as the ‘Prince of Darkness’, Peter Mandelson is currently emitting rays of positivity.
That is not to say that he is somehow ambivalent about, or at ease with, the current situation. Instead, he is preferring to seek out the positive, rather than dwell on the negative.
The first spark of optimism has come from the development of an NHS contact tracing app for the coronavirus, which he argues could inspire innovation in the healthcare system. “In this sense, we shouldn’t waste the crisis and the terrible suffering it has inflicted on people,” he says.
“We need a modern health system that takes full advantage of data, both for diagnostics and continuing care, as well as artificial intelligence where it can be deployed, to target resources and to enhance therapeutic care and recovery. Let’s not simply talk ourselves down into a stupor of despair about this, ghastly as the medical crisis is. We can learn and improve things for the better.”
While a “sledgehammer” has been taken to the economy, Mandelson argues there is an understanding that the burden of sacrifice will have to fall on “everyone’s shoulders equally, according to their resources and what they can pay”. As a result, he continues, Britain will be a “better and more equitable society”. “That is another gain that we can seize from what has been a terrible experience.”
For all of these reasons, there has been a perception that politics in the post-corona world will be firmly in Labour’s sweet spot. “Many Labour people are expecting policy to move much more onto our territory, as demands grow for the protection and security offered by a strong state and the public services it delivers. And, of course, this is right. Boris Johnson has recognised this by stating emphatically that there is such a thing as society,” says Mandelson.
However, he urges caution about taking away the wrong message.
“Now, just as the Tories will need to face up to the tax implications of this realisation, because no longer can our public services and welfare system be run on the cheap, so too must Labour address public concerns and priorities realistically and in a modern way, and not take ideological license to pursue old-fashioned notions of socialism. That would be the wrong lesson to take from the coronavirus crisis,” he says.
“Labour’s 2019 manifesto was written by different people for different times, and whatever the merits of its individual policies, we have to understand that we are now facing demands and challenges of a very different kind and magnitude in order to rescue the UK economy and to rebuild so much of it. The world has changed as a result of this pandemic, and Labour’s policy making must adjust to new realities.”
The Labour peer’s sanguinity is not contained to green shoots emerging out of the pandemic. Mandelson is feeling sprightly about his party’s new commander-in-chief. “I feel good about Keir Starmer’s leadership, because he’s a thoroughly decent and diligent individual, for whom it is very easy for the public to see as a future prime minister,” he says.
“Given Labour’s last lost decade, that is a major step forward. It doesn’t win the next election in itself, but it is the obvious place to start. He’s created a whole new frontbench in his own image; competent, non-factional, and electorally ambitious. The composition of the new Shadow Cabinet has completely redefined Labour away from its recent past.”
Mandelson made no secret of his reservations about Ed Miliband’s leadership, and more notably, that of Jeremy Corbyn. In 2017, speaking at a Jewish Chronicle event, Mandelson revealed that he worked “every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office”.
If Labour is going to keep talking to itself, with endless virtue-signalling that pleases its activists but has no appeal to voters, then we won’t regain support
Though his differences with Corbyn are deeply embedded, Mandelson says he did not vote for another party during his time as leader, or give true consideration to jumping ship. “I was very much on the side of those in the mainstream who were determined not to have our party taken away from us. I believed in staying and fighting, but I always knew that you had to have something to fight for; values, a social democratic tradition, a sense of public interest,” he says. “I regretted those who left; I never thought at any stage that a new party was possible to create at that time and in those circumstances. I feel that with hindsight, that was the right judgment to make.”
Mandelson was a key architect of Labour’s long march back to power in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1985, he was appointed by Neil Kinnock as the party’s campaign and communications director. He oversaw Labour’s ‘Red Rose’ election two years later, during which he commissioned Oscar-winning director Hugh Hudson to film a party political broadcast. The campaign reinstated Labour as the principal challenger to the Conservatives, seeing off the SDP/Liberal alliance.
“Although, finally, it took much longer than any of us imagined to get back into power, the journey was longer and harder than any of us anticipated, it was well worth it once we had arrived there,” he says. “I’m glad we stayed and fought, just as I’m glad now that we didn’t walk away at the Labour party’s darkest hour during the last decade, because we now have a leader and a team who are capable of leading the party back to government.”
The journey will be arduous, he concedes. “We have a bad immediate past to live down.” In this regard, he argues Sir Keir Starmer has set the right tone. “The first thing he’s done is right and that is to make an immediate apology for the anti-Semitic racism that infested the Labour party and was tolerated by its leadership and senior staff at the party headquarters. That is absolutely unforgivable. The apology is sincerely made, and I know that Keir Starmer will put this right. He has to do so in order to earn back the respect and trust of millions of Labour supporters who felt in all conscience they couldn’t vote for us under Jeremy Corbyn,” he says.
He adds: “If [the public] think that the Labour party is just going to keep messing around in an amateurish way, talking to itself, with endless virtue-signalling that pleases its activists but has no appeal to its voters, then we won’t regain the support. Just as we did that in the 1980s and 90s, I’m afraid we have another steep mountain to climb in bringing back that electoral support that we have lost during the last ten years.”
Unlike Tony Blair when he took on the leadership in 1994, Mandelson says Starmer faces the challenge of a party machine that has become “very severely run down, and senior staff who are directly implicated in the hollowing out of Labour’s internal working and democratic procedures, and their tolerance of anti-Semitic racism in the party”.
“This requires a complete change in culture, quite apart from anything else, and zero tolerance of such racism in the party, in both its membership and its staff,” he says.
Does he believe Starmer needs to make changes to senior staff? “A lot of the party’s current staffing were brought in to reflect the sectarianism of Corbyn’s leadership. They were appointed not to serve the party as a whole, but to serve him, his cronies, and the very narrow ideology which they advanced,” he replies.
This comes as a leaked report highlighted the level of factional dispute within the party’s ranks. Messages between senior Labour figures, including Iain McNicol, the party’s then general secretary (who has now quit the frontbench), exposed the level of animosity felt towards Corbyn’s leadership. The 860-page document also alleged that this hostility hindered the party’s efforts to tackle anti-Semitism. The report was intended to be submitted as an annexe to the investigation into anti-Jewish racism in the Labour party by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
Mandelson says: “The report leaked the other weekend into the party’s internal workings I regard as an attempt to rewrite history. It offers a very partial picture of the culture and breakdown that enveloped Labour as a result of the Corbyn leadership.”
He adds: “I don’t think it reflects a factional dispute; I think it reflects the state of the Labour party that was an abandonment of the party’s effective internal working and election-winning capability, which I lay directly at the door of Jeremy Corbyn.”
While the systemic divisions that have plagued the Labour party remain, Sir Keir Starmer’s immediate and most pressing challenge relates to managing an effective opposition in a time of unprecedented crisis.
Mandelson, one of the first political figures to be labelled a “spin doctor”, believes the public interest is best served by focussing on policy making, as opposed to “partisan advantage or campaign tactics or effective communication”.
“We see this in spades across the Atlantic with Donald Trump. Policy needs must come before short-term politics; the long-term before the tactical. Both parties, Conservative and Labour, have something to learn from this, underpinned by what are good values, rather than clever politics,” he says.
“If either party is simply going to offer clever politics, then the public will immediately see through it, and their disillusionment with politics in general will simply go deeper than it has reached in the past.”
One of the challenges for the opposition will be the delicate balancing act of holding the Government to account, while avoiding being seen by the public to be acting opportunistically.
In his first major intervention on the crisis, Starmer encouraged the Government to set out its plans for the end of the lockdown. Mandelson, who agrees with this approach, says: “Arguably, we should have seen better forward planning by the government earlier on as the pandemic spread, and by the same token, the opposition should have been more effective in pressing for this. So, we all have something to learn from the experience so far. And I’m glad that Keir is putting the emphasis on where we go from here, not to create an alternative Labour plan, but to contribute constructively to the Government’s own planning.”
The composition of the new Shadow Cabinet has completely redefined Labour away from its recent past
Evoking Jeremy Corbyn’s last interview as leader with the BBC, in which he said he had been “proved right” about levels of public spending, Mandelson cautions against notions of vindication in light of the pandemic.
“I’m very glad that Keir Starmer is engaging in a serious discussion about our national Covid response, rather than simply beating an anti-austerity drum and blaming everything on Tory spending cuts as frankly, we tended to hear from Jeremy Corbyn. There will be plenty of time for debate about future year-on-year growth of NHS spending. And we have learned a big lesson about this from the current emergency” he insists.
The “laser-like” focus, Mandelson contends, should be on NHS hospital care, expansion of and protection for staff, the roll out of testing, and the tracing mechanisms necessary for when the lockdown is phased out.
“Keir Starmer needs to take a granular approach to all these issues. It requires a depth on his part and a real hammering out of the detail of policy, rather than trying to grab for some ideological vindication that the crisis offers,” he asserts.
Though Starmer’s challenges are great, Mandelson, after many years, seems optimistic about the future of his party.
“Look, for the first time since Labour left government in 2010, we have a leader who people can very easily see as prime minister. For the first time since 2010, instead of running down the achievements of the previous Labour government, we’ve got a new team there who are prepared to, yes, take lessons that need to be learned from our time in government, but also celebrate our record and our achievements,” he says.
He concludes: “What on earth is the point of asking people to vote Labour again in the future, if we cannot champion what we have achieved as a party in the past? That’s something that has been forgotten during the last decade, and now is the time to turn that corner.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.