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Peter Mandelson: If the Left want to block Starmer, they should leave the Labour party

Lord Peter Mandelson, former MP for Hartlepool, was a key figure under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown | Alamy

7 min read

Labour grandee, Lord Peter Mandelson, has either worked for or been a parliamentarian under seven party leaders. He talks to Georgina Bailey about why Keir Starmer can’t turn the clock back now

For a so-called “Prince of Darkness”, Lord Mandelson is sitting in a very bright room. When he is thinking about an answer, he stretches his arms up behind his head and the dazzling light from the window behind him creates an almost halo effect. 

A former director of communications for Labour under Neil Kinnock, before becoming a key adviser to and cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as both an MP and peer, Mandelson isn’t short of opinions on the party’s future.

“Labour has got to start believing in itself again. Yes, we have a mountain to climb electorally, but we have done it before. And we can do so again, especially with all the uncertainty and volatility we see in politics now,” Mandelson says. “Traditional party loyalties are not what they were. And there is both a downside and an upside to this. You have to work harder for every vote – but there are more votes available to work for.” 

For this to succeed, Mandelson says the party needs to reinvent itself – again – and listen more to the voters at large, and less to its own activists. A success for Starmer in a 2024 general election would be a majority government, Mandelson says – something that would require a larger swing than Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997. He won’t be drawn on Starmer’s future if he fails to achieve said victory, or name who he sees as a future talent in the Parliamentary Labour Party. 

Despite his Blairite credentials, Mandelson says he doesn’t believe the party should return to a New Labour outlook, but instead come up with a new analysis and solutions to the country’s challenges. However, there are lessons to learn from New Labour, including on messages around spending, he says, balancing reassurance with inspiration.

People can tell the difference between an emergency and normal times… Labour can only win on a foundation of economic competence

“It is just a fact that Labour will go into any election, with a perception lodged in voters’ minds that Labour caves into spending demands. That whatever the Tories spend, Labour will want to spend more than the country can afford. We have to counter this.

“The problem is that there’s a large slice of opinion on the left of the party which is resistant to framing Labour’s appeal to those who have voted Conservative. They don’t want to compromise with the electorate.”

He doesn’t agree with the analysis of those on the left that high-spending Keynesian policies are back in vogue as a result of the pandemic. “People can tell the difference between an emergency and normal times… Labour can only win on a foundation of economic competence and trust on public borrowing, tax and spend. That was true for New Labour and it is true now.

“I heard the other day that Labour is intent on re-nationalising all the public utilities. Well, that was last century’s solution. We’re now in the 21st century. We’ve got to be looking forwards not trying to turn the clock back.”

Tony Blair (L) with Peter Mandelson on a visit Northern Ireland, April 2000

Our interview takes place over Zoom a week out from Labour Party Conference; as is increasingly common with politicians, The House was asked to send over talking points in advance. Unusually, however, the difference between Mandelson’s pre-scripted remarks, and his sometimes-terse response to follow-ups or anything off-script is notable. 

This is particularly true when talking about Starmer and his predecessor. Despite the rumours of his position as an unofficial adviser, the New Labour grandee says he doesn’t speak to the current Labour leader. “Let me rephrase that,” Mandelson says. “I’d be very happy to speak to Keir Starmer, but I don’t currently.” Why not? “Why should I? Why should he?”

Mandelson says he was shocked but not surprised when his former seat of Hartlepool fell to the Conservatives earlier this year, saying it was the “inevitable culmination of what had been going on in the Labour Party locally and nationally during 10 years before”. The local party had been made “almost unrecognisable” by the left-wingers who had “captured” it and the Momentum activists who “poured in”, he says. 

Arch-remainer Mandelson, who held the previously safe Labour seat between 1992 and 2004, believes the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn was responsible for Labour’s May 2021 loss in Hartlepool, rather than Brexit. Has Starmer, who served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet for four years, done enough to distance himself from the former leader?

“The worst thing about the Corbyn era, and there were quite a few, was the anti-Semitism that came into the party under Corbyn, which brought Labour to the lowest point in our history. It was shameful. 

“I do not feel that Corbyn understands this even now, which is why he has never shown the commensurate contrition for what happened. I do not see that changing. It all stems from a worldview on the far left that he has held to for the last 40 years. Those groups and people who want to defend the anti-Semitism of the Corbyn era, in my view, have no place in the party. And Keir Starmer has very effectively disowned and put a large distance between himself and what those people did during that terrible period.”

Corbyn himself rejected the overall findings of a report on anti-Semitism in Labour saying:  “One anti-Semite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons”.  He said at the time his “sincere hope” was that relations with Jewish communities could be rebuilt and he trusted the report’s recommendations would be “swiftly implemented”.

So, should Corbyn be permanently excluded from the Labour party? “I think I have given my answer to that question.”

I try again: so Corbyn shouldn’t be allowed back into the [Parliamentary] Labour Party? “I’ve given my answer to that question.”

On the question of a Neil Kinnock/Militant style purge of Corbynites, Mandelson says he is “much more concerned about assembling the ideas, the vision and the programme that we need to present to the country”.

“But, if the hard left wants to stand in the way of that and prevent Keir Starmer taking the Labour Party forward, then he’s got to face them down. There’s no question about that. And no doubt he will face a lot of tests like this, probably starting with the Party Conference, opening in Brighton.”

If people don’t want to sign up to that project, then they should go off and fight elsewhere under their own colours

I ask if he is happy to see high-profile Corbynites such as Novara Media journalist Ash Sarkar announcing they’re leaving the Labour party? “I’m sorry, but who? I don’t know who she is,” says Mandelson.

On the principle of the matter, however: “The Labour Party needs to be a broadly based, popular winning coalition representing a modern, progressive force in British politics. If people don’t want to sign up to that project, then they should go off and fight elsewhere under their own colours,” he says. 

Mandelson also rejects the idea that New Labour took Red Wall seats for granted or looked down on working class voters. Instead, he places the blame with Blair’s successors. “With the weakening of New Labour’s identity under Gordon Brown, and the disowning of it by Ed Miliband, the Labour Party lost its identity for many of our supporters in the country, they didn’t understand what Labour stood for.” This was accelerated by Corbyn, he says, who led the party into a “near death experience”.

On his own former boss, Mandelson says they still regularly speak about the future of the Labour party. Blair has made strong interventions on Covid and Afghanistan, he says; he doesn’t engage with questions about why Blair is now unpopular in some parts of the country.

Mandelson, who has previously said he would love a job in a Starmer government, will be attending Conference this year. Still a trusted advisor for many ambitious MPs, it will be fascinating to see how warm his reception is from what remains a divided party. 

Lord Mandelson was appearing on behalf of HowTheLightGetsIn Festival, the world’s largest philosophy and music festival, hosted by the Institute of Art and Ideas. It ran at Kenwood House from Sept 18-19 2021

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