Peter Mandelson Peter Mandelson, Photo: Peter Mandelson Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The nightmarish return of spectres from Labour’s past is the last thing the party needs, writes Sean Ledwith

A couple of weeks ago, a marketing team commissioned by Labour recommended that Keir Starmer wrap himself in the Union flag and wear even smarter suits as the best means to reboot his ailing leadership of the party. The logical next step of this lurch to the right has apparently taken place with recent reports that the Labour Leader is turning to the Blairite Prince of Darkness himself for advice on strategy.

Peter Mandelson was the eminence grise of New Labour, serving both as a spin doctor to Neil Kinnock in the 80s and cabinet minister during Blair’s premiership. As if this development is not unnerving enough, those other architects of the privatising and warmongering New Labour project, Alistair Campbell and Gordon Brown, are also reportedly in regular contact with the Starmer leadership.

Forensic failure

Despite opposing a government that has presided over the biggest postwar calamity in modern British history, Starmer has somehow allowed the Tories to open up a significant lead in the polls and is facing mounting criticism of his failure to identify a coherent alternative vision for the country. With Boris Johnson cynically using the successful vaccine rollout to disguise his otherwise disastrous management of the pandemic, Starmer has become a marginal figure with a misconceived reluctance to call out Johnson’s blunders and is now flailing around looking for a message to cut through the Tory propaganda.

Turning to a man who personified the 90s zeitgeist of spin over substance and New Labour’s infatuation with the corporate world is just the latest indicator that Starmer is utterly incapable of providing the type of robust challenge to the Tories that huge swathes of the country are crying out for.

Dark arts

Apart from Blair himself, it would be impossible to think of a more divisive and toxic figure to intervene in the party’s navel gazing than the former Hartlepool MP and EU commissioner. Mandelson first came to prominence in the 80s when he advised Neil Kinnock to adopt an anodyne red rose as the emblem of the party instead of the traditional red flag. He was also the brain behind the woeful attempt to run an Americanised campaign centred around the personality of the leader in 1992 that climaxed with a cringeworthy, balloon-festooned rally in Sheffield.

Despite being closely involved in Kinnock’s two crushing defeats of 1987 and 1992, Mandelson inevitably caught the ear of Tony Blair and, as the party’s pre-eminent spin doctor, guided the latter towards the scrapping of the Clause 4 commitment to nationalisation and the ideological makeover of New Labour. Having tutored his centrist protege in the dark arts of spin, Mandelson was rewarded by Blair with two cabinet posts in government, both of which he managed to lose due to allegations of financial misconduct.

Filthy rich

As Trade Secretary, Mandelson first resigned in 1998 when an undeclared loan from another minister of £373 000 to buy a house came to light. Ten months later, he was back as Northern Ireland Secretary – only to be forced out again in 2001 when his shady dealings to support passport applications by the billionaire Hinduja brothers began to create another stink in Westminster. Following his fall from grace in domestic politics, Mandelson merrily boarded the EU gravy train and was appointed UK Commissioner to Brussels.

His penchant for hanging out with the world’s parasitical elite was unabated and infamous meetings onboard luxury yachts with Silicon Valley executives and Russian oligarchs became his modus operandi. Mandelson even associated with Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious Wall Street financier and sex offender whose imprisonment and suicide in 2019 peeled the lid off the venality of the global 1%. A contributor to a Channel 4 documentary in 2009 expressed astonishment about the close connection between the two men:

I must say I was astonished that a British Cabinet minister at that time, probably the most powerful man other than the Prime Minister, was calling Jeffrey in jail.

Enemy within

Mandelson has been nothing if not consistent over the years with his agenda of undermining any commitment from Labour to radical social and economic change and aligning the party with the requirements of the establishment. In the New Labour era he explicitly stated: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” During Corbyn’s time as leader, Mandelson did not hide his subversion of the left:

Something, however small it may be – an email, a phone call or a meeting I convene – every day I try to do something to save the Labour party from his leadership.

He was one of the leading lights – along with Starmer himself of course – of the Remainer campaign for a second referendum which, more than anything, sabotaged Corbyn’s 2019 election campaign.

Blairite saboteurs

Starmer is currently exerting a lot of time and money looking for explanations of Labour’s defeat in the last election. The irony is the current Leader himself, along with Blairite saboteurs like Mandelson, were directly responsible for turning the party away from the insurgent campaign of 2017 that added 10% to the share of the vote, and towards a tamer campaign two years later that saddled it with the albatross of a commitment to a second referendum. The spirit of 2017, not that of 1997, offers the best way back to relevance for Labour – and clearly under Starmer’s leadership, the party will continue to head in the opposite direction.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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