Friday 25 February 2011

Why Mandelson's 'gloves off' New Labour offers the narrow politics of the 'small tent'

Peter Mandelson was a key figure in the creation of New Labour and the most influential electoral and political strategist of his generation. But it is also pretty likely that he cost his favourite candidate the knife-edge leadership election of 2010, by making an unsolicited (and unwelcomed) attempt to polarise the race around the question 'New Labour or not'.

His advice to David Miliband in the paperback edition, exclusively published in a Labour Uncut scoop, was that Mili-D should have welcomed the Blair-Mandelson embrace, not tried to deflect it.

[David] was fearful that if he championed a renewed New Labour vision too strongly, he would be living up to Ed’s stereotype of him as an establishment figure tied to Tony’s coat-tails. He ended up in something of a no-man’s land – wanting to be the New Labour standard-bearer, but terrified that this would lose him many activists’ votes. He did defend New Labour’s achievements when his brother started to single out a number of them for criticism. But I felt then, and still feel, that he missed an opportunity to take the gloves off and mobilise those in the broader party membership who still celebrated our three terms in Downing Street – and who would have followed a leader with a plan to update and reinvigorate our governing programme rather than bury it. (p.xxii)

Though David Miliband was pipped at the post, the evidence rather suggests that the Mandelson strategy would have fared less well than the strategy actually adopted by the candidate and his campaign managers Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy.

Here are three reasons why.

What would Tony have done?

Political mythology would have it that David Miliband should have followed the Tony Blair 'bold' strategy in running such a leadership contest. The problem with this theory is that Tony Blair did no such thing in 1994.

That is why the Blair leadership campaign famously fibbed - and said that Peter Mandelson had no role within it, as Donald MacIntyre recounts.

While Brown sealed Blair's victory by standing down, [...] Blair did not feel confident enough about the effect on either the wider party or his immediate lieutenants - among whom Peter Kilfoyle was the most vociferous Mandelson opponent - to engage Mandelson openly as his senior adviser ... The secrecy was thought necesssary for the Blair campaign to appeal beyond the ranks of modernisers ... Mo Mowlam, though initially hostile and part of the original Blair campaign, began consulting Mandelson regularly, while carefully maintaining the fiction to others that he had nothing to do with it.

Even though he had agreed to it, Mandelson was frustrated, even hurt, by Blair's insistence on keeping his role in the dark. It was a kind of denial. His vexation surfaced early in the campaign proper. Andy Grice, briefed by Mandelson, had led the Sunday Times with a comprehensive account of Blair's campaign themes, headlined (to Blair's extreme annoyance) BLAIR REVEALS SDP MARK II. Mandelson had remonstrated with Grice - as was his wont - but when a copy of the front-page was faxed up to him in Islington Blair uncharacteristically went into what a friend described as 'meltdown', partly because of its potential impact on trade union support and partly, perhaps, the headline was a little too close to the truth for comfort. Mandelson was correspondingly upset, protesting that he did not write the Sunday Times' headlines for them'

This doesn't sound much like taking the gloves off for New Labour - though it helped to secure Blair 52% of the trade union and affiliate vote in a 3-way race. The plan for a new Clause Four was carefully kept under wraps too until the following Autumn (when 90% of members happily endorsed it).

The narrowing of 'New Labour'

But what was 'New Labour' anyway? New Labour was enormously popular from 1995 to 1997, and for a few years beyond, with the public. It also had a broad majority coalition in the Labour Party behind it. And this was reflected in its agenda, which was centrist and centre-left but had plenty of content to bind a broad progressive coalition.

The history of New Labour was more complex than that. New Labour was popular as the party of macreconomic stability and caution on income tax rates, but also a windfall tax on the "fat cats" to pay for jobs for the young unemployed. It schmoosed the City - and took on the CBI over a minimum wage. It was tough on crime, and its causes. It was patriotic but intended to be pro-European too, and it was committed to the largest programme of political reform (devolution, freedom of information and the rest) since 1945. It promised to "save the NHS" - and ended up increasing taxes to pay for spending. It championed aspiration and pledged to end child poverty. It was in favour of both investment (money) in public services and reform to improve them, putting "schools and hospitals first" - over tax cuts - in its 2001 election campaign.

'New Labour' was popular whenever it wasn't just the "think of something the Labour party doesn't like and double it" version. It was less popular when it was only narrowly defined as a particular view of public service reform, whatever the merits of the particular policy arguments. How much narrower it became, in the post-political Blair of The Journey, when it seemed to involve endorsing George Osborne on the deficit and rejecting Mandelsonian industrial activism, so that even Peter was not New Labour enough at the end.

Deal or no deal?

Mandelson may appear to somewhat contradict himself in then suggesting that David Miliband should have contracted a pact with Ed Balls to get across the finishing line. Of course, Balls was a significant architect of actually existing New Labour - its macroeconomic strategy and the Bank of England - but would be one of the people that "a take the gloves off" for 2010 New Labour would have been defined against.

You can "take the gloves off" or form a "unity ticket". I am less clear as to how you could do both.

A Kingmaker has much more limited powers than many people think, as this blog argued during the campaign, especially if advising transfers to go against where they are naturally headed. That was why John Redwood failed to secure the Tory leadership for Ken Clarke with their anti-William Hague pact in 1997. The Ed Balls MP votes split three ways - for Ed, David and abstention. However, given how close it was, Miliband could have won had a pact secured only the transfers of Ed Balls himself, his wife Yvette Cooper and one or two other MPs.

But I bet there would have been (rather overblown) briefings and commentaries about how David Miliband had sacrificed New Labour for victory!

David Miliband's real mistake

David Miliband fought a classic frontrunner's campaign, and it wasn't quite enough.

A Monday morning quarterback, with the benefit of hindsight, can see that he needed to have done more to insulate himself from being caricatured and dragged back into a "New Labour or Not" frame, as the Blair and Mandelson books dominated the airwaves just as the ballot papers went out. It was not that the Blair and Mandelson prescriptions were rejected by the party - almost half of the party is sympathetic to a version of it - but they were not the votes that David Miliband needed.

The 2010 contest was going to go for a candidate of "change" rather than no change - because of the scale of the election defeat. And everybody realised that the change needed to go deeper than not being Gordon Brown. David Miliband recognised this in emphasising the Movement for Change but, with hindsight, didn't do enough to project one major issue (it could have been the Green Economy of the future) which would enable him to say more clearly that "are you New Labour or not" was the question being asked by Labour's last generation, not its next one.


Peter Mandelson has himself recognised that New Labour became too narrow and opaque.

As James Purnell has put it well, it was a mistake to forget that New Labour was Labour as well as new, and to seek to narrow it into a sect of true believers.

One of the most attractive things about New Labour in the 1990s was how pluralist it was – with many strands of leftwing thought coexisting, and learning from each other.

Over time, New Labour became too much of a sect – we went from big-tent politics to small-gazebo politics. Perhaps in response, the left has become balkanised into smaller groups, based on small differences. If we recognise that our common goal is a more equal society, we may be able to remember that there is more that unites us than separates us. And where there are differences, we may just see that as an inevitable but manageable pluralism, rather than a reason for division.


Tacitus said...

As a general guideline I feel the Labour Party should always follow the rule that - if Blair or Mandelson think it's a good idea for the party, it's probably not.

Read my blog at

Rob Marchant said...

Sunder, while I might go along with you on whether or not Mandelson's interventions now and during the campaign are helpful or not, I can't help feeling your whole conception of the "big tent" is flawed. I offer an alternative view on big tent, small tent, here

and in the underlying article.

Rob Marchant said...

Let's see if I can leave a working link here

Sunder Katwala said...


Good piece: well argued and well written. I don't agree - though there may be some points of overlap. At some point in near future, hope to find time to post on broader related issues; will link yr piece when I do.

Zio Bastone said...


It’s quirky to suggest, in your Guardian piece, that New Labour is somehow authentic and ‘Bennite insurgency’ somehow not. Once ideology, the urge to transform, goes then all that’s left is interpretation, straw men fun and games. Hence the quondam Lambeth councillor’s quip, since gone viral, that under Ted Knight there was ‘No compromise with the electorate’. And I’d be surprised to find a citation that predates Mandelson’s usage or any similar phraseology by anyone on the Left or, for that matter, a usage of ‘insurgency’ about events within the then Labour Party that pops up earlier than New Labour in its more recent phase.

Like cavity wall insulation, New Labour opportunism filled an empty space, most of the Left (including the then Labour Party) having failed to come to grips intellectually with changing social conditions. But it wasn’t a continuity with the past any more than the Mosley’s’ New Party represented a continuity with the Fabian Society.

Here is Anne Applebaum, hardly an insurgent, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1997. It’s not very deep or perceptive but what she says seems to me broadly correct:

‘[U]nlike America's Democrats, the British Labour Party was genuinely socialist. […] Blair waged a surprisingly hard-fought campaign to rid the Labour Party of its notorious Clause 4 […] Still, when the history of Britain's Labour Party is written, the real break from socialism will probably be dated from January 20 1997, the day that […] took most of the Labour Party by surprise [when] nearly two decades of Labour attacks on "Tory cuts" and the "unfair Tory tax system" fell by the wayside, along with more than four decades of socialist assumptions […] [E]ven Tories gave up trying to identify {Blair] with his party's socialist past. They instead invented a new slogan: "New Labour, New Danger."’

Rob Marchant said...

Thanks Sunder - here's to pluralism, in our debates at least.