Thursday, November 05, 2009

Rethinking Mandelson

Labour activists gave him a standing ovation, journalists write admiring of him, by all accounts he is a relatively effective minister - but the evidence suggests that far from being an asset, Peter Mandelson is a drag on Labour's popularity.

For example, he was ranked 'least trustworthy' amongst leading politicians in a survey by Populus, and would be a less popular choice as a leader of the Labour Party than either Miliband brother, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman.

I think the difference is this. In political and government circles, there is a lot of nostalgia for the golden days of Blairism - the message discipline, refoming 'centrist' policies, clear political leadership and good relations with the media. These qualities are admired by Labour activists, David Cameron's inner circle, civil servants and journalists - particularly compared to the chaotic governing style under Gordon Brown.

But for most ordinary people, Lord Mandelson symbolises spin and sleaze, and the policies that he champions such as privatising the Post Office and 'wise cuts' are unpopular with the majority. He is also a leading member of an unelected and arrogant political elite, as an EU Commissioner-turned-Lord.

It is often said that after the election Labour will face a dilemma about whether to follow the advice of people like Peter Mandelson and continue to be the New Labour party fighting for what experts call the 'centre ground' of British politics, or whether to listen to the activists and adopt more left-wing policies which will put off 'swing voters'.

But the example of Mandelson shows that the dilemma is in fact rather different. The qualities which insiders most admire about Peter Mandelson, and which they will be looking for in future leaders of the Labour Party are exactly the ones which repel ordinary voters. Although it goes against the Conventional Wisdom, the more that Peter Mandelson is seen to be the dominant force in the Labour Party, and the more control he has over our message and policies, the more we will put people off from supporting us.


At 9:46 am , Blogger Liam Murray said...

I've always thought the contempt 'ordinary people' are supposed to have for spin & sleaze is a bit of a mirage. Discounting us nerds the vast majority of ordinary people pay next to no attention to politics - so telling a pollster that they object to spin is a handy way of sounding vaguely knowledgeable without having to say the first thing about policy or actual facts & numbers.

When it's overt they clearly don't like it but the idea that some politicians are tainted by it and other aren't is, I think, silly.

I've voted Labour all my life (despite being labelled a Tory blogger in most places!) and I think Labour would do well to use Peter's talents in whatever capacity they can post a likely election defeat. Being leader is probably a step too far because he's too closely associated with Blair & now Brown but ditching him altogether would be unwise...

At 10:00 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Liam,

Thoughtful points as ever. Given what you are saying, why do you think Mandelson comes across worse in the (admittedly limited number of) surveys, compared to not exactly titanic political figures such as Harriet Harman and Ed Balls?

Mandelson is clearly extremely talented, but the problem with making significant use of his talents is that it requires signing up to a set of policies and way of doing politics which is much admired by insiders but not so much by the people who stopped voting Labour between 1997 and 2009.

At 10:25 am , Blogger Liam Murray said...

I suspect he comes of worse because of the close assosciation with Blair. But, as I say, the history is just too vivid for either the Labour party to accept his as leader (even if they've kind of 'learned to love him' now!) or for the country to think of him as PM.

On the implications for policy you're probably right but I suspect you & I would differ over that anyway. 1997 was my first general election but I could only ever vote for the more moderate, centrist Labour anyway - so much that Peter brought to the table (along with TB & GB) was, to my mind, welcome. I recognise that not all Labour members feel that way though.

Quick final thought because your last sentence struck me as strange.

Assuming they find themselves in opposition next year I'd frame Labour's task as winning back those people who DID vote Labour post-1997 but deserted them finally in '10. You seem to be suggesting some sort of time-shifted 'core vote' strategy; trying to win 'back' those who voted Labour in 87/92 (or heaven forbid 83!)

It's stating the obvious but those votes aren't a route to power otherwise the 80's would never have happened.

At 10:51 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Liam,

Just on the last sentence, I phrased it badly. Trying to reconstruct the Neil Kinnock coalition of 1992 is not the path to power! We need to focus on:

People who voted Labour in 1997 but not 2001 - primarily lower income voters in "safe seats".

People who voted Labour in 1997/2001 but not 2005 - mostly though not entirely over Iraq.

People who voted Labour in 1997-2005, but not next time - including voters who liked Tony Blair and New Labour but aren't so keen on Gordon Brown/the mess in the economy.

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