Books: The demise of the Peacock Politician

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Mandy: The unauthorised biography of Peter Mandelson

by Paul Routledge Simon and Shuster pounds 17.99

A hundred years ago, a single question absorbed the Trades Union Congress: should Labour be separately represented or were the interests of the workers well enough served by the Liberal Party? For years the Congress grandees had been irritated by demands for a Labour Party to represent workers' and trade union interests in Parliament. They were content with the crumbs thrown to them by well-bred Liberal leaders, and worried by the prospect of losing Liberal "influence". Their argument gradually collapsed under the pressure of years of Liberal indifference. At last, at the very beginning of the century, a Labour representation committee agreed to sponsor Labour candidates. The Labour Party, as it was eventually called in 1906, made immediate gains. Many workers and trade unionists went to Parliament. By 1924 Labour had overtaken the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories, and have held that position ever since.

Jump forward a century and here is Peter Mandelson the newly-appointed Trade and Industry secretary in a Labour government with an overall majority of 179 speaking at a fringe meeting at a Labour Party conference. "Blue- collar, working class, northern, horny-handed, dirty- overalled people", he suggested, should no longer be selected as Labour candidates. The Minister's tone was jocular, but like most of his rare attempts at jokes, it fell flat.

A hundred years on, there are still some people who associate with Labour but believe deep down that representative politics are exclusively for the well-bred and wealthy; and that the invasion of Parliament by people with horny hands and dirty overalls is an affront. New Labour in 1998, like Old Labour in 1898, is embarrassed by the very name of Labour, and hankers after an accommodation with smooth-handed, clean- suited southern Liberals.

The astonishing Labour victory in May 1997 is often ascribed to Peter Mandelson. As this book reveals, however, Mandelson doubted that any such victory was possible. The synopsis for The Blair Revolution, the book he wrote with the former SDP candidate Roger Liddle in 1996, included a chapter arguing for an alliance between Labour and the Liberals to keep the Tories out. Even after the 1997 landslide, Mandelson and his leader plot and bargain for more of that Liberal influence which so encouraged their forbears a hundred years ago.

Mandelson's and Liddle's chapter on co-operation with the Liberals was never written, but their worries in 1996 about the electoral prospects for Labour give us a clue to the depth of their political understanding. Indeed, anyone who slogs through this book must wonder how Mandelson achieved such a glittering reputation. "Brilliant" is the adjective most commonly ascribed to him, though the signs of his brilliance are not immediately obvious. He was sacked from his first job by the TUC because no one there could stand his offensive careerism. At London Weekend Television, he didn't make a single memorable programme. As Campaigns Director for the Labour Party in the late 1980s, his chief achievement was the sacking of more able colleagues. He sacked John Booth, his press officer, for an "insensitive style" (speaking his mind). Another press officer John Underwood left in disgust at Mandelson's arrogance. So did Joy Johnson, director of communications, who said of Mandelson: "he hasn't a democratic impulse in his body." Mandelson's "genius" at winning elections did not always work. The by-election triumphs which won him accolades in the early 1990s were all reversed in the disastrous 1992 election for which Mandelson was still partly responsible. His career as a journalist started and ended on the People in what was by common consent the worst political column ever written in a popular newspaper. His book with Liddle is in style and content unrelievedly execrable. His public speeches in his brief career as a Cabinet Minister, especially when he tried to be funny, were excruciating. The faithful Sun reported that he had delegates at Blackpool "rolling in the aisles", but if there was anyone in the aisles, they were rolling about in embarrassment.

So what is the talent which propelled this mediocre media manipulator to the highest positions in the land? It's flattery. Mandelson has the gift of knowing what people want to hear about themselves and how to say it convincingly. His skill as a courtier won him access to the mansions of the rich, to luncheons with royalty, to the boardrooms of the City and British Airways, to the chauffeur-driven Rover provided for him by the son of a millionaire. Above all it won him the confidence of media barons - Rupert Murdoch and his daughter Elizabeth, Sir John Birt, Sir Dennis Stevenson of Pearsons - all Tories through and through and all sublimely susceptible to New Labour flattery from Peter Mandelson. When he became industry secretary, moreover, the flatterer had more to offer than mere words. In a matter of months he produced a white paper on "competitiveness" which sought to roll back a century of social democratic state intervention on behalf of the poor, and another on trade unions which promised to keep the unions as firmly in their place as Margaret Thatcher ever did.

Paul Routledge, who has somehow managed to write 302 pages about this "peacock politician", is like a thirsty man in the desert, casting around desperately for an oasis of relief - an interesting book Mandelson has read for instance, or perhaps a political inspiration above that of his awful grandfather Herbert Morrison who repudiated his daughter (Peter's mother) because she married a Jew. There is nothing here. The subject is not worth three pages let alone 302, and in spite of all Routledge's industry and polemic, his book, like its subject, is a terrific bore. There is one explosive fact in it, Mandelson's massive and eventually disastrous loan from his colleague Geoffrey Robinson, but there is no convincing explanation why this scoop, when it was discovered, was not even submitted to the Daily Mirror, the newspaper for which Routledge works; but eventually ended up on the front page of the Guardian.