Adventures of the secret seven

John Rentoul delves into contemporary Labour history

Faces of Labour: The Inside Story by Andy McSmith, Verso, pounds 16

The author of this rather eccentric collection of seven mini-biographies, of people who have featured in one way or another in the history of the Labour Party since 1979, unwisely invokes the model of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. For although McSmith has a fine turn of sharp wit, the fascination of his book lies more in his attention to revealing detail. You can dip into this book at any point, and be surprised and engrossed by some of the more baroque curiosities of contemporary Labour history.

The book consists of portraits of Neil Kinnock, David Blunkett, Clare Short, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. We've heard of them. However, it also includes chapters on Ted Grant, the founder of Militant, and Jim Murray, an engineering union shop steward who once tilted a crucial block vote at a Labour Party conference.

The late Mr Murray's claim to significance is particularly tenuous. His was the "swing" vote on the engineering union delegation to the 1979 conference which tilted it 18-16 in favour of "mandatory reselection" of MPs. Thus Labour MPs were required to submit themselves to a selection process in between every election. It was a key demand of the left, but in fact the principle was accepted by the many of the right. Blair, for example, has always supported it.

But the book does not attempt to analyse the ideologies of the Labour Party, preferring to mock the "scientific" certainties of Militant, rather than assess why it gained such a grip on the party it infiltrated.

David Blunkett is an interesting choice of subject and McSmith is blunt about his erratic political record. He tells the story of Blunkett's failed attempt before the last election to devise an alternative to the poll tax without going back to the rates, and his entanglement with Bryan Gould's campaign against European monetary union. Each time, "Blunkett escaped the political consequences" and went on to be the first of the 1987 intake, with Mo Mowlam, to be elected to the shadow Cabinet. Blunkett is likely to be an important figure in a Labour government.

Blunkett is opposed to political correctness,opposed to the "promotion" of homosexuality, and supports cutting benefits for young people who refuse training places.

Clare Short is a less successful choice. Unfortunately for McSmith, she was demoted to overseas development spokeswoman just as his book went to press, and would therefore be less important in a Labour government than hitherto thought. Her falling out with Blair is an important episode which sheds much light on the nature of the "new Labour" beast, but could not be covered here.

Most significant, perhaps, is the chapter on Peter Mandelson, Labour's original spin doctor and Blair's closest confidant. McSmith and Mandelson do not get on, a fact which is advertised on the back cover of the book, which quotes Mandelson's view of the author: "One of the most biased, ill-informed, malicious and unpleasant journalists in Westminster".

But the chapter is a balanced and slightly bloodless account of someone who arouses stronger feelings than almost any other Labour politician. McSmith debunks what he calls "the myth of Peter Mandelson" quite effectively, without fully explaining his extraordinary influence with two different Labour leaders: Kinnock and Blair.

Again, the detail is fascinating. McSmith quotes - damagingly - from a telephone conversation with Mandelson during the Labour leadership election in 1994, when McSmith was the only journalist to report Mandelson's secret role in Blair's campaign.

Mandelson pleaded with him not to mention his name: "He even suggested that if I wanted to damage him, I might prefer to write about how his relationship with Gordon Brown had broken down."

McSmith quotes from a letter Mandelson wrote to Charles Clarke, Kinnock's chief of staff, at the time of the Monmouth by-election campaign, which Mandelson ran in 1991. Clarke had obviously told him that he could not work for the party again until the general election. "I am presently trying to put my bruised feelings aside," wrote Mandelson. "I think I can contribute more in the same way, in a quiet, tactful, reasonable way ... I know you don't share this view."

This picture of Mandelson as a highly emotional man begs for a fuller account. No doubt we shall get one if and when Mandelson joins Blair's Cabinet. Meanwhile this is a highly readable, if somewhat arbitrary, collection which shines unpredictable shafts of light on the background to Labour's incoherent identity on the threshold of assuming power.

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