Brilliant leaks and bubbling resentments

Tony Blair will only quell the rising discontent around him if he keeps one step ahead of his image; He has to remind the party and the country why he wants power
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The Independent Online
Whatever else it was, the leaking of the Gould memorandum was a brilliant piece of dirty politics. It confirmed every private fear of every dissident Labour activist just at the most important time of year for Tony Blair. Just when he had been preparing a change of gear for his party's forthcoming conference, it reinforced the belief that there is a clique of vacuous control freaks running Labour.

Good people are being shut out, goes the lament. Anything with a whiff of radicalism is taboo. The long-sight of vision has been sacrificed to the near-sight of focus groups. This dirge is now widespread on the left, assiduously promoted by the left-of-centre press and, from Blair's point of view, dangerously close to becoming accepted wisdom.

The short-term damage will be real, as I suspect the next batch of polls may show. However you look at it, this amounts to the first real crisis Blair has faced as leader. It is something he is going to have to confront head-on at next month's Brighton conference.

Those who complain about the lack of vision connect it, often paranoically, to the people in Blair's immediate circle, because they believe the latter have no commitment to anything except the trough of office, and are steadily reducing the limits of the politically thinkable because of their obsession with polling and the London media critics. They want to win; but mathematically, not politically.

For many Labourites, this heresy has a face and a name. They call it Peter Mandelson. A party under the influence of spin doctors cannot, the argument goes, be a party with a mind of its own.

To investigate this, we need to look plainly at Peter Mandelson. We need to understand what he does do, and what he doesn't do, and who hates him, and why. And the first, crucial point is that Mandelson is not a man with a hidden political agenda, an all-embracing grand plan for Britain which he is pursuing by whispering it into the ears of Labour leaders.

On policy, he is cautious and indeed conventional to a fault. His role as communicator has brought him close to pollsters, journalists and other low life who may have reinforced his natural instincts. But his influence on policy over education, tax or whatever is as nothing to the influence of Jack Straw, Gordon Brown and other senior politicians.

The real current story about the internal politics of the Labour leadership is the rise and rise of the leftish and intellectual Robin Cook, who, I think it could be safely said, is not a dazzled admirer of Mr Mandelson. As one Shadow Cabinet person put it to me recently, ``We could lose Peter, or John Prescott, and carry on. But Robin has become absolutely central.''

Nor is Mandelson a reincarnation of Niccol Machiavelli. If you talk to a cross-section of Labour people you get the impression that Mandelson is responsible for everything that has ever hindered the forward march of British socialism - a nasty editorial in the Independent, a gaffe on law and order, a plague of boils in the Parliamentary Labour Party. This superstitious, risible nonsense has reached the stage where it is now an issue for the party as a whole. Not for nothing did the Guardian choose a large picture of Mandelson to help illustrate its leak; they know what gets the pulses of their readers thudding.

Yet he is not possessed of supernatural powers. His special skill is mainly in manipulating journalists, lazy ones in particular. Even then, much of this is myth. My experience of him was that he would suddenly materialise in the press gallery canteen, looking mysterious, and beckon one into a corner. In a conspiratorial mutter, he'd say something like: ``I don't want my name near this, but - Labour's going to launch a winter offensive against the Government.''

Oh, one would say, vaguely, a winter offensive?

``Shhh!'' would go Mandelson, ``this is entirely between ourselves.''

Then one would toddle off feeling enormously clever and tap out a rather low-grade piece of Labour propaganda, only to find the same piece in almost every paper the next morning. At least, that's how it was for me. For Mandelson's closest contacts, there would be more - cautious leaks which helped the leader, tip-offs, a little gossip, tirades or hurt silences when they failed to produce the correct line. Television reporters would be shouted at and the foolish ones would worry.

But this is the daily work of a spin doctor, a trade whose importance is becoming grossly overstated. Black magic it isn't, but lots of people in the party think it is, and find it easier to blame Mandelson for something than to blame themselves. He's important. Of course he's important. He has been a close personal friend of Blair for years, and enjoys the privileges and influence of friendship. But if Blair had never met Mandelson, I think his convictions and character would be much the same.

To that extent, all the leftist attacks on Blair's aides and friends are futile. As the Labour leader said himself, people who are critical should have a go at him, not at his aides. However much others may use leaks and polemic to attack Mandelson and the others in Blair's office, they won't push them into exile.

But Blair can't protect Mandelson's reputation or stop the anger about him by diktat. What he has to do now, and quite quickly, is to escape from this period of internal Labour politics and remind the party and the country why he wants power. He has to start explaining to the party clearly how a disciplined appeal to Middle England is compatible with radical politics, compassion and imagination.

He has to catch their attention, and ours, on education, on health, on his real feelings about political reform. He has to talk about what he thinks can be done for the long-term unemployed and why the current policy on a minimum wage, though less than the unions want, will make a real difference. If he does that, without showing his hand too early on detailed policy, much of the muttering about cliques and conspiracies will fade.

If he doesn't, there will be a time of drift, and the bubbling resentments and rivalries of life in the small group of politicians and aides around him will grow and grow as a story, until he loses control of it altogether.

The Mandelson stuff is silly, yet serious, too. You can never separate personalities from policies; anyone who dismisses the jostling of Shadow Cabinet people and aides as trivia should remember how Margaret Thatcher's treatment of Lord Howe and Nigel Lawson's rivalry with Sir Alan Walters were essential elements of the melodrama of her fall from office.

Tony Blair is pretty uninterested in this sort of thing. He doesn't seem to notice who's up and who's down, or bother much about salving wounded egos. But he can't ignore it, and the maliciously leaked memo this week should remind him why.

There is only one way to respond. He has to get up at the conference and break out, as he has before, from the caricature slowly hardening around him. It's time to move on again.

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