The Prince of Darkness should stay in his box

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The Independent Online
ill he? Won't he? In a week that saw upwards of 60 Labour MPs sign up to a ringing declaration demanding a swift return to democratic socialism, the career prospects of Peter Mandelson dominated the airwaves. And in the same week that ordinary party members awoke to receive new membership cards with the words "Labour Party" scrubbed for user-unfriendly "New Labour", the Westminster village was otherwise engaged with the relaunch of Peter Mandelson by Peter Mandelson.

A few weeks ago the ex-minister was bemoaning the fact that it was fast becoming impossible for him to voice any opinion, however pedestrian, for fear of the whole of Fleet Street immediately leaping down his throat. Since politics and a vow of Trappism do not go hand in hand - not even under "New" Labour - I sympathised with him. Hell, with all that time on his hands, I even suggested he write an occasional column for Tribune. Sadly such penance - and penance of the unpaid variety - proved to be beyond him. He said no.

But on Monday the former minister could keep his silence no longer. From Brussels he joined fellow Europhiles in batting for the euro. By Wednesday the former minister was continuing his rehab course, this time in self- deprecatory mode at the AEEU's (engineering union's) annual conference in sun-kissed Jersey.

The Westminster whisperers have it that Peter Mandelson may effect an earlyish return to government, possibly as Minister for Europe, a job now held by a fellow North- East MP, Joyce Quin. Whatever its veracity, the AEEU conference made perfect sense for a Mandelson appearance. The union is "New" Labour-friendly; its newly-knighted general secretary, Sir Ken Jackson, is aggressively in favour of the single currency, and so of course is "New" Labour's Mr Bad. In public at least Tony Blair may be cooling towards Emu. Not so Peter Mandelson. He gives every impression of being willing to act as Blair's Trojan horse for the project. What is more he believes in it.

In the greying world of parliamentary politics, Mandelson cuts a dash. Many of his detractors would freely acknowledge that he performed well during his brief tenure at the DTI. At the same time the corrosive briefing which bedevilled the Government when Mandelson sat astride his web diminished upon his departure. There is precious little Cabinet enthusiasm for an early return of the errant Prince of Darkness.

A succession of backbench MPs have been groomed to make pleas for an early return of Peter Mandelson. He has done his time, they say. Rocked by the Euro election debacle, the more impressionable in marginal seats believe that the mythical conjuror is the only one able to save their bacon. Meanwhile, journalists and Labour MPs await the puffs of smoke from Downing Street. Yet while Peter Mandelson may complain that it is difficult to offer many opinions orally, he has been able to wield his pen to quite dramatic effect - and with the exception of the Financial Times's employment editor, Robert Taylor - few appeared to have noticed what he has been up to during his enforced sabbatical.

The former Trade Secretary is one of the key architects of a new concordat between Tony Blair and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany, entitled "Die Neue Mitte". This "New Middle", or in old Blairese "Third Way", document offers an economic policy which may turn those unwanted elderly relatives over at the TUC into gibbering wrecks. A member of the old "Gang of Four", who split from Labour to form the short-lived SDP in the Eighties, recently agreed that the Blair/Schroder document was "positively Thatcherite". Because all those pre-election promises of a "high wage, high skill" economy have been cast aside. Now "New" Labour and the German SPD are in favour of, you've guessed it, a low- wage and low-skill economy. For all of those dead-end burger bar jobs that Labour once castigated, now read new dead- end burger bar jobs, subsidised through the benefits system and served up with some relish by - Mr Mandelson.

Here then is a taste of the milk of pure Thatcherism poured into Blair and Schroder's Die Neue Mitte; "The labour market needs a low wage sector in order to make low skill jobs available. The tax and benefits system can replenish low incomes from employment and at the same time save on support payments for the unemployed." And just what are these "barriers to employment in low productivity sectors" which need to be "lowered"? Lunch breaks? Pee breaks? Or maybe just all of those expensive safety regulations?

For the new breed of employers who hire and fire at will, who are prepared to pay others a pittance while trousering shed-loads of money themselves, this is manna from heaven. But for Labour ministers such as Ian McCartney, who have done their level best to make good Labour's earlier workplace commitments, Die Neue Mitte is a slap in the face. Many will be hoping that Gordon Brown may be persuaded to operate his office shredder on the offending document.

Lionel Jospin and his French socialists took one look at this miserable fare, and fled. So did the Spanish and Portuguese socialists. These parties performed well in the recent Euro elections, while the SPD faltered and Labour fell at the first ditch. Mandelson is aware that the Blair/Schroder pact to resurrect Thatcherism has seriously upset other Socialist parties. Which is why he has reportedly adopted a slightly different "tactical approach", for public consumption. "The European social model," says Mandelson, "is not redundant and should not have its core ripped out. Clearly it needs to be modernised. The best way to save jobs is to create them."

"Modernisation", in this case at least, has become a euphemism for neo- liberalism. Last week the Guardian's Europe correspondent, Martin Walker, claimed that Mandelson's "tactical approach" brought him a lot closer to "that other crucial moderniser, John Monks of the TUC", a notion, given the evidence, that is frankly laughable. For Mandelson's tactical approach is designed to get Europe to sign up to the Anglo-American model of "flexibility" and "deregulation". Yet before the election, Labour voters were promised a future as part of a Europe with strong rights at work.

There are queues of humble "New" Labour backbenchers forming outside the television studios in Millbank imploring Peter to return to the front line. The Euro election debacle and the party machine spur them on, for many are convinced that Peter Mandelson's fabled campaigning techniques will bring lost Labour voters back into the fold and save a few skins in marginal constituencies.

But it is unlikely that Mandelson will resume the mantle of feared spin- doctor. Instead he is intent on masterminding a resurrected economic dirigism that in Germany has the Christian Democrats attacking Schroder - from of all places, the left. If Labour MPs in marginal seats want to keep their seats, they should order Mandelson back into his box.

Mark Seddon is editor of `Tribune'. Alan Watkins is on holiday.