Mandelson is no kind of leader

Left alone in power, this obedient courtier would wither like a salted snail

The debate over the possibility of a Mandelson premiership remains little more than a Westminster parlour game but a number of figures are now openly touting the Business Secretary as an alternative Prime Minister.

Dr Peter Slowe, the newly-elected chairman of the Labour Finance and Industry group, was the first off the mark, arguing: "Mandelson is the only one with the clout, intellect and charisma who could realistically take on the Tories and win."

And the venerable William Rees-Mogg writes in the Times today:

"Lord Mandelson is the frontrunner; the worse the problems become, the stronger he will be. Like his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who was the boss of London Labour politics for about 25 years, Peter Mandelson combines political skills with an entrepreneurial approach. His capacity for changing politics is like that of a major entrepreneur revolutionising an industry. It is hard to think of a political performance equal to Lord Mandelson's past 12 months. Many people go from hero to zero; Mandelson has gone from zero to hero. He appears to be the only Labour politician with the force of personality to change the bleak political weather."

Such pocket hagiographies conveniently ignore Mandelson's humiliating climbdown over the part-privatisation of Royal Mail and the public's stubborn refusal to embrace Westminster's prodigal son.

The technical obstacles to a Mandelson premiership may soon be removed through Jack Straw's amendment allowing life peers to relinquish their seats, but the political obstacles remain considerable.

Many of those who discuss the Labour leadership most vigorously continue to do so without reference to the party's electoral college, under which the affiliated trade unions hold a third of the votes. There has, to put it mildly, never been a pro-Mandelson faction in the TUC but his attempt to sell a minority stake in Royal Mail has ensured that any lone supporters will be lying low.

Yet more than this, the belief that Mandelson is well equipped to become Prime Minister represents a fundamental misreading of his life and career.

Mandelson was astute and self-critical enough to recognise early on that he was no kind of leader. Instead, he made it his mission, his raison d'être to serve those who were. His relationship with successive Labour leaders, from Kinnock to Blair and finally Brown, pays testament to this.

The reason why Brown is intensely relaxed about Mandelson's status as de facto deputy prime minister is that he more than most knows that what Mandelson craves is access and influence, not the chance to lead. There is no hidden agenda behind his fierce defence of Brown's leadership in yesterday's News of the World.

As the novelist Edward Docx wrote in his extensive profile of Mandelson for Prospect, "the default setting in Mandelson's hard drive has been to identify the most powerful person in prospect and then work exclusively, almost slavishly, for them -- often at the expense of all other relationships."

Mandelson's relentless focus on individuals means that he has failed to build the factional support that all leaders depend on.

The truth is that left alone in power with no master to serve, this obedient courtier would wither like a salted snail.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.