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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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.