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Peter Mandelson’s memo on how Labour’s modernisers lost their way – and where they go next

The full text of Peter Mandelson's leaked memo. 

Amongst party members, the leadership contest did not produce a landslide for Corbyn. Fewer voted for him than for the others.

The three mainstream candidates between them got 123,769 votes and Corbyn received 121,751 votes.

Only a third of Corbyn’s support came from people who had been Labour members before May; in other words, the rest of his supporters are people who got swept up by him rather than by any enthusiasm for Labour as such and in all probability became more emotionally than politically attached to his campaign and what he stood for. They were voting more for an emblem than a leader.

Far from being a tidal wave of new, young idealists, it has also emerged from research that, overall, only 12 per cent of his voters were under 24 years old. The bulk were retreaded Old Labourites who, together with people who voted Green at the election, gave Corbyn his victory.

This does not take away his success but it puts it into perspective and colours its legitimacy.

At the same time we need to acknowledge that those who supported him have invested a lot personally in Corbyn, we are not going to convince them overnight they were wrong  and before then they will provide an army to draw on as they become absorbed into constituency parties.

We are in for a long haul during which time the atmosphere in the party will become increasingly acrimonious at branch and constituency levels.

Let’s put our dramatic setback in context.

The original New Labour generation owe the younger generation an apology: what we passed on when we left government in 2010 was not fit for purpose.

With hindsight, we can see New Labour’s failure:  we provided good policies and a strong electoral machine but not organization in the party and not enough renewal of our ideas as circumstances changed.

Progress and Policy Network were originally created to provide a think tank and rallying point for our supporters but Blair did not invest enough in either and Brown shunned them because he always wanted to position himself to the left of New Labour, whatever the issue.  He used the unpopularity of Blair’s public service reforms, for example, on both left and right of the party, to garner support for himself.

This was the beginning of our “Tory lite” problem – accusing the Labour government of following a quasi-Conservative agenda - which has de-legitimized Labour’s moderates.

From 2005 onwards, malaise set in as Blair wrestled to keep himself in office and Brown did everything he could to get him out. We said at the time that if this conflict continued it would define New Labour’s legacy more than our achievements in government and this is what has happened.

Blair tried to spearhead fresh policy direction for New Labour in his final year, chiefly in respect of public services, but this was ignored by Brown.

We then drifted badly for a year after the non-election in 2007 until the banking and financial crisis kicked in and gave us, perversely, a new lease of life.

When the election came in 2010, we were seen under Brown as a broadly competent government but without adequate explanation of why people should vote Labour again and no forward agenda. Nevertheless we were strong enough to deny the Tories their overall victory.

By 2015, under Miliband, we had still not acquired any coherent forward agenda but nor did we have a leadership the public recognized as ‘big’ figures. They appeared to the public more like special advisers than real politicians.

Our whole profile as a party became desperately weak and narrower in its appeal as we saw at the election this year in the north as well as the south of England, not to mention Scotland. 

The door had been shut on New Labour without replacing it with anything strong or coherent.  Under Miliband, Labour was anti-austerity but then intermittently tough on the deficit. We were pro-growth but anti-business. We were against inequality but for caps on welfare.  We were for immigration but didn’t want people taking ‘our’ jobs. We were internationalist but against foreign intervention. And so the jumble went on.

In choosing Corbyn instead of Miliband, the general public now feel we are just putting two fingers up to them, exchanging one loser for an even worse one. We cannot be elected with Corbyn as leader.

Nobody will replace him, though, until he demonstrates to the party his unelectability at the polls. In this sense, the public will decide Labour’s future and it would be wrong to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict.

We must be ready when this happens. We can put forward as compelling a critique of Corbynism as we like but unless we have built in the meantime a coherent, modern and inspirational alternative to him - one that manages to tap in to the passions and emotional commitment of the party as well as speak convincingly to the public - the party will not be ready for a replacement.

We also have to go back to basics in the party where many are arguing again that electability spells unacceptable compromise and that relentless oppositionism is preferable – the ‘new politics’ of the street rather than parliament.

We have to re-win the argument from the branches upwards that electability remains the party’s founding purpose from when the trade unions first created the Labour Representation Committee. If we cannot represent people in parliament and government what is the point of the party ? It is as fundamental as that.

Our organizational challenge is to make this argument, create excitement around new policy ideas, ensure it is articulated by a new generation of parliamentary leaders and generate new methods of grassroots activity and excitement across the party. We have to work with others, in a non-sectarian way, both to renew the party’s intellectual base and its reach into the public at a local level.

This activity will not be achieved by a single group or structure. It needs to reflect the broad ideological position of people spanning the party’s entire centre left mainstream.

Some initiatives will be taken by Labour MPs, others by think tanks, pressure groups, academics and grassroots associations in the party. In time, we need them to converge on a single platform within the party. They must have one defining purpose: to get Labour back into government not at the expense of our ideals and principles but with new thinking and a fresh programme that embodies them in a modern, relevant and credible way. 

Whatever the means, we must not meekly accept that Labour should change its job description from party of government to party of protest and give up on building a winning coalition of voters.

The old labels, totems and divisions have no use anymore, they are damaging and counter-productive.

“New Labour”, Blairites, Brownites – they are all redundant.  They prevent us reaching out in the party and building essential new bridges. If we want people to listen to us, we must no longer look as if we are continuing past fights.  

Instead we have to modernize the modernisers’ ideas in true revisionist fashion.

We can be very proud of our time in government and our record, and we should certainly keep reminding people of it but not be imprisoned by it. For many of us it is living history but it is history nonetheless.

People will choose to play their part in renewal in different ways, including on and off the frontbench. We must respect that. We must not have truck with a “no compromise with the party” mentality – look what happened the last time that was tried out on the public.

The last five years’ intellectual sterility has left Labour floundering before an electorate that wanted to vote against the Tories but did not feel they were being offered a  workable alternative.

They are open to new ideas and approaches to building a responsible and inclusive capitalism – in this sense Ed Miliband identified something important – but just because they question aspects of markets does not mean they are in love with the state.

In addition, politics as a whole in Britain and Europe is desperately unattractive. No wonder momentum has been gained by populists and those who advocate a ‘new politics’. If we do not catch up with this and present a viable, attractive and exciting alternative we will be buried by it. It may be scant consolation, but we are not alone in our difficulties.  In Spain, Podemos run against “the caste”.  In Greece Syriza swept aside a hollowed out Pasok. 

Recognising this and understanding the profound changes in identity and culture that have swept through our politics in recent years must be our starting point.  Labour, like most mainstream parties across Europe, looks like an analogue entity in a digital age.

Our principal activity now should not be what’s going on in the frontbench in parliament or internal opposition to Corbyn – that will take care of itself - but developing the policies and arguments needed to follow him, disseminating these through publications and events. We should contribute robustly to Corbyn’s policy review, a new generation with new ideas.

One last point. There will be many local party members, including parliamentary candidates and councillors, who backed the mainstream candidates in the leadership contest and are in despair about what’s happened.

They are in the mood to say “we’ll come back when the party gets its act together and is serious again”.  Those people need to be given the chance to come together. Without this, the party in the country will slowly disintegrate as mainstream people withdraw from elected party and local council office. We have to give them hope that there is a way out of our predicament and that Labour does have a future. 

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear