For the past four weeks, Peter Mandelson has been retreading old footsteps. Canvassing for the Labour Party around Hartlepool, the north-east coastal town he represented as an MP from 1992-2004, he encountered many former voters.
“I was struck going back on to all the old council estates where I used to draw so much support [by] what owner-occupation and new private house-building has done; there’s a smartness and tidiness to those houses and their gardens,” he told me from the cottage he rents on a farm in Wiltshire.
“I can see people are proud of what they’ve achieved, they’re aspirational, and they’re not so sure now that they’ve achieved that with Labour.”
When we spoke over FaceTime, the Labour peer and former business secretary, 67, had just returned from walking his two dogs, Jock and Poppy: a fleeting break from the media frenzy over how Hartlepool was lost in a by-election to the Conservatives for the first time since 1959.
From conversations with former constituents, Mandelson concluded that people “don’t see so clearly a usefulness in voting Labour” the way they once did.
“The party has lost its efficacy for many in these places,” he said. “We are in an era of much weaker party loyalty and affiliation than ever before. They are casting around for a different sort of politics, less hidebound by tradition, old emblems, sentimentality, and for a more transactional, efficacious approach…
“They are not so much left behind; it’s Labour that is being left behind.”
Yet Mandelson still believes that “over half the country is left-leaning in their values”. He speaks with pride about what three successive Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did for the people of Hartlepool.
“Improving their life chances with public services, investment in infrastructure, schools being rebuilt, the complete refitting of the general hospital, community-based police support, dealing with anti-social crime, we achieved so much,” he said. “But it was ten, 15 years ago, and what have we done since? We’ve spent our time airbrushing it out, either not talking about it or repudiating and burying it, without putting anything in its place.”
Since 2010 Mandelson has lamented the reluctance of the party – under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn – to celebrate New Labour. “In politics, you reap what you sow. In the last ten years, we have sown mystification, ineffectualness, extremism and in-fighting, as we sped towards the fantasy land under Jeremy,” he said. “And we’re now living with the consequences and we shouldn’t be surprised.”
Although he argues voters are still put off by the Corbyn era (when “Labour disappeared into a weird ideological netherworld”), Mandelson has lessons too for Keir Starmer, who he feels “depended too much on the belief that changing the face at the top would be sufficient”.
Starmer “knows a transformation is necessary, but he doesn’t have the political project to match that transformation, or the allies in the party to help him bring it about,” he added.
“He’s realised changing the face at the top of the party, and then giving one last heave, isn’t going to work, but there’s no project in place to do more… There’s no point in getting rid of the incubus of Jeremy Corbyn and continuing to uphold his policies and manifesto on which we went down to such a terrible defeat in 2019.”
In February it was reported that Mandelson had been brought into the fold by Starmer’s chief-of-staff, Morgan McSweeney. Some detractors assume he has the ear of the Labour leader, with former shadow chancellor John McDonnell recently warning: “Unless Keir Starmer curtails Mandelson’s influence, there will be more division.”
Yet Mandelson told me he hadn’t spoken with Starmer since 2018, when they talked “briefly about Brexit”. “I wish I had given more,” he responded, when asked about his relationship with the leader’s office. “All I can do is write articles and give interviews. What else can I do?”
Although he cannot see “an alternative, better leader on the horizon”, Mandelson says Starmer was wrong to think “he could easily ride both horses”: left-wingers in the party and “ordinary, decent voters from Worthing to Hartlepool” in the country. “In the process, I’m afraid he’s come badly unstuck.”
One of the first modern-day spin doctors, nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness”, Mandelson became Labour’s director of communications under Neil Kinnock in 1985 – another crisis period for the party. He went on to run the 1997 campaign that resulted in Tony Blair’s landslide victory.
“I have been round this course twice before,” he smiled. “The challenge for Keir is that he’s got to be both Kinnock and Blair rolled into one.”
Yet the party’s predicament today is “much worse” than it was in the Eighties and Nineties, Mandelson warned, urging it to modernise its focus – to “embed progressive values in the technological revolution”, for example.
“We look out of date, with too little to say about the contemporary world,” he argued. “The truth is we talk endlessly about the ‘same old Tories’, what the voters are talking about is the ‘same old Labour’. We’ve got to wake up to that. For many voters, there is a simple question: what is the point of voting Labour?”
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die