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2 August 1999

Why I had Mandelson’s life pulped

John Booth reveals the inside story of how a biography ended up in the shredder

By John Booth

I am the man responsible for a biography of Peter Mandelson being pulped. In case you haven’t read about it, I should explain that I was alerted by a friend to a passage in Mandelson: the biography, by the Independent columnist, Don Macintyre, which concerned my performance as Labour Party chief press officer in 1986 and which contained several libels. Since I am a self-employed journalist – and one’s prospects are only as good as one’s reputation – I had to act.

No doubt Macintyre found this a stressful business. So did I. And not just through fear of throwing my meagre resources against the might of Rupert Murdoch and his publishing arm, HarperCollins. It was also that I had to revisit the troubling time, 13 years ago, when I worked as Mandelson’s deputy.

I was sought out by Mandelson in late 1985. The new Labour director of campaigns and communication told me that, though he had television experience, he had none in newspapers or press offices. He wanted somebody at party HQ who had both, as well as a strong Labour background. I seemed ideal: I had worked as a reporter in Britain and abroad and I had run the National Union of Teachers public relations department at the height of its battles against the Thatcher government. I had also served as a Labour councillor in Swindon and stood as a parliamentary candidate in an adjacent constituency. In 1983 the seat was lost to the Tories, largely through the intervention of the SDP candidate, Derek Scott, now the No 10 economic adviser and, unknown to me at the time, even then a Mandelson friend.

I made it clear to Mandelson that I could do the job only if I was kept in the picture about what he was doing: deputies who are out of the loop struggle for credibility.

Things started promisingly, buoyed by the party’s success in the April 1986 Fulham by-election. I then took to the road for the subsequent by-elections in West Derbyshire and Ryedale. When I returned, it was to an office thinned by the need to devote resources to the first of Mandelson’s high-profile launches and to another by-election. There were days when Mandelson, as director, was seldom seen in Walworth Road and when the press staff dealing with day-to-day matters was down to one person and me, or even less.

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It was also becoming clearer by then how Mandelson saw party communication. It was not a matter of complementing the commitment and activity of members; rather, it was a deliberate political strategy (very obvious in retrospect) to undermine their influence. We were already on the road to the Labour politics with which we are now all too familiar: a politics defined by what a few party professionals and tame members of the lobby say it is, with little reference to most of the membership.

Lots of small things pointed in the same direction. When I acted “in loco director” (Mandelson’s phrase) during his summer holiday, I discovered he had maintained regular contact with the Times, despite a national executive decision not to do so because of the bitter dispute over Murdoch’s sacking of hundreds of printers during the move to Wapping. I also stumbled on something called the Shadow Journalists’ Group, a part of the embryonic Shadow Communications Agency. Its co-ordinator had invited me along in Mandelson’s absence, assuming, I’m sure, that I knew all about it. I didn’t.

Six months into the job, Mandelson decided I had to go. He consented to comply with agreed procedures only after a lot of persuasion by the National Union of Journalists. When we sought grounds for dismissal, we were told: “This is not a problem identified at a specific time, nor is it entirely susceptible to description.” As an incentive to leave quietly, my shorthand note from July 1986 records Mandelson telling me: “If we have to terminate your contract, I will make any fabrication of the truth and stick by it faithfully.”

I was granted three months “to improve” my performance but I was given no criteria by which it would be assessed and was banned from attending that autumn’s party conference. In November, despite protests from HQ staff and approaches to Neil Kinnock from MPs including Tam Dalyell and the late Derek Fatchett, I was dismissed. Since then, I’ve seen Mandelson twice. On both occasions he refused to speak.

I remain active in my local Labour Party and I was delighted when we won the 1997 election. Since 1986, the party has made some important improvements in its presentation – but at a heavy price, which includes a loss of direction and, increasingly, the commitment of members. From being a party that had its own weekly newspaper and membership participation in policy-making – policies that challenged the power of the City, the influence of the US, the secrecy of the state, the concentration of media ownership and the growing divide between rich and poor – Labour has become a heavy-handed, top-down chorus for a highly conservative leadership.

Paul Routledge spoke to me for his Mandelson biography; Macintyre didn’t. The pulped biography is the result, plus the damages, some of which will go to such causes as the London Bach Society and Hit Racism for Six, as well as fresh tyres for my bike. When Macintyre writes a new edition, I hope he will broaden his sources. My number’s in the phone book.

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