‘We’ve just got to push the reset button’: Lord Peter Mandelson on Labour, Europe and Modern Communications
Anna Davidson and Matt Holland
Lord Peter Mandelson, a British Labour Party politician who has formerly served as First Secretary of State, President of the Board of Trade and Labour’s Director of Communications, was in Oxford recently to give a talk at Wadham College about British policy and current economic challenges. Mandelson, one of the first to be described as a ‘spin doctor’, and who gained the title ‘Prince of Darkness’ for his ruthlessness with media, spoke to editors Anna Davidson and Matt Holland about British politics, past and present – having encouraged that the interview be recorded, for purposes of accurate reporting.
MH: What motivated you to return to Starmer’s Labour in the early days in an advisory role?
PM: What do you mean return to? I never left!
MH: Let’s say from the isolation of the Corbyn years, and would you wish to remain influential in any of the future developments in that role?
PM: Well the most important thing I want is for us to have a Labour government as soon as possible, because I’ve never known a time in my life when we’ve needed one more. I think the Conservatives have, in effect, stopped being an effective governing party. The Conservatives have stopped behaving like an effective governing party, there is just so much dysfunction, so much uncertainty, about where we’re heading. I don’t feel that the government has any continuous thread of thought, coherent outlook, they’ve just been there too long. The country desperately needs the catharsis of an election, we’ve just got to push the reset button. We’ve got to find a whole new way forward for the country, but we have to wait for an election for that catharsis to take place, and that’s what I want. Anything I can do to help bring that about I will.
I’m a great fan of Keir Starmer though, because I think he’s performed a small miracle, in rescuing the Labour Party in what is quite a short period of time from the grip of Corbyn and his supporters, who are very narrowly based, very sectarian, full of antisemites. They were taking Labour to hell in a handcart. I must say, I’m surprised and delighted that Keir Starmer has been able to turn things around in the way that he has. The Labour Party is now a much more broadly based representative party, we’re once more becoming the political arm of the British people.
The Labour Party is now a much more broadly based representative party, we’re once more becoming the political arm of the British people.
AD: Following on from that – what do you say to the accusation that Keir Starmer is too moderate, particularly coming after Jeremy Corbyn?
PM: Well you would need to be moderate, coming after Jeremy Corbyn!
AD: What’s your stance – do you see Keir Starmer as an antidote to Corbyn?
PM: I don’t think he’s the antidote to Corbyn, I think he’s what the country needs. He has a very clear view that despite all the economic and financial constraints we’re going to be operating within for some time to come, as a result of the gigantic mess that Boris Johnson and then Truss have created – despite that, he knows that the country’s economy needs to be set in a new direction, a post-Brexit direction. He knows that public services, which at the moment are creaking, they’ve got to be reinvested in and reformed and taken forward.
He knows that we’ve got to create a new connection between ourselves and our own neighbourhood in Europe, and also that we’ve got to find a new equilibrium in our relationship with the European Union, and by that means restore some respect for us internationally. We’re not going to become influential again internationally until we’ve remade our relationship with Europe – that’s not to say that we rejoin the European Union, that’s not an option, nor does it mean going back into the single market or the customs union of the EU, I don’t think that’s an option either. But there are many ways in which we can reconnect to Europe and we’ve got to do so for the sake of our economy, trade and investment, but also for our defence and security. I think people who supported Brexit thought that once the referendum was done, we could just walk on and leave Europe behind us. The war in Ukraine has brought home to people that that is not an option. Our security is bound up in the stability of the European continent, we’ve got to play our full part in restoring that stability, and I’m very glad that we are, as a country, doing that. So far from just marching on and leaving Europe behind, we’ve got to remake our relations in Europe so as to sustain our trade, investment, and as I say our defence and security in Europe.
I think people who supported Brexit thought that once the referendum was done, we could just walk on and leave Europe behind us. The war in Ukraine has brought home to people that that is not an option.
MH: Who do you think has transitioned best to the post-Prime Minister role – Gordon Brown or Tony Blair?
PM: [laughs] Well they both have transitioned well, in different ways. Gordon is active on international financial matters, he’s concerned about educational opportunities in Africa. Gordon will always be an activist, in that sense. He’s very active on the international stage. Tony, in contrast, has created an institute for global change, which researches a great deal of policy, publishes a huge amount. They are just as I’d expect them to be, never giving up.
AD: In recent years the Conservatives have had communications scandal after scandal, for example ‘Partygate’ –
PM: That wasn’t a communications scandal, it was a disgraceful way of behaving and law-breaking as if the rules didn’t apply to them. It wasn’t a matter of communications, it was about behaviour.
AD: I see. So my question is, how do you feel about how communications has changed since you were in those roles, and are you concerned about an increasing breakdown in communication between those in office and the public?
PM: Well what’s happened, in perhaps a perverse sort of way, is that as communications have grown in channels, outlets and scale, the possibilities for poor communication and misunderstanding have also grown. That’s because of social media. I don’t think Twitter has become a very effective, faithful channel for political communication. I think that that, and other forms of social media, have become sources of disinformation, or unfactual information, in other ways. So as media has proliferated, everyone thinks they know much more about everyone else, including politicians and what governments are doing, but they’re not always well served by the facts. So something rather anonymous is happening with the proliferation of media. I think, as I say, that we have more information yet many people are now less well-informed.
So something rather anonymous is happening with the proliferation of media. I think, as I say, that we have more information yet many people are now less well-informed.
MH: Who in your opinion was the best orator you ever worked with?
PM: The person whose speeches made the most impact was Neil Kinnock in the 1980s – before you were born, I guess. Do you remember Neil Kinnock?…Well in the election in 1987, which was the first election campaign I directed, I was very young, he gave these barnstorm speeches, and they electrified the campaign. One speech in particular was so spectacular that Joe Biden in the primaries before the presidential campaign in 1988 ripped off one of speeches, plagiarised it, and delivered it as if it were original, that’s how good it was. So I would say Neil Kinnock, but Gordon Brown made great speeches, Tony Blair made great speeches. Tony Blair was – he was the great persuader of his generation, he was able through speeches, through communications, to speak to a very wide range of people. It was central to the impact that New Labour was able to make, and the huge electoral success we had in 1997, and again in 2001 and 2005. The great persuader however had left by the 2010 election [laughs] unfortunately.
MH: What is your biggest regret in politics?
PM: My biggest regret in politics? I should have some pat-answer to this. I suppose my biggest regret is linked to what I’m most proud of, and that is the creation of New Labour, and the government that flowed from it and the elections we won and the ways in which we were able to change the country for the better, but in the process controversialised me, made me a bit of a target. Made some enemies, really, in politics. I’ve always thought that I don’t just have my own enemies, but Tony Blair’s as well – that’s quite a lot of enemies. But I wouldn’t do it differently, we needed to change the labour party in the 1980s and 90s, and we obviously offered something that the public wanted, because they voted for it, in huge numbers.
I wouldn’t do it differently, we needed to change the labour party in the 1980s and 90s, and we obviously offered something that the public wanted, because they voted for it, in huge numbers.
Image Description: Lord Mandelson speaking at a Policy Network event.
Image Attribution: Policy Network via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Mandelson_at_Politics_of_Climate_Change_2.jpg