One of the fascinations of politics is
that it unfolds over different time scales and at different levels. At one end of the scale are the personal
and short-term; at the other, the matters of policy and principle, the history and development of ideas and of political movements.
It is no surprise – given the symbiotic
relationship between the practitioners of politics and of political reporting at any given moment – that the latter
should habitually focus on the human-interest immediacy of the movements in individual political (and other) fortunes as they
swing up and down. A case in point, last weekend, were the reports detailing the latest turn in the career
of Peter Mandelson.
off-again career of Lord Mandelson has provided much innocent entertainment for observers and a rich seam of copy for political
commentators over the years. Yet, even so, it is surprising that the momentous events of recent weeks,
which could herald a seismic transformation of the British political landscape, could have been viewed through such a narrow
lens as was seen in the articles about Lord Mandelson’s latest transformation.
It is true that Andrew Rawnsley ended his piece by briefly taking a wider
perspective. The story was not, we were solemnly assured, one of unalloyed triumph. Peter
Mandelson, we were told, genuinely cared about the Labour Party; its probably imminent demise was enough to turn the moment
of his greatest success into a personal tragedy.
We can readily agree that the demise of the Labour Party would be a tragedy – but surely a tragedy on a much
greater scale than of one individual’s personal disappointment. It is doubtful,
after all, if many tears will be shed for Lord Mandelson. Many – including all those whose allegiance
to the Labour Party over recent years has been sorely tested, as well as those who have rejected Labour in favour of other
promises to defend their interests - will see the noble Lord’s disappointment as being richly deserved.
This is not a tragedy in the Shakespearian mould
– a fatally flawed individual being undone by his inability to deny the power of the flaw that drives him.
This is a tragedy that is likely to engulf an audience of millions, not just the leading members of the cast.
Peter Mandelson is rather in the position of
a ship designer whose vessel is revealed to be unseaworthy. He is consoled by observers with the
assurance that they know that he did not mean it to ship water and, having arranged a lifeboat for himself, he then persuades
the captain to stay on the bridge until the ship goes down.
New Labour was, after all, Peter Mandelson’s project par excellence. He signed
others up for the journey, and was initially fortunate enough to engage a brilliant skipper for the project. But,
when a new captain proved to be no seaman, and the ship’s design faults meant that it foundered, disappointment is hardly
an adequate sentiment. Those who entrusted their lives and life-chances to the seaworthiness of the vessel
are entitled to require the designer to accept responsibility for, as well as disappointment at, the loss – and at the
tragedy that is theirs.
We are surely
now in a position to judge the New Labour project, not according to the claims of its progenitors, but in the light of its
likely final outcome. The project started, after all, with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, a popular
and telegenic leader, a huge appetite for change and a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the country – all
delivered by an overwhelming election victory.
What has happened in the twelve short years since then is not the familiar story of a government that gradually loses
support and – having used its opportunity to best effect but nevertheless having been exhausted by its efforts –
is defeated by newly revitalised opponents. The immediate future facing the Labour Party is one of virtual
extinction as a party of government. It may take a generation for Labour to recover – if it does
so at all. In the meantime, the effective voice of the democratic left – the most consistent and
reliable generator of change and reform we have – will be stilled.
That is the real tragedy – not to be expressed in terms of individual careers –
but in the destruction of one of the main forces in our democratic politics. Without it, our whole politics
will be poorer. Faith in our democratic institutions and processes will be weaker.
It is an outcome, a tragic outcome, that is the
inevitable and predictable consequence of deliberately removing Labour from its value base and from its supporters.
It is the direct result of treating power as an end in itself, of seeking power for the purpose of simply perpetuating
it. New Labour not only failed to take a once-in-a-century opportunity; it turned its back on the idealism
and creativity that, under President Obama, is reinvigorating American society and politics. This is the
end result by which Peter Mandelson should be judged. You bet it’s a tragedy.
15 June 2009