Magazine article The Spectator

Mandelson's Lesson for Labour: Don't Ignore the Deficit

Magazine article The Spectator

Mandelson's Lesson for Labour: Don't Ignore the Deficit

Article excerpt

Most vendettas, at least in Sicilian legend, are accompanied by omerta, a belief that it is shameful to betray your worst enemies even if it would benefit your cause. New Labour has long felt at ease with the vendetta, but has struggled with the concept of omerta.

The Mandelson memoirs, the Blair memoirs, the Campbell diaries, the Cook diaries, the Blunkett diaries, the Deborah Mattinson assessment, the Rawnsley confessionals, the New Labour literature and score-settling would make even the most capacious Kindle fuse at their sheer volume.

Much of the advance publicity for the Mandelson memoirs has surrounded the now dreary impasse between Blair and Brown, a relationship that looks all the more ridiculous when put alongside David Cameron and Nick Clegg's government of functioning adults. If leaders from different parties can coexist and settle disagreements without shouting matches, why could not those at the top of Labour?

The rivalry seems to have wormed its way so deeply into Labour's culture that it is impossible to expunge. One suspects that if Tony Blair dies before Gordon Brown, it will soon emerge that there was 'an understanding' that Brown should have the first experience of death. 'You ruined my afterlife, ' Brown will rage to his diminished court in Kirkcaldy. But the Mandelson memoir, serialised alongside a toe-curling video mercifully behind the Times 's new internet paywall, is a more weighty piece of work than the advance publicity suggests.

The book is published at a critical time for Labour, when the party is in the middle of a leadership contest that appears to be going nowhere. For years, Labour figures have been calling for a healthy discussion about the party's values, policy, organisation and direction.

It is the debate Gordon Brown neurotically prevented by gathering the names of 300 MPs to nominate him, thereby obliterating the chances of even Michael Meacher standing against him. Now the party finally has the opportunity to conduct a big cleansing debate, and it seems not to know how.

Many inside Labour have been dismayed at the quality of the leadership debate. As one party adviser put it to me: 'We have waited all these years, and it has turned into a contest to see who can get onto Twitter first to denounce the government. They don't sit there thinking, they sit there texting.' The rest of the time, the candidates haul themselves around the country in a hustings format designed to minimise some repertory theatre company locked in a bad production, they can recite each other's indifferent lines in their sleep, acutely aware they are not heading for the West End.

Extraordinarily, at these hustings, few mention the deficit. Yet if Mandelson's book has a future purpose, it is to underline the extent to which the last few years were not just about Brown's dire communication skills but also a debate about the public finances. Almost all of the policy disagreements in the last two years of Labour government come back to that issue. The party simply could not decide whether or not to admit that large spending cuts were coming.

People did try. James Purnell gave up when Brown silenced him for suggesting the government needed a fresh spending review. Even Ed Balls almost had to beg Brown to use the word 'cuts' in his 2008 speech to the Trades Union Congress. …

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