Fern Tomlinson reports on Peter Mandelson’s apparent return to politics.
Making a sudden re-appearance in British politics this week, the Dark Lord has returned to play the role of the ghost of New Labour haunting Ed Miliband. Peter Mandelson, who once said that “New Labour is intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”, has re-entered the political debate this week, in order to give the impression of apologising for some aspects of New Labour’s economic policy.
When interviewed on Radio 4 this week, Lord Mandelson refused to stand by the ‘filthy rich’ statement when he was reminded of it. Instead, he chose to criticise Ed Miliband’s economic strategy, while saying New Labour got it wrong as well.
Stating that the Conservatives and right-wing parties across Europe had a better response to the current economic troubles than Labour did, Mandelson suggested that their rhetoric of austerity and responsibility was resonating with the public. Miliband, he said, was in contrast struggling to strike a balance between the New Labour legacy and a reformed, leftist agenda.
Acknowledging the challenges Miliband faced, Mandelson also mused on his own involvement in the New Labour approach to spending and globalisation and the difficulties it had caused. Reflecting the sentiments from his foreword for a new publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research, he admitted that New Labour may have got it wrong on globalisation, and their economic strategy that was formulated in response to it.
In light of continuing economic challenges and poor growth figures, Lord Mandelson stated that New Labour had been too generous with its benefits system, and ignored the future problems their economic strategy was creating. Talking about the globalisation phenomenon, Lord Mandelson acknowledged that New Labour was too focused on the benefits from allowing the unrestricted movement of goods and services around the world, ignoring the worries that the free market was creating for many of the British public. In the foreword to the report he writes that, “there is growing evidence that global economic integration brings rising inequality within economies if the balance between those who benefit from globalisation and those who bear the burden of the adaptation it demands is not actively addressed”.
What Mandelson failed to say, however, was what the right approach would entail, either in a time of boom or bust. Having said that New Labour got it wrong on globalisation, he didn’t say what getting it right would have looked like. In the same way, despite gently admonishing Miliband, he didn’t say what he could be doing instead. In fact the only strategy Mandelson did endorse was that of the Conservatives. This suggests two things. Firstly, that it is very easy, once out of the heat of mainstream politics, to be excessively idealistic and not at all helpful in terms of advice for current politicians. It could be said that Mandelson should follow Blair and others from the New Labour era in gracefully retiring from British politics and leaving the new kids to get on with it.
Secondly however, Mandelson’s comments seem to suggest that actually, there isn’t an appropriate left-wing solution that Ed Miliband will be able to formulate. The UK debt passed £1 trillion this week, despite the Conservatives stringent programme of spending cuts and austerity measures. There is no alternative except to tackle this debt, and the only way to do so is through a combination of cuts and growth in the economy. Granted, the Conservatives aren’t exactly succeeding on the economic growth part, but overall they are heading in the right direction. Maybe it is time for Miliband to accept this and stop trying to come up with a strategy that doesn’t exist. It worked for the Conservatives when New Labour were in power; after accepting that New Labour’s policies were too popular to oppose, the Conservatives decided to match them instead. Could it be that this is what Mandelson is hinting at? Who knows, but whatever his intentions, it isn’t hard to imagine Miliband dreading what he will come out with next.