There’s an interesting detail in Decca Aitkenhead’s Monday interview with Peter Mandelson, in which Aitkenhead notes his peculiarity, in their conversation, of returning again and again to the same point in his past:
…it’s striking that Mandelson’s point of reference goes all the way back to 80s, the era he returns to in conversation unprompted, time and time again. “It was like the wild west,” he says nostalgically at one point. “It was tough.” Interestingly, he also says that, excluding his present position, his favourite ever job was as Labour’s campaign director back then.
This must seem, to most readers as well as the baffled interviewer, like “nostalgia” for a piece of ancient personal history: and who, after all, does not look back on some long (and successful) battle with a warm smile? No doubt the entitlement that Mandelson – quite literally – claims grows directly from the struggles of his (relative) youth. Because if Mandelson says he had to be the hit man, and that the battle against the Left in the Labour Party – never, tellingly, referred to as such in this interview – was “tough”, he is being entirely honest. New Labour cut its teeth in those battles. It formed itself out of the comprehensive, shattering defeat of a credible left in British politics – a defeat that Mandelson played a decisive role in.
But the popular image of Mandelson as merely a sinister manipulator, or superficial spin-merchant (tediously reprised here) was never accurate. The man himself identifies his real significance:
“Who was it who wrote the policy review in the late 80s? Me. Who presided over the creation – who was one of the architects of New Labour, and of that change in policy that created a new political force in the 90s? Me. Who enjoyed driving new policy as a minister at the beginning of this government, and is now doing so again? Me. So I’m certainly not a policy blank. My big preoccupation is policy.”
And it is this role he has returned to in government: here calling for “industrial activism” in the new, post-crash economy; there staking out a defence of government intervention. He has, since re-entering the Cabinet, been the only minister even beginning to take seriously the thought that the wheels had come off New Labour’s old, debt-and-property economic model.