One of the cornerstones of British politics – or any other kind of politics – is the idea, espoused by anyone and everyone that if only X politician or party took Y course of action then everything would be better. It’s human nature really. We all want Britain to be a better country, want our economy stronger, our communities safer and the lives of the British people to be happier. I’m certainly guilty of this as much as anyone – but like most people, all I have is calculated guesswork.
That could hardly be said to be the case for Peter Mandelson or Tony Blair, both of whom have expressed degrees of concern about Labour’s electoral strategy of late, and pining for a return to the politics of New Labour. Having doubts about the way Labour are campaigning and the party’s offer is justifiable – especially when the party has dipped down to 2010 levels in a number of polls. But simply arguing that we should do now what was done (with electoral success) in the past is far too simplistic.
Mandelson – appearing on Newsnight on Monday evening – said that Labour should be “recreating the policies we saw in the Clinton-Blair era”. But that’s simply an elevated way of saying what every political pundit says, except in Mandelson’s case (and Blair’s) he has the verifiable data point of success in office to prove that such an approach can work. But what he doesn’t have is proof that it would work again. If politics were as simple as repeating the successes of the past, then the Tories would be running on Thatcher’s agenda or Labour on that of Attlee, Wilson or Blair. But that’s self-evidently not the case. In fact, the successes and failures of each political leader – especially those who are successful – understandably changes British society to the extent that new ideas, new plans and new policies are needed. In New Labour’s case, globalisation, immigration and voter disengagement rose in salience on their watch. Modern politics is in part defined by these changes, as well as the manifest improvements in British society that they also oversaw.
The challenge of politics for every political party is to create and recreate that special alchemy needed to win over the electorate. And then do it again with different ingredients in a different environment at a different time – indeed that was one of the central tenets of New Labour. The project that Mandelson, Blair and others led was to modernise the party – changing Labour to change the country, yet now one if its key architects wants the project to be pickled in aspic. The purpose of New Labour was to change and win, not to implement a narrow set of policies in perpetuity. Those who are now saying they’re voting Green (often young, professional, educated left-wing voters) or UKIP (often older, feeling washed away by the insecurity of modern Britain) are not crying out for more politics of the managerial centre. And what of the centre? Well it hasn’t shifted dramatically to the left as some would claim (that’s just more of that wishful subjective thinking), but nor has it remained static. it never does.
Yet of course Mandelson’s analysis is inevitable in a way. The more successful you’ve been in politics, the more divorced (both in and after power) you tend to become from the electorate. Money, influence and social circle tend to inure you to the day to day conversations of British life that allow skilled political operators (like Blair and Mandelson) from accurately taking the temperature of the nation. The second you become a political success story, you are lost to the world of objective political analysis, because you think you’ve cracked it. And of course, when you’ve created that you love and care about (as is patently the case with new Labour and its founders) who wouldn’t want to protect it? But that means Mandelson is now engaged in exactly the kind of shibboleth defending that he once railed against “Old Labour” for taking part in.
Of course when anyone who has won as many elections as a Mandelson or a Blair speaks out on the strategy of the party they care so dearly about, then it’s worth listening to. If Mandelson were available to advise Labour on the detail or phrasing, language and messaging until election day then the party should jump at the chance to include him. But if his central analysis is that Labour should be “recreating the policies we saw in the Clinton-Blair era”, then he’s living in the past. And electoral politics can not, and will not, do the same.