Book review: The Third Man: Life At The Heart Of New Labour
On the day that the Daily Telegraph broke the expenses story Peter Mandelson was holding a press briefing in the Scotland Office. He wanted to talk about a modern industrial strategy for Scotland; the assembled pack only wanted to ask about expenses.
"Will this damage the reputation of the Labour Party?" asked one journalist. "No!" said Mandelson, "printing smears like this will damage the reputation of the Daily Telegraph." The journalists looked at him in a stunned silence, looked at each other as if to say "did he really just say that?" and then wrote down every word he had just said.
This was a demonstration of one of Lord Mandelson's greatest gifts - his ability to describe reality as he would wish it to be viewed and then to impose it on others. In New Labour speak, this is crafting a narrative, but a much older (and more respectable) term is more appropriate - story-telling.
We are social beings and we make sense of the world - at all levels - by talking about it. Mandelson understood that and he brought back to government, when he returned for the third time, a driving sense of articulated purpose. Labour knew better what it was doing because Peter was constantly narrating where it was going.
The Third Man, Mandelson's memoir of "life at the heart of New Labour", is an utterly absorbing read, a rich and satisfying page-turner. (A very pleasant surprise for anyone addicted to political memoirs.) It has also been mightily and wilfully misunderstood. This is resolutely the story of one man's journey with the Labour Party - it is not a history book, nor even the first draft of history, and it does not pretend to be.
While it may at times not be nerdily accurate with specific facts (Alastair Campbell has told off Mandelson in print for getting the cast lists of meetings wrong) it is absolutely true to the feeling, the meaning and the sweep of recent British political history. The purpose of the book is expressed best in its "Epilogue":
"We had lost (in May 2010] nearly a million votes since the least convincing of New Labour's three election victories, five years previously. With barely 8.5 million, and a mere 29 per cent of the total, our result was worse than in 1992 under Neil (Kinnock], worse than the 'brilliant defeat' I orchestrated from Walworth Road in 1987.
In fact, it was only just better than the comprehensive battering we suffered in 1983. The brutality of that defeat had at least acted as a kind of shock therapy. It was what gave Neil the ability to take on Militant and begin the process of rescuing the party from irrelevance and almost certain death. Ultimately, it was what made New Labour possible.
But as I surveyed the Labour landscape, talked and listened to colleagues after this latest defeat, the situation struck me as much more like the aftermath of 1992. We were paying lip-service to the need to 'learn lessons', but there seemed to be an expectation that, with one heave, we would be back in government, quite possibly at the next election, and certainly the one after that."
Mandelson is telling an exemplary story - quite literally a warning from history. He knows why New Labour was necessary and he wants to remind the party that the need to reinvent and reconnect never stops. There are therefore three main strands to his story - the making of New Labour, the unmaking of the Labour Government, and the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Mandelson's own career. F Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American life; Mandelson had three acts in government and I wouldn't rule out a fourth.
The book is framed by chapters about the Brown government. The first, "Can You Help Me", recounts Mandelson's return to the Cabinet in a move of shock and awe that surprised the lobby, the party and even himself. The final chapter "The End of New Labour?" tells the gory story of the election campaign. It is a gift to the narrative structure that Gordon Brown reached out to Mandelson, bringing his career full circle. Unsurprisingly, much coverage of "The Third Man" has focused on what is said about the TB/GBs - if the content didn't get you there the title surely would.
Again and again, outside observers question why the Labour Party allowed itself to be led by someone so many senior people had such profound doubts about. Mandelson's book does not answer this question directly, though we see in his chapters on the 1980s just how vital Brown was to Labour's renewal. And in his chapters on the leadership election and after just how destructive Brown was.
In a sense the answer is blindingly obvious - New Labour's most profound weakness was that it had no adequate theory or practice of management.
The simplest HR functions were not attended to; the vast majority of the reshuffles were unsought (caused by unexpected resignations) and almost all had an element of shambles about them. Ultimately, the responsibility lay with Tony Blair. He never took the action that was in his power - to demote or sack Brown. He wrongly judged the Chancellor too strong to move and so fatally weakened his own supporters and reform agenda. There is no need for Mandelson to spell this out - it jumps out of the pages at the reader.
The point is for the younger generation to understand that such a toxic relationship should never be mismanaged in such a way again.
This is a vital book, and a pleasure to read. It gives both a rich understanding of a political life well led, and a deeper understanding of the passionate, generous, amusing man that Peter Mandelson is. A writer, not a splitter.
The Third Man: Life At The Heart Of New LabourBy Peter Mandelson
Harper Press, 512pp, 25
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