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Labour After Mandelson

Robert Wilkins

THE PIGEONS evicted from Trafalgar Square, Peter Mandelson driven out of the government Ė all in all, these havenít been happy times for vermin. However, while socialists will welcome Mayor Livingstone's purge of the flying rat, we are concerned here with one of the earthbound variety Ė the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, forced to resign on 24 January over the Hinduja passport scandal.

Mandelson's chums (apparently he does have some, and they're not all dodgy millionaires) rallied loyally to his defence. Writing in the Independent, Robert Harris denounced Mandy's sacking as "an extraordinary miscarriage of justice, a kind of contemporary Dreyfus affair", which did at least have the merit of giving us all a good laugh.

Mandelson himself claimed that he had been stabbed in the back by the Labour leadership, whom he indignantly accused of buckling in the face of a witch-hunt against him by Eurosceptic newspapers. Here, the Sun's response to Mandelson's whingeing Ė "he is out on his ear again because he is a lying, manipulative, oily, two-faced, nasty piece of work who should never have been allowed near government in the first place" Ė strikes me as an essentially balanced judgement. And, in any case, it is no more than elementary justice that the man who led the Blairites in their headlong charge to abandon every political principle in order to ingratiate New Labour with the right wing tabloids should meet his nemesis at the hands of the capitalist press.

It is a sign of the times that, whereas in the past politicians have been sacked for lying to parliament, Mandelson was sacked for lying to the prime minister's press secretary. The Mandy scandal has underlined the fact that the government is run by a clique that has cut itself off from any kind of democratic accountability. Like corrupt courtiers under an absolute monarchy, two leading members of the clique fell out among themselves, and Alastair Campbell was ready to sacrifice Mandelson just as ruthlessly as Mandelson has sacrificed others in his cynical pursuit of realpolitik. Hopefully this process will continue, and the no less obnoxious Campbell, whose remark about "bog standard comprehensives" provoked public condemnation from Prescott and Blunkett, may find that he too is expendable.

Mandelson's resignation has undoubtedly weakened Blair, and is a further blow to the New Labour "project", which sees the very formation of the Labour Party as a mistake and seeks to heal the breach in "radicalism" by breaking from the trade unions and fusing with the Lib Dems. This would now appear to be sidelined for the foreseeable future.

If the crisis has undermined Blair, most political commentators agreed that it has strengthened Gordon Brown. But they were divided over whether Brown represents any kind of ideological alternative to Blairism. Is he, as is sometimes argued, at heart a representative of "Old Labour" values?

On economic policy Brown is seen by some, both inside and outside the labour movement, as a social democratic redistributionist, particularly after last year's spending review. But it was Brown who insisted on sticking to Tory spending plans over the first two years of the Labour government, with all the disastrous consequences this has had for public services that were already severely run down. He is contemptuous of continental social democracy and looks for inspiration to the US, with its "flexible" employment practices and minimal state interference in the market. In line with this approach, he is hostile to public ownership, an enthusiastic advocate of PFI schemes and a bitter opponent of Livingstone's proposals for funding the London Underground.

Certainly, Brown is not a paid-up supporter of the "project" and, in contrast to Blair, he seems quite comfortable with the traditional labour movement. It's just that he wants it to be a movement presided over by a very, very right wing Labour government.

If, a couple of years down the line, Blair were to resign in favour of Brown, this would be an advance only in the sense that Blair's removal would signal the effective end of the "project" and provide rather more favourable conditions within the party to organise opposition to the leadership's programme.

Blair's political stock, which is already low, will fall even further if, as expected, the forthcoming general election produces large-scale abstentions by traditional Labour voters. Alienated from a New Labour leadership which is widely regarded as arrogant, out of touch and even more sleazy than the Tories, and faced with no real threat of an election victory by Hague, many Labour supporters will see little point in voting. And you really canít blame them.

In the general election, there is an argument for socialists supporting Labour in marginal seats or where the party's candidate is a left-winger. Personally, Iíll be campaigning for one particular leftist candidate. But living as I do in a safe Labour seat represented by a right-winger, Iíll probably abstain from voting, on the grounds that this is the best way to inflict political damage on Blair. And if I lived in Hartlepool, Iíd vote for Arthur Scargill.