Paul Foot

House of cards

(January 1999)

Editorial, Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No.226, January 1999, p.3.
Copyright © 1999 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

At a time of what seemed like unrelieved gloom, the political scene at Xmas was suddenly bathed in bright light. All of a sudden, without warning, a central pillar of New Labour turned into dust and blew away.

Peter Mandelson is New Labour in essence. His book, The Blair Revolution, which he wrote with one of the founders of the late unlamented SDP, Roger Liddle, argued that a New Labour government could provide social justice without interfering with the free flow of capitalism. The book is full of familiar cliches about the irrelevance of public ownership, the importance of reducing the influence of trade unions and the need to get to grips with outdated universal benefits. On page 127, the authors address ‘one of the greatest sources of unfairness’ – ‘the different prospects of couples setting off in life with a flying financial start from their parents and grandparents and those who have no such backing’. This unfairness inspires Mandelson and Liddle to one of the more radical proposals. Poor couples looking for housing should, they say, get a £5,000 sub from the government to help them with their mortgage. Where will the money come from? Why, from the inheritance taxes the Tories were threatening to abolish.

The authors are quick to reassure conservative critics that the mortgage bonus would only be available to people whose families could not afford it. It would not have been available, for instance, to Peter Mandelson, who was racked by house hunting problems at almost exactly the same time as he was writing his insipid little book. He was living in a perfectly presentable des res in Clerkenwell, with a pleasant three storey retreat in his constituency, Hartlepool. He was not satisfied, however. He was upwardly mobile. His bad years, when John Smith led the Labour Party, were over. John Smith, an old fashioned right wing social democrat, loathed Mandelson. He regarded him as ‘all froth and public relations’ and banished him from the inner circle to which he had been promoted by Neil Kinnock.

Smith’s death in 1994 and his replacement by Tony Blair brought Mandelson scurrying back into Labour’s ruling clique. Blair made a beeline for the rich, and recognised Mandelson’s supreme quality – flattery. Mandelson is, above all else, a courtier, who loves the company of the rich and knows how to flatter them. The rich are always inclined to interpret flattery as perspicacity. Before long, with Blair’s seal of approval on his forehead, Mandelson was flattering his way into the richest boardrooms in the land. The military top brass loved him. He even made friends with the Prince of Wales and his mistress. But his favourites of all the rich and famous were the media barons.

He personally persuaded Tony Blair that Rupert Murdoch was a profound political thinker whose papers needed to be courted. Murdoch’s daughter and most likely successor became a close friend of Mandelson. Clive (Lord) Hollick (Express, Anglia TV etc.) worked with Mandelson in Labour’s election unit at Millbank. John Birt, director general of the BBC, was Mandelson’s old buddy at London Weekend Television. How could this high flying courtier hope to keep up with all these rich and powerful friends from a dowdy flat in run down Clerkenwell? Something much grander was needed.

His greedy eyes turned to Notting Hill where his friend, the millionaire writer Robert Harris, entertained so lavishly, and where the former SDP leader Sir Ian Wrigglesworth showed off all the fruits of political compromise. A lovely house next to Wrigglesworth’s was for sale, for a little matter of half a million quid. Poor Peter could not begin to raise that much. His salary as a backbencher was a mere £40,000. His flat, already mortgaged, would be lucky to bring in a hundred grand. The Britannia Building Society would only lend him a maximum of £150,000. True, his mother lived in a handsome house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, but even Peter Mandelson could hardly set light to New Labour’s great crusade by evicting his mother and selling her house. Even his own proposal – for a £5,000 housing ‘start’ – would not have helped him.

In desperation Peter turned to the only really rich man he knew on the Labour backbenches, Robert Maxwell’s former business colleague and Labour MP for Coventry, Geoffrey Robinson. Robinson happily lent his new young friend £373,000, happily rolled up the interest and happily forgot to insist when, or even if, the loan should be repaid. Hey presto! As soon as Labour won the election, Robinson, an archetypal mediocrity, soared into the government with the grand title, which was not meant to be satirical, of Paymaster General.

When the loan was exposed just before Xmas, the Tory press was bewildered. All hailed Mandelson as an employers’ friend, an enemy of trade unions, an opponent of socialism and a moderniser. But few could resist a crack at the old enemy. The result was that Mandelson was assaulted for trivia. Acres of space were given over to phoney indignation about his cheating the mortgage company. But most sensible people cheat their mortgage company. Similarly, the Tory Party in parliament wriggled and jiggled as they tried to spot a ‘conflict of interest’ between Mandelson as secretary of state at the DTI and a two bit DTI inquiry into some of Robinson’s business deals.

All of this missed the point, which was hit at once and in a single sentence by a constituent of Mandelson’s who muttered, ‘I wish I could find someone to lend me £370,000.’ The point was the sheer scale of the money lent, and the ludicrous lifestyle of people who lend and borrow that kind of sum. The man who proclaims the ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ of New Labour, who suggests a £5,000 sub for young couples looking for a new home, is at the same time borrowing a sum equivalent to 15 years of the average worker’s total earnings just to buy a house.

The huge hoax which is New Labour was suddenly and brilliantly exposed. Nothing works on the public mind more than such a blatant example of personal greed. The whole strategy of ‘softening’ Labour’s image in order to win elections was exposed as a means to propel its soft image makers into the salons of the rich.

Like so many marvellous moments, however, the exquisite delight in the fall of Mandelson may be short lived. Many people who put some faith and trust in New Labour may be plunged into despair. ‘They all do it’ – ‘They are all as bad as one another’ – ‘All politicians and politics are rotten to the core’ – these are all common reactions which have in the past turned Labour voters back to the Tories, or pushed them even further to the right. On its own, triumphalist rejoicing at Mandelson’s fall may irritate many Labour voters into rejecting politics altogether.

On the other hand, the sudden vulnerability of New Labour, as its great white hope lies bleeding on the wayside, opens out all sorts of opportunities for setting out a socialist alternative. The New Labour road is plainly blocked. The past failures of Old Labour are partly responsible for the blocking. A new road to socialism, from the bottom up, through the skills, energies and solidarity of the people who produce the wealth, is wide open.


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