There was once a fabricated story doing the rounds that Peter Mandelson had pointed to some mushy peas in a northern chip shop and asked for a serving of guacamole. Untrue, but indicative of a strong feeling that one of Tony Blair’s chief henchmen cut an alienated figure when plonked into everyday surroundings. Well, whatever Lord Mandelson piles onto his refined breakfast platter, he’ll be tucking into it with relish today.
In the wake of Labour’s catastrophic showing in Thursday’s elections, his lordship furnished his prompt, incisive analysis – it was all down to Corbyn and Covid. Now, lest we forget, in February 2017, Mandelson proudly and publicly proclaimed that he was working every day to undermine the leader of the party of which he was a member. This didn’t work out so well for him. Three months later, the Labour candidate for Hartlepool, under the reviled Corbyn’s leadership, polled just under 22 thousand votes – easily the highest number since the Tories took office in 2005. The hapless good doctor Williams scratched together eight and half thousand on Thursday and m’lord’s ambition – along with that of plenty of his own ennobled chums – had reached full fruition: the Labour Party had managed to drill below rock bottom.
That it could have performed with such astonishing ineptitude is testament to a party whose current, dull leadership has no idea what it’s supposed to stand for. This goes some way to explaining how it is possible that a government which has displayed such monumental incompetence and dishonesty has succeeded, it seems, in fooling plenty of people for a lot of the time.
The highest number of deaths from Covid in Europe; an exams’ fiasco that would be laughable if children’s welfare hadn’t been shredded as a consequence; an overpriced test-and-trace system that has frizzled off into the atmosphere; PPE contracts handed to drinking chums – all presided over by a man whose dishonesty has never been called into question. How have the Tories managed to haul themselves out of this mire? Well, that’s an easy one. Through the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers, willingly giving time to a national health service which – and be in no doubt about this – is still up for privatised grabs under the watchful eye of a government of hard-line believers in market forces.
Even accounting for the unmerited approval that the vaccination roll-out has conferred on the Tories, why has Labour, with some honourable local exceptions, not been able to lay a glove on Johnson and his courtiers? From a whole range of reasons which could fill a dozen blog posts, here are two to consider.
First, in local elections that were almost inevitably low-key because of Covid, it was still noticeable that poster-boards, window posters and even instantly-recyclable election leaflets were in short supply for all parties. Reports suggest that many parts of the country mirror my local experience of Labour party material being non-existent. There’s a reason for this.
To state the bleeding obvious, in order to hammer in posts and to deliver leaflets and posters, you need people. The Labour Party, despite a fall of some 50,000 since Starmer took charge, still has half a million members – easily double that of the Tories – making it one of the largest memberships in Europe. Nevertheless, from the moment Corby became party leader, Labour grandees like Mandelson, David Blunkett, Margaret Hodge, Alan Johnson and dozens of others have worked remorselessly to undermine, discredit and discourage such people from being active members. They have roared on those officials who have expelled and suspended activists. They have banned debate in constituency meetings. They have been part of the machinery that has foisted candidates on unwilling areas. They have, just as Mandelson wanted, done a great undermining job.
Just as importantly – and this has filled columns a ‘plenty since Thursday – it is a party that doesn’t seem to stand for anything. Which is extraordinary. The party that was formed to represent the interests of working people needs, now more than ever, to say whose interests it represents: the underpaid, the unfairly paid, those in need of decent council housing, those who serve but don’t profiteer, those who rely on decent public services, those who have fallen by society’s wayside and those who want to arrest, as a matter of urgency, the burning of the planet and its resources. It needs to say that it is actively anti-racist and champion the cause of the oppressed – and that means dissociating itself from murderous regimes and those who preside over them. In short, it needs to be bold and confident in its assertions – not a limp, pale entity tail-ending the dreadful ideas of incompetents and charlatans.
In those places where it has done so, where party activists have been regular workers in food-banks, setting up local libraries, providing local transport, campaigning for affordable housing and, above all, been generally unapologetic in speaking out against unfairness, inequality and dishonesty, it has done well. In short, it has an identity. At present, it has none and, worse still, remains determined to dissociate itself from those who might just supply it with one.
And if the thought of an idle, mendacious, complacent Prime Minister lolling around and grinning at his good fortune in his baroque chambers doesn’t spark Starmer and his chums into doing something – and quickly – about this, then it may soon be time for the obituaries of their party to be written.