I’m fascinated by a lot of things that are, on the face of it, not especially pleasant things to be fascinated with. Nuclear power stations, Victorian industry, tinkering with oily car parts, horror films, archaeology in its many varied, dirty and predominantly boring shades and Peter Mandelson.
Most of these interests can probably be laid at the door of a creeping fustiness related to an early mid-life crisis, or a hangover from adolescence, but my thing for Mandelson goes back to when I first became interested in politics at the age of 15 or so.
Like most 15-year-olds I was a left-wing firebrand, but I mixed it with living in the post-industrial depressed Teesside town of Hartlepool and a heritage of steel-workers and coal miners to look back on. Heady stuff.
The juxtaposition of Hartlepool – a working-class town still strong aligned with the Labour Party, Daily Mirror and teenage pregnancies – with the slippery embodiment of the New Right of the Labour Party in Mandelson fascinated and appalled me.
So much so that I voted Liberal Democrat in 1997, despite being a card-carrying member of Labour. I wanted Labour to win, I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for Mandelson. This is the sort of thing, presumably, that Tony Blair was referring to when he enigmatically stated some time before the election that Labour would only ‘come of age’ when it ‘learned to love Peter’.
I’ve followed Mandelson’s career since I became politically aware, but especially so since I interviewed him in 1999 for the now-defunct Liverpool Student newspaper.
The interview went badly. I was callow, blunt and probably a little combative. I suspect Mandelson was expecting a fairly friendly ride but, having been bombarded with hostile questions relating to his sacking, failed bid to get on the NEC and had some rather silly quotes dug up by me and thrown in his face, he soon bristled at the line of questioning.
A studied boredom descended over Mandy, and he appeared to take great delight in batting back my questions with deliberately facile straight-bat responses and at least one flat-out lie, though he was visibly irritated on a few occasions.
Towards the end of the interview he went out of his way to be unpleasant and unhelpful. I was a rather confused. The line of questioning was harsh, but I was cordial and even attempted a parting joke.
Looking back it’s easy to see why Peter had been irritated by my attempt at an interview. We now know that Mandelson was shattered by his sacking from the DTI, a brief he’d coveted for some time, and was licking some not-inconsiderable wounds received from Gordon Brown, Geoffrey Robinson and Tony Blair.
Blair told Mandelson following the fall-out from the home loans affair to ‘go away and make some friends in the Labour Party’. Clearly he wasn’t heeding that advice on the day I spoke to him but he does seem to have made it up, eventually, with Brown.
Mandelson’s efficacy in his early ministerial career was tough to judge, having been too short on both occasions to make much of an impact, though I never doubted his skills as a political operator.
His most recent resurrection as Business Secretary at the BIS and de facto Deputy PM has been notable because of its soaraway success.
His record in attracting business to the British car industry, which looked in danger of collapsing completely at the start of 2009, has been a vindication of his appointment and, to my eyes, the government’s policy of ploughing serious cash into the economy.
It’s tough to judge how much government money or loan guarantees have gone to car manufacturers including Toyota, Nissan, Honda, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, but all have made significant long-term commitments to remaining in the country and producing more models in the UK, despite the fact that the UK is not necessarily the best place in Europe to build and export cars.
LDV went by the wayside, Ford is moving Transit production abroad in the future and Vauxhall’s future is still in the balance – but the automotive industry clearly sees the UK as a place to do business, and without the billions of Euros the German government has been merrily throwing around.
The UK’s scrappage scheme, for all its faults, has got the UK car industry going again and is likely to actually return a profit due to VAT receipts. Mandelson demanded the manufacturers taking part equalled the government’s investment of £1,000 per purchase, and OEMs, the supply chain, the economy and Treasury have benefited as a result.
On the Labour Party front, Mandelson has become something of a darling to a party reeling from poor polling and a hysterically hostile press.
He’s the only one who appears to be fighting for the party, he’s gained a sense of humour and people within the party are talking him as a potential next leader (though the fact he is no longer an MP could make it tricky).
It’s a fairly remarkable turnaround, and I’ve found myself begrudgingly reassessing my opinion of him. His rallying cry to the party – “If I can come back so can we” – is symptomatic of a man who appears to be the only one in the PLP who hasn’t given up the ghost. I particularly enjoyed the story that he marched up to a clique of News International types at a party and lambasted them as a ‘bunch of cunts’ following the Sun’s switch of loyalties.
Anyway here’s Mandelson, now Lord of course, revelling in his new-found popularity within the Labour Party in conversation with Andrew Rawnsley at a fringe meeting at the recent conference – showing his combative and humourous qualities.
It seems the Labour Party has come to love Peter, albeit after 15 years. And while I wouldn’t go that far, I do respect the guy and feel slightly guilty about giving him such a hard time all those years ago. Sorry Peter.
As for me, I learned a lot from our meeting. Most obviously to flatter, charm and bribe interviewees, but also that there is a game to be played in such meetings that can be more rewarding and much more enjoyable. Just watch Rawnsley.
The writing of the article, and some ruthless self-inflicted subbing that followed, also taught me a lot. The material I had to work with was barely useable but I built something useful out of it.
A journo on a national praised it as ‘masterful’, I received several hearty slaps on the back and a photostat adorned the wall of the downstairs toilet of the family home in Hartlepool for several years.
Paired with a superb cartoon by the brilliant Nick Watson it also looked the part. Arguably the interview and subsequent article were the catalysts that convinced me that I could make a career as a journalist.
I didn’t pursue politics in the end, but I kept an eye on Mandy’s progress. The irony of being employed to write about Mandelson in the car industry years later is not lost on me. Nor is the fact that if weren’t for that meeting ten years ago, it seems unlikely I’d be where I am now.
• My original interview with Mandelson is reprinted below
Learning to love Peter
There’s a story about Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool that everyone knows. It goes like this: The young moustachioed Peter is on one of his first strolls around the constituency with the media in tow. Spotting a fish and chip shop he ventures in and orders a large cod and chips. Spotting a bowl of green gunky stuff he then orders some guacamole. It is, of course, mushy peas.
Regardless of whether this happened, the story will follow Mandelson to his grave, along with the stories about that loan from Geoffrey. Word was that Peter had to go because it gave the excuse that John and Gordon needed to scupper him. Apparently Tony sees Peter as the next leader.
So what has Peter been doing these last six or seven months? “Is this the interview?” It is. A ‘well in that case’ look plays across his face. He’s been serving his constituents, and in many ways it’s as rewarding as being a cabinet minister (lucky for him).
So did he expect to be promoted in the reshuffle? No. Was he disappointed that he wasn’t? No. Another couple of questions in the same vein are met with the response: “That is not a matter for me but for the Prime Minister.” I half expect his to start inspecting his fingernails in studied boredom.
I had been keeping my next question for a more opportune moment, but anything which injects something into the proceedings as this point is welcome. I go for the jugular.
“Given that you ran for the NEC but you didn’t make it …”
“I was runner-up, though”
“While people like Ken Livingstone and Mark Seddon – left-wingers with a media profile not as high as yourself – did get elected. What do you think that says about Labour party membership?”
“What it says about Labour party membership is that you have to run for the NEC a few times before you get elected and they had and the voting membership in London is about the size of the rest of the country put together. If you’re a Londoner, which Ken Livingstone is and Mark Seddon is to all intents and purpose, then you begin with a head start.
Now, something about this strikes me as a little, well, false. For a start, what is Mandelson if not a Londoner to all intent and purpose? He was born there and has lived there for most of his life. Additionally, it is plainly not just Londoners who get elected to the NEC
It should be remembered that while he has undoubtedly achieved a lot over the years Mandelson has also had several noted failures. As Director of Communications he took Labour to two General Election defeats.
In 1997 Labour gained one per cent per cent more of the vote than the Tories did in 1992 – Mandelson did not win Labour the election, as is commonly said, the Tories did. On top of the NEC failure there’s the Millennium Dome fiasco and then the loan story.
“The fact is that I was the runner-up”, he repeats, perhaps a little plaintively. Runner-up eh?
To someone who didn’t know better it might suggest that Labour party membership does not favour the type of policies espoused by Mandelson, or indeed the man himself. The rebuke they delivered to Mandelson may have hurt the man as much as it delighted bearded lefties up and down the country.
I go for my star question.
“I’ve got a quote here which is attributed to you: ‘Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’ Given that unemployment in Hartlepool is 13%…”
I don’t get any further.
“Where did you find that quote?”
Oh dear. “I read it in Red Pepper.”
Red Pepper is a left-wing magazine that is a little off-message. People like Noam Chomsky, Mike Mansfield QC and John Pilger write for it.
“Next Question.” I don’t say anything.
“I’m not going to comment on a quote just flung out by a hard-left magazine with a mighty great axe to grind like Red Pepper.”
“You didn’t say that then?”
“No. Next question.”
Now, I’m not going to let this slip as easily as I did at the time – he only denied it when I pushed him. Red Pepper would be liable for litigation if they couldn’t back that quote up – not something a small, independent magazine would risk. In fact, the writer assures me the quote came from a piece in The Guardian (24 December 1998).
Assuming that Mandelson did say that, it would be highly insensitive of an MP to come out with that when he represents a depressed post-industrial town. However it is a phrase that seems to say a lot about his political philosophy. His White Paper, while at the DTI, was ‘the most business-friendly document any Labour government has ever produced,’ he said in the Daily Telegraph. ‘Labour has dumped its interventionist past.’ Perhaps they are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich too.
“What do you think Labour has achieved in office?” This was meant to lead into another question, but he’s off.
Investment in schools, healthy, child benefit, minimum wage and so on. It seems a little rude to interrupt him when he’s eulogising so beautifully. But I do anyway.
“But some would say that waiting lists aren’t dropping as quickly as they are supposed to have by now …”
“No..but then that’s hardly surprising following 18 years of mismanagement of the NHS.”
Exasperated I change tack, I ask about the Mandelson/media relationship. They seem to me to have a very pronounced fascination with each other to me: I’ve read articles about Mandelson’s homosexuality, anti-semitism concerning his Jewish heritage, his aesthetic sensibilities (or lack of), his naivety over the whole ‘home-loan’ saga, his bedazzlement with the rich and famous, his friendship with several noted media whores. The media are completely entranced by him. And Mandelson’s downfall was met with the sound of a thousand copy-fillers cracking their fingers in delighted anticipation.
“Did you feel that you were hounded out of office by the media?”
“No”. Another blank look.
“I stand up for what I believe in, and that’s what politicians should do. I stand up for the party, against our detractors and those who would do us harm. Of course that’s brought me on to a collision course with some in the media, but they’ve got one political aim in mind and that’s to stop the Labour government being elected.”
“Why do you think the media are so fascinated with you?”
“I have no idea. I’m not interested. What I’m interested in is what I can do to help the Labour government.”
One last attempt …
“Where do you see yourself in a year’s time?”
“I see myself as MP for Hartlepool.”
“Not as a Cabinet Minister?”
“No. I don’t see myself in that sense at all. That is a matter for the Prime Minister.”
Foiled again. Time for one last question.
“There’s a rather entertaining story in Hartlepool about you. Apparently when you were out canvassing you went into a fish and chip shop…”
“It’s a myth.” He cuts in. It’s meant to end the interview on a light and amiable note. It fails, spectacularly badly.
“Can I take some photos?”
“Well, thanks for talking to me. Good luck for the future.”
Mandelson fixes me with a peculiar look.
“Yep. See ya.” It was the way he said it, maybe you had to be there.
I’d put money on Mandelson being a Minister again by the end of the year. He’s too important to Blair and The Project to be cast aside to live out the rest of his political career in Hartlepool – something he hasn’t considered for a second, I’m sure.
The man inspires such polarity of emotions because he embodies so perfectly the rebirth of the Labour party. About the same time as Labour abandoned the Red Flag he shaved his ‘tache off – how symbolic can you get? Blair is the figurehead of new Labour but it would never have got off the ground without the man Mandy.
That testament to the gloss of New Labour – the Millenium Dome – is his brainchild, his tenure at the DTI represents everything New Labour thinks about business – it must be appeased. He is New Labour.
His downfall was a result of his desire to live like so many of his friends do – he hobnobs with the rich and famous, but he is only one half of the equation himself – too famous and not rich enough by half to mix it with the Big Boys, maybe that’s an apt analogy for New Labour too.
A lot of people hate Peter Mandelson. A lot of people like him a lot – luckily the Prime Minister is one of them.
“Labour will only come of age when it learns to love Peters” says Tony Blair. I’ve no idea what that means and I’m not sure that Tony Blair does. I’d ask the man himself but even if he knew I’m sure he wouldn’t tell me. After all, that would be a matter for the Prime Minister …
• Mandelson image by World Economic Forum via Creative Commons