26 November 2021

The CapX Podcast: Lord Mandelson on Labour, Levelling Up and the danger of the hard left

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It’s not often we get bona fide political royalty on the CapX Podcast, and whatever your political outlook, few people have bestrode British politics over the last few decades like Peter Mandelson.

Mandelson is often credited as being the original ‘spin doctor’ in the 1980s, but that rather glib epithet undersells his influence on the New Labour project, where he was integral to both Tony Blair’s ascent to the leadership and the party’s subsequent electoral success. He went on to serve in a number of Cabinet roles and as a European Commissioner, before returning to government under Gordon Brown as Business Secretary and President of the Board of Trade.

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Given the breadth of his experience in government, we were very pleased to welcome Lord Mandelson to appear earlier this week at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Trade, hosted by CapX’s parent organisation the Centre for Policy Studies. Our editor John Ashmore caught up with him afterwards to talk trade, Brexit and how he sees his party’s prospects under Keir Starmer.

Lord Mandelson on…

Labour and the hard left

The problem for us in the Labour Party is that there isn’t a party to the left of us to which the Marxists, the Trotskyists and the hard left would-be revolutionaries can turn to instead…I make no secret of the fact that I think that the ability of the hard left to inflict real damage on the Labour Party, as we’ve seen over very many decades, is considerable, which is why I think Starmer is right to demand, not just rule changes, but a change in the culture of the Labour Party, that makes absolutely clear that whilst the Corbynistas that are left, yes, if they subscribe to our rules and our constitution, can stay in the Labour Party, but are no longer in the driving seat of our party. That is the case now, it’s going to remain the case, I firmly believe.

Where next for Labour?

Keir Starmer and his colleagues have just got to put on a little bit more speed, a bit more clarity, a bit more definition, about the direction that they want a future Labour government to take, because it’s not that far ahead of the general election. We’re approaching a mid-point in this parliamentary term. So without setting out details and specifics at this stage, we do need more definition. We need more clarity.

We won with that alliance, that nationwide coalition, if you like, of working-class and middle-class people, of northern constituencies and southern. We did so in 1964, we did so again in 1997. You know, it’s not rocket science. Nor, in my view, are the interests of working class and middle class people, those who live in the north or south, opposites. They are very, very similar.

I know from my own former constituency in Hartlepool, that what people want is a mixture of idealism, competence, and affordability. That’s what they want from Labour. And it’s not different from what people in London, Kent or the southwest want as well.

The Levelling Up agenda

I think that the Prime Minister’s commitment, to and enthusiasm for, levelling up is welcome and admirable. It is a Labour agenda that was being followed by the last Blair and Brown governments.

An enormous amount of money is planned to throw at towns in the Midlands and the North. But I would say without the institutional means, or plan needed to bring about what I think is indispensable – and that is a structural economic transformation of the northern part of the country.

They’re not devolving power or responsibility or money raising or local decision making, which I think is wrong. Regions and towns and communities need to accept and embrace responsibility for their own futures and their own welfare.

On the prospects of a UK-US trade deal

If we look west, towards the United States, where we already have a vast amount of transatlantic trade and Investment, we can seek to grow that trade and grow that investment. But we will not have the benefit. In my view, of a new trade agreement between the United States and the UK, that door is closed to us in the US. And I cannot see in the near future, any American administration, forcing it open.

On trade with China

China naturally excites a lot of concern about human rights – and not just in the UK. We cannot ignore how goods are produced…and we’re not, but remember that we are constrained by WTO rules. I mean, the Government is utterly committed to free, fair rules-based trade within the multilateral system, and the core platform, or foundation, of the WTO and the rules-based system is that it operates as a strict, non-discriminatory baseline of openness. So they have to be careful that if we start discriminating against countries because we don’t like some of their policies, or human rights or whatever, then we are liable, at least to possible prosecution under the WTO rules. So we have to be slightly careful.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.