In October 1989 I interviewed Peter Mandelson about activism, Europe, and his shirt. Here’s a copy of of the full text as printed in Marxism Today:
Peter Mandelson is Labour’s director of communications
Let’s start with you as machiavellian man. How do you feel about the way you’re represented: image-making but no substance?
We can dispose of me pretty quickly: I think I do have substance. What the Labour Party has undergone during the last three to four years has been complex, challenging. It could not possibly have been undertaken by people without substance. The more important question is whether what has happened in the Labour Party has been a triumph of style over substance. And I would refute that utterly. Style is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. Ultimately a political party needs to be saying things which are in tune with people’s mainstream concerns and aspirations.
You are associated with modernisation: being fast, competent. What do you feel about that famous 1987 ‘Kinnock’ party political broadcast, which harped nostalgically back to an era of labourism which is in fact now over?
I’m not sure that it did harken back to the past. It gave a complete picture of a man who has been grossly misrepresented by our political opponents. Neil Kinnock is a true embodiment of what the modern Labour Party stands for.
What does that mean?
He’s a man who has some true values; a working-class person who has been formed by the opportunities and the denial of opportunities which the mass of people in this country experience. That broadcast was not about projecting Neil Kinnock alone, it was using Neil to project the values that the Labour Party holds for our country.
I want to professionalise the way the Labour Party operates as a machine. I want it to use the most modern forms of communication. But I’m a party man to my fingertips. I’m a paradox: my upbringing was steeped in the Labour Party’s traditions, in the successes and failures of the party in the 60s and 70s; and my most recent political experience springs from the traumatic years – I use that word advisedly – that followed our defeat in 1979.
Our greatest successes took place a long time ago. The municipal socialism of the 1930s – certainly in London, which my own grandfather was largely responsible for – was the application of values and policies that met the times in which people lived, and used the most appropriate vehicle. After the war the socialisation of industry and the creation of the welfare state met the needs of people at that time. We’ve got to do the same in the 90s.
But don’t imagine for one moment that it is desirable to forsake our past. People don’t want to see a party just taking up anchor and manoeuvring in a listless, aimless way back and forward across the political spectrum in a search for votes. We are a left-of-centre political party, that is the philosophical and ideological appeal we have. For us to move away from that would be electorally suicidal.
You describe yourself in the same way you talk about the Labour Party: continuity with history, traditions, values, and a Labour-Party way of going about things…
And I do think that marks me out from others of my generation, whose socialist politics was discovered in campus class warfare at university.
You mean 1968 and all that?
Exactly. I don’t owe a great deal to those experiences. I didn’t need the demonstrations and the anti-war protests of the late-60s and the 70s to introduce me to politics. My introduction had come when I was bicycling up and down my street between the polling station and the committee rooms in the ’64 election.
I was very active in the Labour Party Young Socialists. And after a year of living in the bush in rural Tanzania, and seeing socialism in practice, I didn’t really need to come up to university and discover my political soul. Frankly, I felt slightly superior to them. There is something about Oxford undergraduates providing the vanguard of the proletariat which is very disagreeable.
But it wasn’t just about discovering socialism. It was also the discovery of activism, of sexual politics, a rediscovery of feminism, the personal as political, and that we are subjects as well as agents of change. So it changed the terms of politics…
But not for me.
Because I’ve always had an abiding view that change is brought about by government actions and parliamentary legislation.
You were a councillor in Lambeth, one of the councils associated with the most messy sectarianism, the worst leftism.
It was gesture politics at its worst, sectarian and self-seeking. I found it disillusioning. The leadership of the council used the people I represented rather than helped them. Now, in those circumstances I found very satisfying refuge in my weekly surgery, building up a huge load of casework, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
There was obviously a certain pressure to mouth the slogans, to embrace the political positions that would have enabled me to get on politically in Lambeth and London. I didn’t do so and for my sins was labelled as a rightwinger.
I wonder whether those passionate views about trotskyism and sectarianism in the Labour Party don’t also touch other kinds of activism? People in the Labour Party are often very wary of the word ‘activist’, and movements outside the party which are not in its control.
You have correctly diagnosed a feature of the Labour Party which has recoiled from the sectarianism of the early-80s. But sectarianism should not be confused with activism. The Labour Party is a campaigning party, in the sense that it is agitating public opinion, winning people’s minds, convincing them.
I have had a political existence outside the Labour Party. For three years I was chairman of the British Youth Council and in that capacity – I was nominated through the Labour Party – I represented all the national youth organisations in this country, from the Young Communist League to the Girl Guides, taking in Methodist youth and young farmers. Now that is a very broad constituency, and one I respect, but that doesn’t make me any less anti-Tory. It does mean though that when you organise among people, you’re not sectarian. That’s not my style.
Let’s talk about style. You’re wearing a rather lovely shirt, if I may say so. Did you iron it?
I did, yes.
Do you cook?
Yes, I can cook. What I cook is edible, and as you’d expect, nicely presented, but it is not cordon bleu. I’m not a foodie, or a drinkie.
Do you do your own housework?
On many occasions I do, but I don’t do it exclusively, no.
You employ somebody?
Yes. Is it something to be ashamed of?
The reason I ask is some people don’t even know how the housework gets done! Are the people in your world primarily immersed in the Labour Party? Are you capable of having a conversation that’s not about the Labour Party?
I built up a department, co-ordinated an election campaign and I haven’t stopped since. But I feel self-critical. Because I feel I’ve lost out, socially and culturally. At the age of 35 I should be doing more things with my life. But I do tend to find that when I go out, something awful happens! For example, for the first two years in this job I never went out on a Saturday evening, because the first editions of the Sunday papers always held some appalling story which I’d be rung about by all the journalists on the Saturday evening.
You’re a European man. Do you feel thwarted that Labour’s slow journey towards Europe has interfered with its ability to take international initiatives within a European alliance?
The Labour Party allowed itself to be portrayed as isolationist. Our belief in socialism in one country was blinding us. Europe is bound to have become important for the Labour Party because it’s a way of getting socialism in through the back door. The Tories were absolutely right in warning the British people during the European elections that Labour saw the European Community as a way of bringing more socialism into Britain. Where the Tories were wrong was in their belief that the majority of the country didn’t want that. They did, they wanted socialism by any door or by any window.
The parties of the Left are being confronted by movements like the greens, which are changing the terms of the political conversation. What does that tell us about the ability of the Labour Party to shape the political agenda?
Our opponents have been fairly successful in corralling us on to political territory which is the least auspicious for us. As a result of the policy review some very difficult teeth have been extracted, as well as some necessary modernisation of policy.
The political terrain I would like to break into concerns the future industrial and regional bases of our economy, the way the relationship between work, the family and leisure is being transformed. Those areas constitute a new agenda which is taking shape in people’s minds.
What excited you about the 1980s?
The environmental movement. And the peace movement, not so much in Britain, but in Europe, brought about real change and a response from governments, even conservative governments. If I was to be candid, the Labour Party didn’t contribute enough to radical politics in the 80s.