BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.03.02

Interview: Interview with Peter Mandelson MP.

Does Tony Blair need to change his whole approach as Prime Minister and change the direction the Government is going in.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: At the root of all this discontent is the suspicion of New Labour. Until now, old Labour has been prepared to give Tony Blair the benefit of the doubt because he's done what they failed to do - win two elections with thumping majorities. But now it seems they're saying: New Labour must become more like Old Labour. So what should Mr Blair do given that? Should he continue to govern the country as New Labour or will he have to change direction. The man who's regarded as the architect, the godfather of New Labour is Peter Mandelson and he's with me now. Good morning Mr Mandelson. PETER MANDELSON: Good morning Mr Humphrys. HUMPHRYS: Good to see you. Something must be done, mustn't it? MANDELSON: Yes, but can I just make a point about your package of interviews. I hadn't realised before I viewed it, that as a government grows older and older, five years now, this government, it collects a stream of Exs, ex-ministers, ex-Downing Street advisors... HUMPHRYS: hadn't realised that. I don't believe you! MANDELSON: No, I hadn't realised it to this extent. I just want to say as a serial ex myself, ex-minister, it is not a club I am going to join of those critics. But I do think the package illustrates something else. HUMPHRYS: Before you move on to the next bit, you're not just dismissing them as a bunch of malcontents are you. They are serious people with serious concerns aren't they. MANDELSON: No, for this reason I want to add. I think that what the interviews showed and I think it was a serious and substantial piece of journalism incidentally, is the difference between real issues on the one hand, I mean real policy dilemmas on which the different and sometimes conflicting views of Labour Members of Parliament, can and should be heard on the one hand, and froth on the other - all the chatter and the other stuff that occupies people within the Westminster bubble. And I think what the government has got to do, and what the Party has got to do is to concentrate on the real issues which do involve, as I say, real policy dilemmas for us to address. We have to navigate all sorts of hurdles and bumps in the road, that's what government is about, as Helen Liddell was saying, I thought most persuasively and cogently, but let's forget the froth and concentrate on the hard issues. HUMPHRYS: But might it be, might some of this discontent be clearly there are worries about specific issues. But what's happened in the Labour Party and you, as I say, was the architect of New Labour in many ways, a lot of Labour MPs, as you hardly need me telling you, a lot of Members of the Labour Party, never took to New Labour, Tony Blair himself acknowledged that, you have acknowledged that. So, in some ways, you don't have the deep roots in the Party that you need when times get difficult - is that a worry? MANDELSON: I don't think it's true, if it were true it would be a worry, but I don't think it is true. HUMPHRYS: You don't think that ... film illustrated that that's what's beginning to happen now? MANDELSON: No, I don't think there are people questioning you know the principles, or the model of New Labour. I think what they are doing is addressing, you know difficult issues where of course it will be more comfortable for example, you know, you to side with the Post Office unions, you know, for the short term security of their members, but we all know that the problems of the Post Office, as Helen Liddell was saying, are rather more complex than that. It would be more comfortable, you know, to say to workers: we will give you all the rights that you want. But, we know that the realities of economics and business life and particularly for small and medium sized businesses are more complex than that. It would be more comfortable for example, you know, to side with the anti-Americanism that is popular at the moment, but that wouldn't provide you with a solution to what to do about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. So, you know, you can retreat into these sort of comfortable nostrums and these comfortable positions, but they don't actually give you the answer to resolving these difficult policy dilemmas and I think most people would believe that New Labour does provide the model, or the framework of policy within which we can resolve these dilemmas, without, as I say, retreating into these sort of nostrums and slogans of the past. HUMPHRYS: Ian Davidson, you heard him there say it's the whole drift of the government that's wrong. MANDELSON: Yes, well Ian Davidson's entitled to his opinion but I don't think you should necessarily assume that Ian Davidson speaks for a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But one thing I am sure about, if I can just say this, if there is a problem, I think that New Labour has to address it, really in two ways. First of all I think New Labour has got to be much more intellectually self-confident about what it is, where it comes from. We have re-configured our politics in this country, the way in which people look at it and talk about economics, the Welfare State, the balance of rights and responsibilities in our society, the decentralisation of government, our country's relationship with Europe and the new internationalism. Now, that re-configuration of politics is recognised, you know, across the country and outside this country, I think we should be more intellectually and politically self-confident and assertive in setting out what we have done and where we have come from. HUMPHRYS: In what sense are you not self-confident then? MANDELSON: I think there are some people who are easily knocked back. I think there are people who when they encounter a sort of bump in the road, or a hurdle, or an obstacle, you know, shrink back away from it rather than, you know discussing in a calm way and keeping their nerve... HUMPHRYS: Government, you would say... MANDELSON: No, I think possibility some people in the Government and some people in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but I think there's another issue as well and I think it relates to this. I feel that sometimes when ministers and others of us in the Parliamentary Party, and I speak as a backbencher now like all the others on your film, when we talk about these issues and address these policy dilemmas we are too technocratic and insufficiently political. I think we need to be more political, I think we need to be more direct, more convincing and possibly more honest in the way in which we, you know, bring out the difficulties and the complexities in some of these issues that we are wrestling with and I think that whereas the government has and it is right to have done so, to a very large extent put that sort of age of spin behind it, I think it now has to consolidate that. HUMPHRYS: So there's still too much spin. MANDELSON: Well, I mean you ask that question without a smile on your face to me, and I would say that there is not too much spin, I would say that the emphasis of our communications has to be altogether more political, more articulate, more convincing. We've got to bring out the different shades and the complexities of the policy areas we're dealing with, but if we do that and I think that the government should, I hope that that will elicit a different response from the media. I would like to see a different sense of balance, of perspective introduced by the media when treating some of these complex political issues, and I think that if the government in a sense, you know, convincingly puts that sort of age of spin behind it, which I believe the government should do, and from the media we elicit a response which is, which has greater perspective, is more responsible and accurate, reporting of these complex political issues. Then I think we have a basis of a new and different settlement if you like between the government and the media, from the government greater openness, and from the media a greater sense of proportion in reporting and analysing politics. HUMPHRYS: It may be obviously that the media responds the way it does if your characterisation of it is accurate, because there has in the past been so much spin, and there is now a degree of suspicion that there might not otherwise have been, if you'd been to use a word that you used in that answer, more honest in the past. MANDELSON: Well, it may or may not be. I think that the government is absolutely right to have introduced the professionalism and discipline in its communications that it has. I think it's right that you introduce from the outset, from the beginning of a policy-making process and its presentation, how you're going to engage the public, how you're going to communicate with the public some of the shades and complexities of the issues you're dealing with, but if in the process of doing that, what you get from the media is a sort of synthetic anger and a sort of hysteria, a sort of you know, going completely over the top as if you can treat these issues in a completely and purely black and white way. HUMPHRYS: Yeah, but the trouble is.... MANDELSON: ....what happens then is that the government then sort of retreats and puts its defences up, the media then becomes all the more irritated and annoyed that they're sort of not getting at the real people and the real issues. You then have this sort of stand-off and sort of stalemate which I think characterises the relationship between the government and the media at the moment. HUMPHRYS: If you're told that the solutions are simple and straightforward and relatively easy and will be delivered, and then those answers are not there, the problems are not solved, then it's understandable that people become frustrated isn't it? MANDELSON: Yes, but I don't think the government are saying things are simple and straightforward. I mean on the contrary, the way in which we are bringing investment and reform to public services, you know is not simple and straightforward, nor is it achieved overnight. They way in which the government is tackling poverty, the way in which the government is creating a new internationalism in the world order, that's not something which achieved overnight, and so people have to remain yes calm, yes patient, yes debate these issues, but above all keep their nerve because these things take time to deliver. HUMPHRYS: There are signs and only signs, freely acknowledge that, that Tony Blair's star is waning a bit, popularity seems to be disappearing a bit if we are to believe the recent polls anyway and some of the things that are being said in Westminster. You may say that's Westminster froth and the Westminster bubble and all that, but nonetheless obviously every politician's time comes eventually. Tony Blair has achieved wonderful things for the Labour Party, nobody can dispute that. Margaret Thatcher made the mistake didn't she, it turned out to be a great mistake of saying "I'll go on and on and on" and in the end she was thrown out. The time does come doesn't it when a leader, however successful he may have been, has to say well maybe, I'd better start thinking about it. MANDELSON: I'm sure that will be the case with this Prime Minister like every other, but Tony Blair is a long way off from that point which Mrs Thatcher reached - what ten years down the line when everyone was just sort of hoping that she would go, and go quietly and quickly. I think that all this stuff about Tony Blair is a gigantic great wind-up and we shouldn't be seduced by it. HUMPHRYS: Peter Mandelson, thanks very much indeed.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.