BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 19.05.02

Film: NEW LABOUR FILM. Iain Watson looks at Peter Mandelson's latest ideas about how New Labour should renew itself.

IAIN WATSON: The industrial revolution is firmly part of Britain's past. And now, some in Labour's ranks want to see another revolution go the same way, the Blair revolution - a book penned in nineteen-ninety-six by Peter Mandelson. But he just won't take the advice of a fellow revolutionary, Chairman Mao. He said 'When the enemy advances, withdraw'. Instead, Peter Mandelson has reissued and revised his book with the stated aim of recharging Blair's revolutionaries. But would the prime minister want to be associated with this latest call to arms? IAN DAVIDSON MP: I think you have to remember that Peter Mandelson's position inside the party depends very much upon the patronage of the leader. Peter remember, got defeated for elections to the National Executive by Ken Livingstone and nowadays we've just seen his candidate in his own constituency being defeated by a monkey, which hardly tends to indicate that his approach to politics is achieving widespread acclaim. WATSON: In his revised version of the Blair revolution, Peter Mandelson calls for the creation of 'new' New Labour, but his critics may be surprised to find that in manufacturing an updated ideology for his Party, he's taking some components from the left. Not only does Peter Mandelson defend the tax increases in the budget, he says more may be necessary - especially to achieve his ambition of increasing education spending in line with health. But some of his former supporters say he's diluting the original New Labour brand. A small group of modernisers, called Labour 2000, were at their zenith at the time of the original Blair revolution. Their leader, Phil Woodford, thinks Tony Blair should avoid his close confidant's advice on taxation. PHIL WOODFORD: I'm surprised that Peter Mandelson is now saying that we should be prepared to tax more and spend more, after all we went into the nineteen-ninety-seven and two-thousand-and-one elections saying something very different indeed. Every time you give an inch to the old left they're in danger of taking a mile and we do all have to be conscious as Labour modernisers within the Party that the way we express our ideas can allow people whose views, to be quite honest, will always be rejected by the electorate, to gain an unnecessary and worrying stronghold within the party once again. WATSON: And there are those in the mainstream of the Labour Party who want to see the New Labour brand dispatched. The leader of Peter Mandelson's own union, the GMB, wants to turn round attitudes at the very top and is now funding the left-wing think-tank Catalyst, to help create a more traditional social democratic image of Labour. Even the Chancellor attended last week's re-launch. Significant sections of the party now want the Prime Minister to see the recent budget as just the first step towards a European-style higher spending, higher tax economy. JOHN EDMONDS: We need to re-build our public services, there is a big constituency in Britain for doing that, and not just the Health Service, that was a very good start, but also public transport, also housing, also our municipal services. Now that type of approach has considerable resonance in modern Europe, but it does mean higher taxation, it does mean paying for public services out of higher taxation, and it does mean talking about the common good. WATSON: Peter Mandelson is no doubt aware of the counter revolutionary stirrings in Labour's ranks against the Blairite elite, so while he defends the government's tax increases, in other respects, he thinks it's necessary to have a head-on clash with those who want to see a return to old Labour ways. When it comes to the public services, his vision of 'new' New Labour is as radical as ever, and his critics say that his ideas simply don't represent practical politics for a centre-left government that wants to stay in power Peter Mandelson wants his leader to spill more political blood in a battle to challenge trade union power; he says the private sector should be involved even more deeply in the delivery of public services. But the South American revolutionary Che Guevara once warned that no battle, combat or skirmish should be fought unless it can be won. So if Tony Blair begins to turn his close colleague's ideas into action, he'll also have to steel himself against an assault from dissident forces in his own ranks. DAVIDSON: The campaigns that have been run on keeping the public services in the public sector have been overwhelmingly popular and I do think that the Prime Minister and those around him do need to take some recognition of what the country feels on issues like this, particularly when there's no absolute overriding economic imperative that makes us have to privatise. WATSON: Peter Mandelson has retained two key demands from his original nineteen-ninety-six Blair revolution. He says Britain can't be a leading player in Europe until his dear leader wins a referendum on the single currency. He also has a grand plan to create a progressive century, involving closer links with the Lib Dems but they're wondering just what's in it for them. CHARLES KENNEDY MP: You've got to have items on the agenda, where is proportional representation from local government? What's happened to the Roy Jenkins Commission about fair votes for Westminster? How much are we going to move forward the regional government identity and issues as they manifest themselves within England. Now, you know, I listen carefully and the sound I hear is the sound of silence. WATSON: But if Tony Blair does what's necessary to renew links with the Liberal Democrats, there are those in the recently revived Tribune group of centre left MPs who would oppose what they'd see as a political stitch-up DAVIDSON: I would like to see the New Labour experiment as a sort of blip, an aberration. Peter really wants to have the working class, the left, the trade unions driven out of politics and an alliance of the centre with the nice Tories, those that he's prepared to mix with, the Liberals who are soft and soggy and him and his chums. Now that's a different sort of politics to the politics of the Labour party at the moment and the more that's flushed out the better the chance there is of defeating it. WATSON: Peter Mandelson says his new book will help Blair's revolutionaries find new allies; but even though he's tacking to the left on tax, his critics in the Party will say that, deep down, he hasn't shed enough symbols of New Labour Mark One. Karl Marx once said the meaning of peace was the absence of opposition; on that basis, Tony Blair could face a significant struggle if he confronts a less compliant rank and file by trying to put some of Peter Mandelson's latest ideas into action.
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.