Keir Starmer, Norma Desmond and the Sinister Butler

extended version of piece published in Comment Central 30 May 2022

For years Tony Blair has been the Norma Desmond of British politics, a forgotten star living in dreams of the past.

Before the local elections Keir Starmer handed him not only a close-up but a comeback movie. One can understand his motives, however much one disagrees with them and detects little reward from voters from Blair’s re-appearance. But did he really need to bring back Peter Mandelson as the Sinister Butler?

Even before Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine it made little sense.

Starmer has fought a strong anti-sleaze campaign and plans to continue, despite his own embarrassments: Mandelson would be few people’s choice as a standard-bearer.

If Starmer and his advisers believe that Mandelson is a master election strategist they might remind themselves that he has not won an election of any kind since 2001, as the official candidate in what was then a safe Labour seat. His record as a national campaign strategist is Played 4 Won 1, the unlosable 1997 election against a discredited broken government. His former constituency, Hartlepool, where he might be expected to have most influence, ignored his advice to vote Remain in the 2016 referendum by the largest margin of any in the country. His reappearance there in 2019 failed to ignite a surge of support for Labour in the by-election.

Among leading past and present politicians Mandelson’s personal poll ratings have been persistently negative. So is most media coverage of him.

That was before Ukraine.

Rightly determined to highlight Labour’s opposition to Putin, Keir Starmer breathed fire against party members, especially MPs, who might have been tempted to follow the line of Jeremy Corbyn and StopTheWar.

Both have a lot to answer for in international affairs. Year after year, they have displayed a selective conscience, constantly attacking the errors and crimes of Western powers and their allies and largely ignoring those of others. But on Russia and the second Ukraine invasion their record compares favourably to Mandelson’s.

Jeremy Corbyn never praised Putin for his handling of the economy nor for rescuing Russia from chaos.

Jeremy Corbyn never stayed on an oligarch’s yacht or enjoyed an expert birching at his expense or attended his thrilling balalaika parties at Davos. Jeremy Corbyn never allowed himself to be put on parade at an aluminium smelter or anywhere else to serve the business interests of that oligarch or any other.

Jeremy Corbyn never turned up three years running at the so-called Putinfest, the economic summit Putin staged at St Petersburg to make propaganda and lure suckers into investing in his corrupt kleptocratic economy.

Jeremy Corbyn never served for four years as a non-executive director of the Russian Sistema Group, which included major suppliers to Putin’s military machine, at a reported annual salary of £200,000. He did not choose to stay in that post during Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine.

It is of course highly unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn received an invitation to do any of these things. But they are not on his record. They are on Peter Mandelson’s.

In spite of their outlook on the Western world, Corbyn and Stop The War have brought themselves to condemn Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine. Peter Mandelson has not. Until very recently, I could find no public comment about it from him. If I missed something, I humbly apologize and am happy to help make it better known.

In fairness, I should cite Mandelson’s reaction to the first invasion in 2014, when he predicted that Putin’s occupation of Crimea would be a “pyrrhic victory”. However, Putin is not renowned as a classical scholar. He may not have caught the meaning of “pyrrhic” and perhaps latched only on the word “victory.”

Mandelson’s first public statement on the current invasion came in a short exchange with Andrew Marr. He did not condemn either the invasion or Putin’s conduct of the war. He stopped Marr short when he suggested that the West would continue to supply arms to the Ukrainians to help them liberate territory occupied by the Russians after a ceasefire. If Putin had been listening, he would have been glad to hear Mandelson’s suggestion that the West might accept his conquests.

The whole exchange produced nothing from Mandelson which would discomfort Putin and nothing helpful to the Ukrainians or his Russian opponents. Much was devoted to establishing Mandelson’s credentials as an expert and an old Russia hand. If anything, his personal assessment of Putin was complimentary: “a very clever, very sharp, very agile thug.” In characteristically arch tones, he described Putin’s aggressive techniques in trade talks with him as EU Commissioner years ago: how lucky for the EU and the Western world to be represented then by someone like him, who had seen through them…

I believe that Mandelson’s words and behaviour over twenty years were more helpful than harmful to Putin. They were certainly more helpful than any useful idiocy he elicited from Corbyn and StopTheWar.

Apart from direct service via Sistema to Putin’s economy and military machine, Mandelson (in my view) helped him indirectly in important ways. His words and behaviours encouraged the view that Putin’s was a “normal” régime and an attractive destination for Western business and investment, ignoring the repeated evidence from its beginnings that it was built on lying, corruption, extortion, repression, violence and a total contempt for the rule of law. He treated Russian oligarchs as independent businessmen rather than Putin’s creatures, ignoring all those for whom even suspected independence resulted in demotion, confiscation of assets, exile, imprisonment, torture or death.

Of course he was not alone in this. He and other politicians, officials, business leaders and a host of supposed experts appear to have believed that trade and prosperity and general “engagement” (a slippery term which all too frequently deserves its sneering quotation marks) would make Putin’s régime more progressive, open and respectful towards basic Western values. This theory was tested historically with Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa – where it clearly failed. It continues to fail in Communist China and Saudi Arabia. It is all too often an intellectual license to trade with scoundrels.

Starmer is well aware of Mandelson’s response – or non-response – to the latest Ukraine invasion and his record with Putin’s Russia. It has been featured in both hostile and sympathetic media. It has been thrown at him by both his Conservative and his Corbynite enemies, and presented to him and his staff privately by people who want to see him succeed. But still Starmer directs all his fire on Corbyn and StopTheWar. He does not deny the published stories that Mandelson is advising him and his staff. This looks like double standards and it undermines his tough and admired stand on Ukraine.

Blair and Mandelson seem to have a totemic value to Starmer and his advisers, regardless of any evidence of their impact on voters. Their restoration heralds a return to the Golden Age of New Labour in government.

There are good things to remember about New Labour in government alongside the Iraq war, the banking crash, the loss of 1.5 million manufacturing jobs, MPs’ expenses and the collapse of trust in politicians generally, but not enough to make many voters treat it as a Golden Age. Even if they did, there is no going back to it.

New Labour has vanished, like Mandelson’s expensive Millennium Experience. Essentially, it promised painless transformation, everyone made happier without any major sacrifice if only a few rich and powerful people could be cajoled into behaving more nicely. Curiously, it had much in common with Corbyn’s Labour. They wanted to harry and tax the rich and powerful and even put them down from their seats rather than cajole them. But the two factions shared the belief that all problems could be solved at the expense of a small group of rich and powerful people. No wonder they ended up sharing the same slogan: for the many, not the few.
Their shared belief is now untenable. The world is not making movies like Tony Blair’s any more. He was handed the best domestic economic inheritance and the most benign global economic environment of any Labour government. It was just about possible then to believe Blair’s painfree promises.

But now no problem, domestic or international, can be solved at the expense of only a few. Meeting Britain’s needs for affordable housing, health and social care… developing sustainable domestic energy … producing goods and services sustainably which we can sell to ourselves and overseas and which create rewarding jobs … providing a decent education system for all children rather than pockets of privilege for the pushy… providing efficient transport … saving our soil, our water and our air (and the world’s) … redressing poverty and inequality at home and abroad… resisting Putin and other terrorists, containing Xi Jinping… preventing the next pandemic… combatting climate change… These problems and many more will require giant adjustments in the way millions of people live now and in their expectations of life in the future.

Understandably, both Corbynites and New Labour present the party’s future as a binary choice between them. There is of course a giant political space in the middle and that is where Starmer needs to be. He may hope to have power delivered to him by the anger of voters over their falling living standards and their perception of Tory selfishness, sleaze, incompetence and infighting but he cannot bet on this, especially if someone replaces Boris Johnson.

Starmer would do better to enhance his reputation for diligence and honesty, and be frank about the changes he will ask all the British people to accept. He will have to ask millions of them to abandon any hope of an early rise in their standard of living. He will have to convince them that any pain and sacrifice will be planned and shared equitably and worth accepting to make the whole country a better place to live.

Tony Blair is at best irrelevant to that long-term mission: Peter Mandelson a positive liability. Starmer now would get more benefit from a public row with him than from taking his advice. So, even more, would any successor.

02. June 2022 by rkh
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