MATTERS OF IMPORTANCE. Peter Mandelson on Brexit lies, Boris Johnson, the weak & ineffective response of Jeremy Corbyn, anti-Semitism, Northern Ireland and the EU.
Peter Mandelson is a British Labour politician, president of international think tank Policy Network, and co-founder and chairman of strategic advisory firm Global Counsel. He was Member of Parliament for Hartlepool from 1992 until 2004, and Director of Campaigns and Communications for the Labour Party between 1985 and 1990.
Peter Mandelson held a number of Cabinet ministerial positions under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, including Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Northern Ireland Secretary and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. A former European Trade Commissioner, between 2004 and 2008 he negotiated trade agreements with many countries and led European negotiations in the WTO Doha World Trade Round. In 2008 he was created a Life Peer, sitting on the Labour benches in the House of Lords.
The Right Honourable The Lord Mandelson is a Senior Adviser to Lazard and a member of the International Advisory Committee of BlueVoyant, a cybersecurity company. He is President of the German-British Forum, the UK’s primary bilateral forum for promoting dialogue on German-British business, social and political issues, and President of the Great Britain China Centre. He is Chairman of the Design Museum in London and Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.
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Peter Mandelson, how are you?
My country, which I love, is being forced out of its own European neighbourhood by a hard right Conservative government with the support of under half of the population and is crossing the Atlantic to make common cause with an American president who, it seems, is happy to be perceived as a white nationalist. So I am not very happy. This disturbs me greatly, because it’s completely different from all my upbringing, whether my family or in politics, what I believe in, and the identity I see for my own country.
You were for many years an active politician, and had a great role in several governments, a Minister, a Commissioner in Europe. How do you perceive your role now in a situation like this?
The problem is that many people in Britain think that leaving the European Union will really mean taking back control. Of course it means the opposite. We will have less independence, less power, less influence, and instead we will simply become more isolated as a country and less able to affect international affairs and policy. Many people in the country think that however bad this is we have to go along with it for the sake of a democratic decision taken in 2016. That, however desirable it would be to reverse it, we shouldn’t for the sake of democracy. But democracy did not end in 2016.
People have the right to think further, to think again, even to change their minds, and now we know what leaving the European Union means for our country there should be another final say referendum taking place. I hope that continued deadlock in parliament will force MPs to go back to the people. I would like to see that happen.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party at the moment, has said that he wants a second referendum. In this case are you Peter Mandelson going to campaign to make the British people understand what it means to leave? Many people were misinformed or didn’t understand, how difficult it is and what it implies. Have people changed their mind?
I respect those who do not share my view of Europe. I disagree with them, but I understand that they have a belief in national sovereignty which they think is incompatible with membership of the European Union. But very many others who also voted that way did so for reasons completely unrelated to Europe, the European Union, sovereignty. They voted out of anger, protest and disillusionment about their lot, their income and the general direction of the country. And let’s remember that in 2016, while 17.6 million people did vote to leave the European Union, 22 million people didn’t care enough to vote at all.
Let people think again. If they wish to reaffirm their original choice let them do so on the basis of known facts and realities. Nobody said in 2016 that we would be leaving the European Union with a massive rupture in our economy and trade. People who advocated Leave said that we would have the same trade benefits in Europe and the world, in or out of the European Union. On television we saw pictures of mass migration coming from Syria and elsewhere into Europe, and were told that Turkey was just about to join the European Union and 80 million Muslims would be coming in our direction to take our jobs, and possibly our women, and our men as well. This was the fantasy. These lies were peddled at the time, amplified by the anti-European newspapers, and for many people you can hardly blame them for voting as they did.
What did Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, do in these circumstances?
Very little. And he’s done very little since, and offers very little leadership now. A weak and ineffective individual, who has a sneaking sympathy for Brexit, he believes that Britain would be more free to build socialism outside the European Union. His supporters call this Lexit, the left wing version of Brexit, to bring back economic regulation, state ownership, control of the economy. He is deceiving himself. Britain won’t have the freedom to do any of these things, and in any case we can pursue national economic policies inside the European Union. And the Labour Party, in its heart and soul, is an internationalist pro-European party. It believes that you achieve your social and economic goals as democratic socialists, in cooperation with other people and other countries. So, very reluctantly, he has had to accept the principle of another referendum because the party has insisted but he does not really believe in it or in opposing Brexit at all.
“Boris Johnson is somebody who’s prepared to say anything to get power and do anything once he has it.”
Boris Johnson insists that he is willing to countenance leaving the European Union without a deal on 31 October, rather than postpone Brexit once again.
Peter Mandelson, do you know Boris Johnson, the man?
I know Boris Johnson, yes, although I know other members of his family better. Boris Johnson is somebody who’s prepared to say anything to get power and do anything once he has it. He’s perfectly capable of changing in any direction if he feels like it, he’s not somebody who is rooted in a deep set of principles or ideals. He is of course a Conservative, but anyone who knows him realizes that he would be capable of expressing completely different views about Europe if he chose to. Indeed he has done in the past.
If people in his party don’t agree with Boris Johnson can Corbyn have the parliamentary majority and become the de facto Prime Minister?
If Boris Johnson pursues a No Deal Brexit there will be a motion of no confidence tabled in the House of Commons and there may be an election and Johnson may lose it, but in my view the chances of that happening are massively increased if Jeremy Corbyn were to take a clear unambiguous pro-Remain position and become the unequivocal champion of the pro-Remain half of the country. People view Brexit as a matter of fundamental importance, not a tactical opportunity for one political party or another. That’s how Corbyn appears – tactical, zig zagging and confused.
It would have been much better if Jeremy Corbyn had taken a principled position which reflected the overwhelming view of his party, which is that Britain needs to remain in the European Union for its own and everyone else’s good.
In this Brexit affair there is the Irish border problem, a technical problem. Can it be solved?
I’m a former Northern Ireland Secretary. I implemented the Good Friday Agreement, between 1999 and 2001 my responsibility was actually to make the Good Friday Agreement work. I set up the new all-party, power-sharing institutions and we got devolved self-government in Northern Ireland. I implemented the removal of the hard border between north and south. This was fundamental to the peace settlement and the prosperity that flowed from it. I know what’s at stake. I know what is riding on it. If we were to see a return of that border, representing as it does the age old conflict between Unionists and Nationalists in Ireland, we would be playing with great danger. There are forces, extremists, who would be coming back and using this as a fresh opportunity to contest the peace agreement and to plunge Irish politics back into a sectarian dispute.
Both the UK and the European Union have stated as a principle that there should be no return of that hard border between north and south in Ireland. The question is, how do you avoid it?, and I believe over time this can be managed in a way that is acceptable, but, if not, then I believe we are right to uphold the insurance policy, the backstop negotiated in the Treaty between the EU and the UK, which says that in no circumstances should a hard border be allowed to return. I think it’s manageable, but the principle for avoiding it is very important to uphold. Otherwise we are taking a major risk with continued peace and stability in Ireland.
You were against Corbyn as a candidate for Labour leader then changed your mind when he did well in the election?
I did not change my mind. I acknowledged that he had done better campaigning in the election than anyone had expected, but remember that Mrs May called an election that nobody wanted with a manifesto that blew up in her face over the issue of adult social care and how it would be paid for. The 2017 contest was between two equally unattractive candidates for Prime Minister. People who support the European Union saw Corbyn at that time as the standard bearer of Remain, but didn’t realize how weak and half-hearted he was on the subject of Brexit. This has emerged subsequently, and that’s why his standing has collapsed over the last year – because of his stance on Brexit.
We are now in a situation where many people will react with horror againt what Johnson plans to do – defying Parliament to take Britain out of the EU without a deal to safeguard our trade and jobs – but have no faith in Corbyn’s desire or ability to block this. Corbyn is not the leader that Labour needs at this time. He cannot deliver. Even his supporters are realising this. We need an alternative who can stand up to Johnson and lead the country against the disaster which is in the making.
Does he listen to you?
He has no interest in talking to people he disagrees with. He is surrounded by a small clique of people who reinforce his backward-looking, hard left views. They are completely out of touch with mainstream public opinion. Many of them come from communist and far Left political backgrounds that have barely any relationship to the Labour Party. He isn’t going to talk to me, because I am from the centre left.
Corbyn has the problem of leading an anti-Semitic Labour Party. Is this damaging?
It certainly is. Throughout my life I have never known anti-Semitism, or ‘anti-Jewish racism’ as I prefer to call it, in the Labour Party, but when he became leader there was an influx of thousands of people to the Labour Party membership and since this time anti-Semitism has spread like a virus amongst Labour Party grass roots, as their use of social media has exposed. It’s a minority, but it’s there, present. Not only have we lost the votes of Jewish people, we’ve lost the votes of many ordinary voters, as well as liberal opinion, people who hate racism, people who followed the Labour Party because they thought of the Labour Party as an anti-racist party.
We now have people who are prepared to use anti-semitic language in the membership of the Labour Party and saying things on social media against Israel and against Jews, but being tolerated by the leadership, with no effective action being taken against them. Other people in the Labour Party feel morally compromised by remaining in a party that exhibits such racism.
Peter Mandelson, how do you feel?
Like many people I feel dirty. I feel dirty being in a party that is prepared to tolerate people with such opinions as these. It’s disgusting.
“…people in the Labour Party feel morally compromised by remaining in a party that exhibits such racism.”
Peter Mandelson, do you think Nigel Farage can influence a Boris Johnson government?
Farage is attacking the Conservative Party from the Right and wants to take it over. He wants to be a Conservative MP. He would love to be in a Conservative government, and has said privately that under Boris Johnson he hopes to come back into the Conservative Party. He admires Boris Johnson. He thinks he’s going to be a good strong pro-Brexit leader. He wants to end his separation from the Conservative Party. More and more Conservative MPs of the more traditional kind of internationalist, One Nation centrist kind are just leaving, they’re giving up, just like many people in the Labour Party.
Where can they go?
Nowhere at the moment, unless they join the Liberal Democrat party.
Is it not possible to create a new party?
An attempt has already been made once this year to create a new party and it was a failure. In the British electoral system you vote ‘First Past the Post’ for the party of your choice. You do not have a system of proportional representation, so you don’t have that ability for smaller parties to gain votes and to be represented in parliament in the way that you do in most Continental countries. Our electoral system presents a very high bar for new parties to cross.
Would you join a new party?
My intention is to stay, to fight, and save the Labour Party. That is what I devote energy to, every single day.
At the beginning of this interview you mentioned the danger of Britain’s alliance with the Donald Trump White House, possibly for another four and a half years. Trump and Johnson seem to be willing to be good friends. What will happen?
What Donald Trump represents and believes is anathema to mainstream British opinion, and the idea that as a result of Brexit we have to kowtow to an American President who holds those views will outrage people in Britain. Even those who have a sneaking admiration for Donald Trump, because of the strength of his personality, nonetheless regard him as reckless and a danger to the world. Re-elected or not, he will never be viewed by people in Britain as a true embodiment of or spokesman for our values and our interests. He treats us already as if we’re a new state, and if Boris Johnson conducts himself like some mini Trump he will lose a lot of support in Britain.
Peter Mandelson says “Jeremy Corbyn appears tactical, zig zagging and confused.”
Peter Mandelson: “Nigel Farage has said privately that under Boris Johnson he hopes to come back into the Conservative Party.”
Peter Mandelson: “Britain needs to remain in the European Union for its own and everyone else’s good.”
Peter Mandelson: “I know what’s at stake.”
Peter Mandelson: “Lies were peddled at the time, amplified by the anti-European newspapers, and for many people you can hardly blame them for voting as they did.”
Peter Mandelson: “People who advocated Leave said that we would have the same trade benefits in Europe and the world, in or out of the European Union.”
“In Britain we will probably need ten years to pick ourselves up and out of the chaos that we have descended into.“
The European Union is moving ahead, not falling apart or holding back. The European Union is putting in place a new top leadership which seems to me balanced, well qualified, with a sense of purpose. They’ve chosen a good new president of the European Commission, the other top jobs have gone to strong people. In contrast to my feelings about my own country, I’m rather optimistic about the European Union now, because I think that after many years of introspection they are now staking out key areas of progress which will strengthen the union in the long term. I’m talking about the way in which it’s embracing the technological revolution which is underway and what that means for European industry, and transformation of the European economy, talking about their commitment to strengthening Europe’s external border and its management of migration. I’m thinking about the focus on defence and security arrangements externally that Europe needs to invest in further. I’m thinking about its commitment to the battle on climate change, which is taken very seriously, but also the maintenance of Europe’s social contract. The way in which we manage so many adjustments, both to globalization but also to the impact of automation, artificial intelligence, which is going to touch every single part of our society and our economy.
The populistic wave is there but it’s not growing. The European elections showed that there is a strong presence for nationalists and populists, but their support is not growing. That’s a key reading from the European elections. I don’t minimize it. I don’t dismiss its importance, but this is an expression of popular discontent about the direction of Europe, the coherence of its policies, and the strength of its political leadership. Those criticisms in many ways are valid. We are seeing a backlash against the centrist parties of the left and right, because frankly they haven’t performed and delivered as well as they should have done, over the last decade. So people are turning to alternatives, in some cases extremists of the left or right, but I don’t believe that this represents a permanent structural change in European politics.
Are there not a lot of little Trumps in Europe?
But why do they exist? In my view, to counter them, we need far more than tweaks of the policy dial. We are facing massive changes and challenges in Europe. That requires an equally strong response in policy terms. The technological revolution, which is going to touch every part of our lives, contains both opportunities and risks. We have to do far more to exploit and capitalize on the opportunities, and equally do far more to reduce and manage the risks, for people, for communities, for whole regions across Europe. My complaint is not that people are voting for nationalist and populist parties, although I regret that they are. My complaint is about the Centrist parties who are not responding adequately to this political and electoral challenge.
This can bring disaster, because people are fed up?
It carries the risk of disaster if the mainstream parties don’t re-equip themselves with the organization, the policies, the ideas and the quality of leadership that’s required in this situation. We have to renew the centre ground of politics in Europe. We have to reinvent ourselves, reinvent our ideas, our policies, our organization, the way in which we conduct ourselves. We need a cultural revolution blowing through the centre ground political parties.
Are we ready for that?
You’ve just seen in Greece the centre right taking back power from the far left. You saw Macron winning in France. You’ve seen the AFD party in Germany being contained. You’re seeing growing support for the centre left and right in the Netherlands and in Northern Europe. Good can come out of this situation, but the victory of ideals has to be organized. Throughout my political life I’ve been an organizer; an organizer of ideas, an organizer of campaigns, an organizer of political parties like when we created New Labour. I still am fired up.
Would you like to help organize a new Europe?
I would love to be playing my part in organizing a new Europe and it’s a calamity that people like me and many others who have so much to contribute to this new Europe are being marginalized, as a result both of the Brexit decision and by the failure of the Labour Party to rise to this challenge, and by the drift of the Conservative Party to the nationalist Right.
In Britain we will probably need ten years to pick ourselves up and out of the chaos that we have descended into. In the meantime, I’m afraid Britain is going to become a smaller country, both economically and politically. We are going to become a less influential and a more introspective country during the coming decade, but beyond that I hope that phoenix-like we will be able to re-emerge, different and stronger, from what I fear is going to be a bad and punishing experience for our country.
London, July 2019
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