Woody Allen once commented that however hard he tried, he had never managed to be late for a Jewish function. Last Sunday afternoon I achieved that rare feat, a testimony both to the temporary traffic lights cluttering up the London roads and the stereotype defying, well-oiled organisation of Jewish Book Week.
I snuck in to find the Dark Lord of New Labour describing himself as discreet, not one for hyperbole or kiss and tell. The Third Man, said Peter Mandelson, lets the facts speak for themselves. Nick Cohen, chairing, politely accused Mandelson of stirring, particularly in the preface to the recently published paperback edition, in which he voices serious concerns about Ed Miliband’s leadership.
Mandy replied that he was indeed “very wary” about the party, but that his wariness was driven by his desire to see Labour in government. “When Ed pronounced New Labour ‘dead’, “he said “he was not only being more categorical than was wise, but quite possibly more than he really intended.” Certainly Ed Miliband’s bashing of the New Labour record went further than any requirements of humility in defeat. Many felt he was too willing to take populist swipes at the very people who had made Labour electable three times in a row.
Mandelson once famously stated, “we don’t mind people being filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.” Problematic, pointed out the chair, as some of them don’t pay tax. The bulk of his justification for New Labour’s relationship with finance was based on the serious reputational damage that needed to be undone after Labour’s economic policies of the 70s and 80s had been neither credible nor electable. Some might see that as apologetics for New Labour, others as a simple statement of fact.
Ed Miliband’s ability to mastermind a long-term political vision was again called into question. “If you weren’t tribal Labour would you vote Cameron?” asked Nick Cohen. Clearly not. But if we treat Cameron in 2011 as if he was Thatcher in the 1980s we’re missing a trick, suggested the Dark Lord. If we don’t come to terms with Cameron’s strategy of appealing to the centre ground on which elections are won, Labour will not be successful.
Regarding the Blair-Brown split, “government is office politics writ large.” He suggested though that history would remember New Labour’s monumental rift less than its record, on lifting people out of poverty, the minimum wage and schools. That drew a round of applause from sections of the audience and the odd snigger from others. One man to my right snorted with derision like an angry camel.
Naturally, Mandelson’s Jewish roots were briefly discussed. His father was, he said, a Jewish atheist, something which needed no explanation to a JBW audience, but which he went onto describe as being grounded in Jewish values but without involving synagogue. Nu? I thought, and since when has atheism been an excuse for shirking shul? In times of crisis in Israel, though, such as in 1967 and 1973, his father became intensely Jewish, he said.
Had he ever experienced anti-Semitism? When some of the things written about him were analysed, he suggested, they were found to borrow heavily from the anti-Semitic tradition. Polly Toynbee came in for some stick over some of her more venomous descriptions of him as “cancerous.”
Moving onto the Q&A, one man referred to Mandelson’s stint as Northern Ireland Secretary to ask a hackneyed question on the Middle East – if in Northern Ireland we achieved progress by talking to Sinn Fein/IRA, shouldn’t Israel and the West talk to Hamas and Hezbollah? A whole hour could be filled explaining why comparisons between Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and Sinn Fein and Hamas, are facile, no matter how often we hear them repeated. Mandy’s response was succinct. If Hamas were prepared to make changes similar to those made by Sinn Fein in the 1990s then such an approach might work. As yet, he noted, they have shown no willingness to do so.
The last question asked about Mandelson’s relationship with Libya, following awkward coverage the weekend’s papers. He’d earlier referred to his father’s love of Hampstead Garden Suburb, something which Saif Gaddafi seems to share. He argued that we were right to bring Gaddafi in from the cold, after he abandoned his nuclear programme and support for terror, but that was always conditional on reform. Incidentally, he outlined his position in the FT the following day. There wasn’t time for anyone to ask what evidence we ever had that any such reform was taking place. Now he said he stood absolutely with the demands for freedom of the Libyan people.
Then, in a puff of smoke, the Prince of Darkness with the surprisingly light touch vanished into the night. Or on this occasion, next door to sign books. Perhaps he could have left the stage to the sounds of the generously-nosed Barry Manilow, seen here performing Mandy in 1978.
David Krikler is the speechwriter to the Israeli ambassador