Lord Mandelson was always keen to require iron discipline in New Labour when he was one of the small clique in charge. Today he is now an enthusiast for rebellion, urging modern Labour MPs to disagree with their Leader and to remain true to the flexible pro European and pro military intervention stances of Blairism. This sad volte face is not surprising. Lord Mandelson would argue that an MP only owes loyalty to his party and its Leader when they are “doing the right thing”. The problems with that proposition are twofold. The first is who gets to decide what is the right thing? The second is, can it ever be the right thing in a democracy to seek to prevent the official opposition opposing for good reason?
There are two defining issues in Lord Mandelson’s mind where he wishes Mr Corbyn to be more Blair like to justify his support and recommendation. The first is the UK’s willingness to undertake military action in the Middle East against regimes or Islamic groupings it dislikes. The second is the UK’s requirement to accept any new law, regulation or treaty amendment from the EU that the EU institutions and other member states may propose. In both cases Lord Mandelson argues that to be a serious party of government Labour needs to be nearer the centre, which he claims is in support of more military intervention, and in support of more EU intervention in our lives. I suggest to him that in both cases this is a misreading of the public mood. I do not recall the Conservatives under Mr Cameron campaigning in last year’s General election to take military action in the Middle East, nor stressing the need for more EU entanglements. Indeed, part of the attraction of the Conservative case was the combination of a negotiation to remove EU powers, and an In/Out referendum so we can leave if the new relationship remains poor.
The issue of military intervention is a crucial one. A good argument can be made to say that Tony Blair lost substantial support amongst voters as well as within the Labour party by the decision to go into Iraq, and by the way he, Campbell and Mandelson presented the case for such intervention. Parliament does need to debate the consequences of the substantial interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the interventions of our allies in Syria, and to ask if past military interventions have been helpful. Mr Corbyn and some other Labour figures have a tradition of doubting the value and wisdom of such actions, which is shared by an important part of the electorate. Why must they now suppress their views and doubts, and switch to the pro intervention side? How do they keep their existing support, and reassure people in the middle ground, if they have to defend all that was done by past Labour governments in Iraq and Afghanistan? Arguably Mr Corbyn was too kind and weak in allowing Labour MPs a free vote on the Syrian war. His decision to allow such a free vote meant Parliament was not going to provide any serious challenge or check on the current government’s wish to pursue military action.
The Labour party’s position on Europe is even more shaming. Several of the Corbyn group of rebels from the Mandelson era did not go along with the endless transfer of powers and monies to the EU from the UK, which was brave of them. Under Labour’s Opposition leader in the last Parliament the Labour party was whipped to make sure the government could never lose a vote to prevent some new piece of EU law going through, or to grant some additional financial charge on the UK. Most Labour MPs were advised not to turn up to EU debates, or were briefed to come in and treat them all as “tory split” issues, so making it impossible for Parliament to have a mainstream critical examination of anything European with the chance of a vote which the government might lose given Conservative rebels.
The advent of The Corbyn group at the head of the Labour party promised a more principled stance, with proper opposition in Parliament. Unfortunately it look as if the Leadership has given in to the Blairite tendency and decided not to oppose more EU after all. In opposition the Conservatives spoke and voted against Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon and other EU centralising measures. Because Labour’s majority was so large we never won a vote but at least we fulfilled the need to push the government to explain and to battle for these matters. Labour it appears do not wish to oppose despite the majority being smaller.
Lord Mandelson was wrong on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism which he supported and which did great damage. He was wrong on the Euro. He is now wrong on how the Labour party should conduct itself in opposition. A loyal opposition should always support our military and be united in support of military action when our homeland requires swift and strong action, but it should not allow any military intervention anywhere without Parliamentary challenge. Above all, a loyal opposition should always be willing to stand up for the rights of the UK electors to see matters settled in their own Parliament, not spirited away to the EU. Lord Mandelson’s policy proposals do not look popular to me.