Speaking to The Independent, the architect of New Labour argued the party had come a long way from “ground zero” at the 2019 general election but was yet to “re-establish” its credentials among voters in Britain.
Lord Mandelson, who served as a cabinet minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown said the Labour leader – elected during England’s first lockdown – now had a “second chance” to set out his stall, as the “suffocating grip” of Covid on politics receded.
He also suggested that there was now a “huge opportunity” for Sir Keir to seize on, claiming Boris Johnson was unravelling in the eyes of voters with “half-baked” policies and no coherent political agenda.
His remarks come just a week before Labour’s first in-person conference since 2019, in what is being billed as a major opportunity for Sir Keir to set out his vision following a bruising year and the party’s poor electoral performance.
With Labour trailing the Conservatives in almost all the polls, Sir Keir has previously vowed to set out in “primary colours what post-pandemic Britain needs to look like” during the conference in late September.
Just one poll since the beginning of 2021 has placed Labour ahead of the governing party, with a YouGov poll last week showing support for Mr Johnson’s party slumping to its lowest level since the last general election in the winter of 2019.
“The public’s disillusionment with Johnson and his government is growing faster than restoration of trust and faith in Labour is growing,” Lord Mandelson told The Independent.
“I think that explains the gap in the polls,” he said. “The reason for that is Labour has not yet done enough to signal that distance, and those changes it wants to make, to move on from what has been a disastrous decade for the party”.
Asked how crucial the upcoming conference would be, he replied: “It is a pivotal moment, but as long as he [Sir Keir] understands that it has to be the beginning of the long march back to electability, and not some flash in the pan taking place over two or three days in Brighton.
“Sometimes I feel that Labour ticks a box and thinks the job is done. That mindset woefully underestimates the brand damage done to Labour during the last 10 years, and how far we have to come back.”
On the direction of the party under Sir Keir – 18 months after he was elected leader with a clear majority – Lord Mandelson said: “We are not at ground zero, we’ve come a long way since 2019, but we have yet to re-establish our credentials as a party that believes in Britain: that for us, patriotism is not just about flying the flag, but changing the country so that everyone can have better lives.
“No one will believe we can change the country unless we are able to change ourselves. The Labour Party of the last 10 years is simply not one that people will put back into government. That has to be our starting point, and I think that has to be very clearly established at the party conference.”
Lord Mandelson also argued that the public were “waking up to Johnson’s modus operandi”, claiming: “Everything is focus-grouped to death to refine the message, but the content is half-baked. People are realising, with Johnson you have to read the small print – the detail that doesn’t interest him, but everyone else is affected by.
“Now they [the voters] are beginning to question his competence, and I think this is the key emerging factor in British politics. Voters expect Johnson to deliver above all on jobs, health, crime and education. He’s also promised radical levelling up and [to] transition to net zero. Where is the economic growth plan that will pay for all this? It’s not there.
“People are beginning, therefore, to see him in a different light, and I think there’s a huge opportunity opening up for Labour to seize back the mantle of change and reform.”
One senior left-wing Labour MP echoed the sentiment, saying: “It feels to me as though the government are on the cusp of getting into some difficulties, and therefore the Labour conference suddenly becomes quite an important moment, if we can speak for the country.”
But they added: “What he [Sir Keir] has to do is capture the moment, then offer a way forward. If he doesn’t succeed, then I think he will be in some difficulty.”
Another MP on the left of the party, however, underplayed the significance of the conference, saying: “It’s not as if he’s this amazingly charismatic speaker who will have everybody electrified. He’s just not like that.”
They added that the absence of “substantial policies” offered by Sir Keir was more concerning in the wake of the prime minister’s manifesto-busting decision to hike national insurance in order to provide funds for the NHS and social care.
“We don’t have a plan,” the MP said. “It goes to the nebulousness of Keir Starmer’s thinking – the only thing he’s clear about is the importance of crushing the left.”
Instead of establishing “over-specific policies”, Lord Mandelson argued, the party should set out policy themes in the build-up to the next general election, such as “a desire for fair chances and greater equality in society”.
“Secondly, the need to invest in public services and infrastructure with better delivery,” he said. “Thirdly, making security a priority both in the neighbourhood, through effective policing, and internationally through strong alliances and defence spending.
“These have got to be set out as the parameters of Labour’s thinking and policy offer. They’ve all got to become Labour’s brand strengths.”
Lord Mandelson also stressed that the Covid-19 crisis had left “little space” for Sir Keir to define himself, adding: “I think it would have been impossible for any leader to do differently.
“But now we are re-entering the familiar contours and landscape of politics, and this conference is his first chance to speak properly to the country and to start constructing the platform he needs to have in place by the time of the next election.
“What everyone in the party needs to understand is just how distant we became from the voters in the last decade. Even many of our core supporters were perplexed by what we were saying and doing. This chasm has to be bridged, and the building of the bridge starts at this conference.”
He later added: “Covid has operated a suffocating grip on politics, but we’re now emerging from that. In a sense it’s Keir’s second chance. I think what he needs to do, as I’ve said, is develop clear policy themes that serve as good identifiers – that enable us to build support for Labour.”
The former Labour cabinet minister David Blunkett agreed that Covid had hindered Sir Keir’s leadership in his first 18 months, saying: “He’s had the most difficult possible time for what is already designated historically the worst job in politics: being the leader of the Labour Party in opposition.”
On the subject of the party’s annual conference, he said it would be a “major staging point”, telling The Independent: “I wouldn’t call it a reset, I would call it an opportunity to actually be heard, and to demonstrate that what we stand for has been shown to be, and will be, the only answers for the future of Britain.
“It is a real opportunity he’s not had, because doing stuff down the line, standing in a room on your own, just doesn’t crack it. I don’t believe it’s make or break, I just think it’s a great opportunity that he’ll need to take.”
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