Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Wise counsel from Peter Mandelson

My dealings with Peter Mandelson may go back a little further than Matthew Taylor - I worked as a temporary Labour press officer during the 1987 election with a desk just outside his office in the smoky Walworth Road complex then occupied by the People's Party - but I entirely share his analysis of the business secretary's speech in New York. It is just the sort of speech we need from Labour ministers at this time.

Advance billing for his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations suggests that he will say that governments in a recession
"have to be right, even if it means more time before we are seen to deliver.....As nations, we must keep a steady nerve and cool judgement, constantly refining our policies as necessary."
According to a briefing to the Guardian, he will say Labour is in a tough place politically as he urges his cabinet colleagues against daily initiatives to combat the recession, as they only raise false media and public expectations of instant results, while the end of the recession simply cannot be forecast. There are no manuals, blueprints or precedents to dictate what to do.

With today's Mori poll putting the Tories in a 20-point lead, this is wise counsel. The public wants to see results from the big injections of funding and VAT cuts already made rather than new ideas each day. It wants the banks to lend again and more job security. The government needs to show how it has made a difference - and, given that Germany and Japan are clearly also very badly affected by the recession, there is still a case to be made for explaining the international aspects of the recession without underplaying what is happening here.

Mandelson recognises the need for honesty from the government both about the scale of the problem, what we know, what is being done and the chances of success. I don't share the Cameron desire for a full-scale mea culpa from Gordon Brown, but an acknowledgement that politicians of all colours - including the Tory front bench - supported the deregulated environment that led to the City boom and bankers' irresponsibility would not go amiss.

As Matthew says, there is a sense that the Mandelson speech supports his view that the government needs to focus on governing rather than actively maneouvering over the next election (or worse, a post-election leadership contest), when the latter is not only pointless, but self-defeating (indeed taking a more stately position would show a marked contrast with Cameron's petty point-scoring).

And in a timely warning to colleagues about avoiding populist panic measures, Mandelson also calls for some restraint there too.
"Governments must neither ignore the public's anger and impatience, for example on bank bonuses, nor be pushed into hurried judgments because we fear accusations of indecision."
We need to hear more along these lines.

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