August 28th, 2010

evil_laugh, minimaster

Review: The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New LabourThe Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're only going to read one book on the rise and fall of New Labour, this probably shouldn't be it. I imagine that there are other books on the topic that are less biased and take a broader perspective. However, if you're a political junkie, this book does offer a vivid first-hand account of the reshaping of the Labour party in the late 80s and 90s, and the government's successes and later unravellings in the 00s. Particularly fascinating is the depiction of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which partakes of both Shakespearean tragedy and farce.

I read this book in part, because as someone who takes an interest in British politics from afar, I've never quite understood exactly what Peter Mandelson did, or why he seemed to be so hated or even feared by some people. I now have a better understanding of both of those things, although Mandelson naturally portrays himself as a pretty likeable person.

One rather odd thing about the book is how seldom Mandelson discusses policy in terms other than the impression it made with the voters. (The telling exception is when he discusses his work as a European Trade Commissioner.) For example, Mandelson praises Tony Blair's "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" slogan for connecting with voters in middle England, but never spends a moment examining whether New Labour's crime policies actually did anything to reduce crime or make Britons safer. Mandelson very specifically denies the oft-made assertion that New Labour was all spin and no substance, but his own narrative consistently focuses more on the spin. Although this may be partly because he judges that his audience doesn't want a lot of boring technocratic detail on policies that may now be irrelevant anyway.

Similarly, if you're looking for juicy revelations about the run-up to the Iraq war or about the 2010 election campaign, you won't find them here. Mandelson covers these topics, but doesn't offer any big surprises.

But if you want to know about the ins and outs of political infighting, and get a sense of the personalities that shaped the present-day Labour party, the book delivers on that.

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