Although a controversial figure, few would deny that Peter Mandelson had a key role in the creation of New Labour, and that he greatly contributed to the transformation of British political communication, driving the changes in the relationship between policy and presentation and in media management. The “Prince of Darkness,” as he became known, grew to be one of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s most trusted political, media, and campaign advisers.
Mandelson was the grandchild of Labour Minister Herbert Morrison. He was active in politics from his youth and was elected to the London Council of Lambeth in 1979. Disappointed with the power of the extreme left, in 1982 he went to work for London Weekend Television (LWT), which gave him both inside knowledge of the media and important contacts.
In 1985 he became Labour’s director of communications. He formed the Shadow Communication Agency, from which professional advertisers and pollsters advised the party; he also led the redesign of Labour’s corporate identity, including the replacement of the red flag with a red rose. In 1987 Mandelson was a driving force in what, until then, was considered the most professionalized Labour campaign. Although an electoral failure, it was regarded by many as a remarkable communication success and it gave Mandelson an almost mythical reputation. However, his utter loyalty to the leader, even if it meant briefing against party colleagues, disdain for the party structure, and his litigious relationship with journalists, who were often bullied both directly and through persistent complaints to their bosses, gained him enemies in the party and the media. This would become a trademark of his career.
He resigned in 1990 to fight for a parliamentary seat. He was elected as a member of Parliament (MP) in 1992 but played only a minimal role in the national campaign, which Labour lost. However, he had now become a close ally and media advisor to Blair and MP Gordon Brown. After John Smith’s death, Mandelson took a pivotal but covert role in Blair’s leadership campaign and then, more openly, in the party’s “modernization,” culminating in the 1997 New Labour landside.
In 1997 Blair named Mandelson as minister without portfolio, giving him direct access to the prime minister and considerable influence on Blair’s policy decisions; he also continued to be central to policy presentation and media management, with a belligerence that provoked more resentment now that Labour was in office. In 1998 he became trade and industry secretary and in late 1999 secretary for Northern Ireland. In both cases, although later cleared of wrongdoing, he had to resign due to scandal. However, he continued routinely to advise the prime minister from the backbenches. In 2004 Mandelson was appointed EU (European Union) trade commissioner, which confirmed Blair’s enduring trust in his skills. However, despite Blair’s belief that Labour would only be truly modernized when it had learned to love Mandelson, he still has more enemies than allies.
Blair, Tony; Labour Party, Britain
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