Liberté, égalité, instrumentalité: Lord Mandelson updates Robespierre

By David Osland

To hear Lord Mandelson float a new buzzword is always a moment of political portent. But it’s usually best to ask exactly what is being said.

Ten times out of ten, it’s a plea for Labour to move sharply to the right.

“People are looking for instrumentality from Labour,” he told the Progressive Britain conference over the weekend.

“During the policy review, we must ask ourselves if we are thinking for the party or for the country.”

The parallels with the Mandelson-led policy review under Kinnock in the late 1980s – which reversed Labour’s stances on nationalisation, unilateral disarmament and what later came to be called Brexit – are entirely by design.

Four decades on, the repeat message is that Starmer must ditch his leadership campaign commitment to Corbyn-lite radicalism and get back to New Labour basics.

I don’t think Lord Mandelson is right. Indeed, ‘instrumentality’ strikes me as peculiarly colourless jargon to describe the soulless aims of a spectacularly bloodless politician.

But keen to give his argument as fair a hearing as he has always given the case for socialism, I looked up the dictionary definition. Instrumentality means “the fact or quality of serving as an instrument or means to an end”.

At any meaningful level, the contention is bare tautology. People only haul their arse to a polling booth because they want the party they vote for to do stuff. The question is: what stuff do they want it to do?

Much as some commentators habitually deride ‘virtue signalling’, electoral choice is as much an expression of values as a calculation of individual advantage.

Voting for parties of the left is different for voting for parties of the right. People vote Labour either because they rank collective interest over self-interest, or because they rationally identify their own self-interest with that collective interest.

In so far as they want Labour to be an instrument, they want it to be an instrument to end the housing crisis, create jobs after the pandemic, and boost employment rights, education, the NHS and the environment.

As we saw earlier this month, in places like Wales and Manchester, where Labour politicians put forward what Labour voters see as Labour policies, the vote went up. And where Labour politicians didn’t, the vote went down.

We are the party of the many, not the few. Labour strays from that basis at its peril.

Apart from anything else, the call for instrumentality is shocking in its beige vapidity.

I already have visions of none-too-stirring perorations at Progressive Britain fringe meetings in Brighton later this year, urging comrades onwards to transformative and modernising instrumentality going forward.

‘Thinking for the country’ has already left Labour lining up behind serious encroachments on civil liberties, and opposing even a modest increase in corporation tax, on the grounds that such measures are somehow in the national interest.

Ultimately it will necessitate support for austerity when the bill for coronavirus comes in, because ‘that’s what the country needs’ and ‘we’re all in this together’.

What Mandelson is demanding is for Labour to go down the road of a demoralised membership and a demoralised electoral base. The self-own here could not be plainer.

As Emma Goldman almost said, if people can’t dance, they won’t want to be part of your instrumentality.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Peter Mandelson. Source: Peter Mandelson – Annual Meeting of the New Champions Tianjin 2008 Copyright World Economic Forum ( / Natalie Behring. Author: World Economic Forum on Flickr,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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