Melanie Phillips

10 August 2009

The petals fall off the rose

Published in: Daily Mail

Share |

Once again, class war has broken out in the Labour Party. Yet another Labour politician has issued the tribal rallying cry to bash the middle classes by giving preferential treatment to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at the expense of those in more favourable circumstances.

The call has gone out once more to make the universities discriminate against candidates from better-off homes by making it easier for poor applicants to gain a place.

So who is this latest Old Labour dinosaur to be promoting the long-discredited 'politics of envy'?

Might it be John Prescott? Lord Hattersley? Denis Skinner? Or that Isambard Kingdom Brunel of social engineering, Ed Balls? Actually, it was none of the above. Step forward First Secretary of State, Lord Mandelson. Rub your eyes indeed.

This is the Mandelson who is supposedly the embodiment of pragmatic, business-oriented politics; the Mandelson who is the bogeyman of the Labour Left; the Mandelson whose key insight was that Labour could hope to regain power after the Thatcher years only if it marched in tune with the aspirational classes rather than hammering them into the ground.

Yet here he is banging the drum for the latest onslaught against meritocracy and genuine achievement. In a speech two weeks ago, the Business Secretary -- whose ever-mightier empire now includes the universities -- warned he was going to 'turn up the spotlight' on university admissions, particularly at Cambridge, Oxford and other highly ranked institutions.

A newspaper story yesterday claimed he was planning to pressure universities to award applicants from poor families a two-grade 'head start' over better-off candidates.

Within hours, Lord Mandelson sought to distance himself from this story, with a spokesman claiming he did not support lowering grade requirements. Yet his officials have been told to look closely at precisely such schemes already in operation at the University of Leeds and two London medical schools.

This merely amounts to a tightening of the thumbscrews that have been applied to the universities for several years. A number of them have already succumbed by drawing up invidious schemes to discriminate against candidates who actually achieve the academic standards that are required of them, but who are trumped by those whose main qualification is poverty.

Lord Mandelson claims that giving disadvantaged pupils a leg-up isn't positive discrimination but essential to Labour's drive to 'improve social mobility'. This week, a report from his own department and the Sutton Trust will reportedly show that privately educated pupils are far more likely to apply to leading universities than equally qualified comprehensive school pupils.

'Why are we still making only limited progress in widening access to young people from poorer backgrounds?' Lord Mandelson has asked. The true answer, which the Government brushes aside, is that so many schools are of such a poor standard, and public exams have been dumbed down to conceal this fact.

That great engine of social mobility, selective education, has been all but destroyed in the state sector. The resulting degradation of the entire education system has left stranded those at the bottom of the social heap who depend most upon school to lever them out of disadvantage.

Having ruined the life chances of the poor, the Government is now trying to cover its tracks by rigging university admissions. The inevitable outcome will be finally to destroy the universities just as schools have been destroyed.

So how can Lord Mandelson of all people possibly subscribe to such a neanderthal and destructive doctrine?

This is particularly alarming since he is being talked of in some quarters as the party's next leader. It is even being said that members of the House of Lords will be permitted to renounce their peerages specifically to enable him to stand again as an MP and thus for the party leadership.

This sounds just too tricksy and fantastic to be taken seriously. But hasn't Mandelson's whole political career -- like the New Labour project he helped create -- been just such a denial of political and moral gravity?

The only reason he is being mooted as the next leader is that he appears to be the only competent minister in the Government. Yet his career has hardly been an advertisement for competence, since he was forced to resign not once but twice in circumstances that called his judgment -- not to mention his integrity -- into question.

His astonishing return to power as Gordon Brown's political life-support machine was down to his superior strategic sense, powers of communication -- and an utter brazenness born of a deep contempt for democracy and the public it serves.

Now, even though he has no electoral mandate he has managed to concentrate an alarming amount of power in himself so that he is in effect the real Prime Minister.

With his arrogance undiminished by events, he not only chose to vacation once again in Corfu -- the very scene of his holiday dalliances with questionable oligarchs last year -- but was even said last week to be running Britain from there via his BlackBerry and mobile phone.

And now, with his peerage, his overweening power and his latest gesture of contempt to the British people from this rich men's playground, it appears that the petals have finally fallen off the New Labour rose to reveal the Red Flag still flying in the stylish Mandelson lapel.

This is not, however, the first such apparent apostasy. Only a few weeks ago the almost equally New Labour Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, similarly urged measures to promote equality by weakening the middle- class grip on professional jobs.

What all this shows so clearly is that the red rose was an illusion. Egalitarianism remains the real Clause Four, the last great immutable shibboleth of the Left. Take that away and nothing of the Labour cause would remain.

This fact was obscured by the brilliant shooting star that was Tony Blair, who so bedazzled everyone that few realised the Labour project was actually over, rendered meaningless by the fall of communism.

Under the direction of the impresario Mandelson, Blair and Gordon Brown stitched market economics on to egalitarian social policies to create the fiction that the Left could adapt to a changed world. They pretended that state control was over, even as they massively extended it to impose social equality.

The resulting tensions tore apart the New Labour project while Blair was still in office. What's happened since then is that the ruinous national bill for this decade of fantasy has finally arrived and the political, intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Labour Party now stands starkly exposed.

Labour now pretends to itself that it's all Brown's fault. It's not. Brown is merely the one left impaled upon the thorns as the whole rose bush dies.

That's why the party can't find a leader to replace him. How fitting, therefore, that it is none other than the arch-illusionist Lord Mandelson who desperate sections of the party are now pondering making its leader. And how ironic that at this of all moments he should revert to Old Labour type --maybe in order cynically to seal the deal.

As Shakespeare's Juliet said of Romeo: 'That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.'

But the rose of New Labour still smells as unsweet as the red flag ever did.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie