Having wheeled them out for the local elections, Keir Starmer would do well to permanently throw Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson on the rubbish heap, writes Richard Heller.

For years Tony Blair has been the Norma Desmond of British politics, a forgotten star living in a fantasy past. Before the local elections Keir Starmer handed him not only a close-up but a comeback movie. One can understand his motives, however much one disagrees with them and detects little reward from voters from Blair's re-appearance. But did he really need to bring back Peter Mandelson as the sinister butler?

Even before Putin's latest invasion of Ukraine it made little sense. Starmer has fought a strong anti-sleaze campaign and plans to continue, despite his own embarrassments. Mandelson would be few people's choice as a standard-bearer. His personal ratings in published opinion polls have been consistently negative. He has not won an election of any kind since 2001, and his record as a campaign strategist is 'played four, won one.'

Rightly determined to highlight Labour's opposition to Putin, Keir Starmer breathed fire against party members, especially MPs, who might have been tempted to follow the line of Jeremy Corbyn and Stop The War.

Both have a lot to answer for in international affairs. Year after year, they have displayed a selective conscience, constantly attacking the errors and crimes of Western powers and their allies and largely ignoring those of others. But on Russia and the second Ukraine invasion their record compares favourably to Mandelson's.

Jeremy Corbyn, in comparison to Mandelson, has not (among other things):

  • praised Putin for his handling of the economy nor for rescuing Russia from chaos.
  • allowed himself to be put on parade at an aluminium smelter or anywhere else to serve the business interests of that oligarch or any other.
  • turned up three years running at the so-called Putinfest, the economic summit Putin staged at St Petersburg to make propaganda and lure suckers into investing in his corrupt kleptocratic economy.
  • served for four years as a non-executive director of the Russian Sistema Group, which included major suppliers to Putin's military machine, at a reported annual salary of £200,000, nor did he choose to stay in that post during Putin's first invasion of Ukraine.

It is of course highly unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn received an invitation to do any of these things. But they are not on his record. They are on Peter Mandelson's.

In spite of their outlook on the Western world, Corbyn and Stop The War have brought themselves to condemn Putin's latest invasion of Ukraine. Peter Mandelson has not. Until very recently, I could find no public comment about it from him. If I missed something, I humbly apologise and am happy to help make it better known.

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In a short exchange on Ukraine with Andrew Marr he said nothing which would discomfort Putin and nothing helpful to Ukraine or Putin's Russian opponents. Much of it was about himself. I believe that Mandelson's words and behaviour over 20 years were more helpful than harmful to Putin. They were certainly more helpful than any useful idiocy he elicited from Corbyn and Stop The War.

Apart from direct service via Sistema to Putin's economy and military machine, Mandelson (in my view) helped him indirectly in important ways. His words and behaviours encouraged the view that Putin's was a "normal" regime and an attractive destination for Western business and investment, ignoring the repeated evidence from its beginnings that it was built on lying, corruption, extortion, repression, violence and a total contempt for the rule of law. He treated Russian oligarchs as independent businessmen rather than Putin's creatures, ignoring all those for whom even suspected independence resulted in demotion, confiscation of assets, exile, imprisonment, torture or murder.

Of course he was not alone in this. Other politicians, officials, business leaders and a host of supposed experts believed that trade, prosperity and general "engagement" (a slippery term which all too frequently deserves its sneering quotation marks) would make Putin's regime more progressive, open and respectful towards basic Western values. This theory was tested historically with Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa – where it clearly failed. It continues to fail in Communist China and Saudi Arabia. It is all too often an intellectual license to trade with scoundrels.

Starmer is well aware of Mandelson's response – or non-response – to the latest Ukraine invasion and his record with Putin's Russia. But still he directs all his fire on Corbyn and Stop The War. He does not deny the published stories that Mandelson is advising him and his staff. This looks like double standards and it undermines his tough and admired stand on Ukraine.

Blair and Mandelson seem to have a totemic value to Starmer and his advisers, regardless of any evidence of their impact on voters. Their restoration heralds a return to the golden age of New Labour in government.

But even if it had been a golden age, it has long gone and we cannot get back to it. The world is not making movies like Tony Blair's any more. He was handed the best domestic economic inheritance and the most benign global economic environment of any Labour government. It was just about possible then to believe Blair's promise of virtually painless transformation.

If Starmer wins the next election his inheritance will be very different. At home and abroad it will be full of giant and urgent problems which will require major adjustments in the way millions of voters live and expect to live. He has a short time to convince them that he has answers which will make Britain a better part of a better world and that the costs of getting there will be shared out fairly and are worth enduring.

Tony Blair is at best irrelevant to that mission: Peter Mandelson a positive liability. Starmer now would get more benefit from a public row with him than from taking his advice. So, even more, would any successor.

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