Dead Men Left

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Avocado-related conspiracy theories

Guacamoleville is a short-life blog set up to cover the impending Hartlepool by-election, called following Peter Mandelson's departure to Brussels. And a complete circus it is turning out to be, too: between H'Angus, Hartlepool's monkey-costume mayor, a self-styled pirate and owner of an offshore off-licence, and the curiously orange Robert Kilroy-Silk, all of whom have threatened to stand as candidates, the good people of Hartlepool will be wondering what has hit them.

The real wild-card in all this is the collapsing Labour vote. Mandelson's greatest legacy is not the trail of corruption he leaves, but the destruction of Old Labour - and with it, Labour's core vote. His old seat requires a 22% swing against Labour to return any other party; once, this would have looken unassailable - but 22% is less than the anti-Labour swing in both Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections. Mandelson will remain the epitome of New Labour: cynical, sleazy, and above all taking voters for granted. He was out of the limelight, somewhat, before the invasion of Iraq, having been consigned to the backbenches for a second time after it was revealed he obtained passports in return for donations to the benighted Millennium Dome. (It is occasionally forgotten that Mandelson was the minister responsible for the Dome.) As a result, he has avoided some of the fallout from the Iraq war, confining himself to the odd word afterwards in support of Blair, but he has been wholly unable to lose his diabolical image as the manipulative genius behind New Labour. The infamous story - from which Guacamoleville takes its name - about Mandelson's confusion between mushy peas and guacamole on a visit to a chip shop supposedly sums him up: clever and cynical he may be, but utterly distant from ordinary people - whose native wit may, every so often, let them get one over the New Labour men in suits.

("Mushy peas" - an explanation: this traditional accompaniment to fish and chips is consumed in alarming quantities in the north of England. Virulently green, lumpy, and generally served in a small polystyrene cup, mushy peas - like cloth caps, Vimto and rugby league - are an emblem of the northern proletariat. Guacamole, on the other hand, is what soft southerners consume at their poncy dinner parties, probably in Islington. The cultural resonances of all this are very important indeed.)

Except it didn't happen. Of course not. Andy McSmith, in Faces of Labour (Verso, 1997), relates what he claims is the real story. It involves a group of proto-Blairites campaigning at the Knowsley North by-election, near Liverpool, in November 1986, and their difficulties in finding food:

Working from a disused office in what had been the industrial quarter of Kirby before recession had reduced it to a brick-strewn wasteland, thier only source of food was a chippie nearby in a small row of shops where the shutters stayed up all day as a precaution against vandals... it was so very different from the home life of Shelley Keeling, daughter of a wealthy East Coast American businessman, who was completing her studies by spending a year working in the parliamentary office of Jack Straw, who was in Knowsley North as the candidate's political advisor. One day, a party researcher named Julian Eccles.. invited her to the chippie to taste the local fare. Sunk into the counter was a large metal dish containing something green and viscous. 'That looks delicious; is it avocado?' she enquired. It was mushy peas. (p.292)

Knowsley North was facing a by-election due to the resignation from Parliament of its previous MP, one Robert Kilroy-Silk. Kilroy-Silk, at that time, was a forgettable right-wing Labour MP, best known for his boast on entering the House of Commons in 1974 that he expected to be Prime Minister within fifteen years. Twelve years later, having deeply irritated an otherwise docile constituency party, Kilroy-Silk was making his excuses - "infiltration" of Knowsley North by the Militant Tendency (McSmith claims Militant had "no organised presence" there, p.116) - and leaving. Eighteen years pass, and Kilroy-Silk is the perma-tanned former TV presenter whose oleaginous style and overt racism endeared him sufficiently to East Midlands voters that they made him their MEP. Brussels not being to his liking, however, Kilroy-Silk is now threatening to stand in Mandelson's old Commons seat.

The mushy peas make one more mysterious appearance, however. Peter Mandelson was for a time employed by the Labour Party as director of communications. He was responsible, amongst other things, for introducing the red rose symbol for the Party as a replacement for the red flag. On his departure from that post in 1990, Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, gave a short, well-wishing speech to thank Mandelson, in which he recounted the story of the mushy peas and claimed Mandelson was the mistaken apparatchik involved. Kinnock appeared to be basing his story - not at this point generally connected to Mandelson - on an account printed in The People's political column a month before. The columnist had retold the tale, placing the peas in Hartlepool with Mandelson - whilst denying that this had ever occurred, of course, but keeping the rumour alive nontheless. The columnist's name? Peter Mandelson. (McSmith, p. 292-293)