Leadership in the modern world is cited as the answer to nearly every issue, problem or area of life – from business, to turning round failing organisations, to the success of football clubs.
In the last month, political leadership has been all over the news. There has been David Cameron’s rather hasty resignation; the coronation of Theresa May as prime minister; and Boris Johnson’s positioning for power, withdrawal from the Tory leadership contest, and then subsequent appointment as foreign secretary in May’s new administration.
Then there has been Jeremy Corbyn’s continual crisis and resistance against internal party critics, alongside the onset of a Labour leadership contest. And in case anyone forgot, there is an election for the leader of the English and Welsh Greens that may see the return of Caroline Lucas; while Nigel Farage resigned for the third time as UKIP leader with, as we speak, no clear contenders to take over.
Political leadership in turbulent times requires numerous qualities. The Tories have cut down their last three prime ministers over the last 26 years on the subject of Europe – Thatcher, Major and Cameron. It is even possible that if Theresa May doesn’t get the terms of Brexit right in the eyes of some Tory obsessives, she could be the fourth and perhaps, final leader, to be so humbled.
Tories succeed in getting leaders who are liabilities out of the door quickly – Thatcher in 1990, Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 – contrasting sharply with Labour.
Labour’s record with leaders is paradoxical. This is meant to be a party defined by the values of collective action and authority, and democracy. Yet its approach to its leaders throughout its history has been to plot and organise against them, but with a sense of qualified loyalty, within a complex set of rules and processes.
No sitting Labour leader has been removed against their will. The two cited examples of leaders shown the door – George Lansbury in 1935, Labour’s only pacifist leader, and Tony Blair in 2007, Labour’s only multi-millionaire ex-leader – were the subject of plots to try to remove them which didn’t succeed.
Labour’s attitude to leadership is exemplified by the strange case of Tony Blair. Blair is unquestionably, by any definition, the party’s most successful electoral leader in its history – winning three overall working majorities – whereas Harold Wilson won four elections, but only one (1966) with an overall working majority.
Blair supporters such as commentators John Rentoul or John McTernan put this case incessantly, but to little avail. They should save their time and efforts, because the collective reaction of many to Blair has to be seen in the wider sense of how Labour understands leadership, along with the idea of what Labour as a party is for. For many, Blair’s descent into a hate figure has a deeper relevance. In the early years of his leadership he appeared to embody progress and modernisation, and came over as a definitive figure in tune with the times of constant change and forces of globalisation.
However, as Guardian writer Martin Kettle wrote post-Chilcot, Blair turned out to be more of a transitional figure, addicted, as Gordon Brown was, to top-down authority, command and control politics, pulling levers, and the positives of liberal imperialism. Blair, for all the rhetoric, was: 'An authority leader in a very 20th-century mode’, and his constant need to define himself in opposition to his own party: 'An attempt to acquire a version of the authority that would have gone with the job in earlier times.’
This experience illuminates the challenge of what, exactly, 21st-century political leadership is? We tend to know what it isn’t and when it doesn’t work: Blair or Thatcher in their high, imperial era, or Boris Johnson’s act as a clown and entertainer, or Jeremy Corbyn’s diffident, but stubborn, anti-leadership.
All of these facets have been at the forefront of my thoughts in the last couple of weeks as I have finished editing the forthcoming 'SNP Leaders' book with James Mitchell – which includes essays on every single leader and several of their most prominent figures throughout their history. The book sits in a series that has already provided ample study of political leadership – with previous volumes covering the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems.
Assessing the three main British political parties and traditions allows a picture to emerge of what it takes to be a successful leader. Critical is statecraft – meaning the ability to organise the affairs of state and cope with the multiple tasks of government and administration, and appearing competent while identifying and setting out on a direction.
A wider definition of statecraft used in assessing Tory, Labour and Lib Dem leaders encompasses five facets - developing a winning electoral strategy, governing competence, party management, shaping the wider political argument and spirit of the times, and defining and even bending the rules of the game. On these measures the Tories in the 20th century and till today have had many successful leaders – from Stanley Baldwin to Churchill, Macmillan, Thatcher, and until last month’s disastrous turn of events, Cameron.
Labour have been blessed by few successful leaders of which the most noteworthy were Ramsay MacDonald before he went off and joined the Tories, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Instead, their record is littered with failures and leaders who couldn’t win or shape the debate - from Hugh Gaitskell to Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband, and now, Jeremy Corbyn. A big cultural difference between Tories and Labour is that the latter hang around and wait for their leaders to fail electorally, whereas Tories don’t wait.
There are a host of complex issues at work concerning how the Tories have articulated the dominant class, economic and social interests of the country, and in so doing have often managed to see ‘the national interest’ and party interest as synonymous, in a way Labour haven’t dared to, and many left-wingers wouldn’t want them to. Patriotism and wrapping yourself in the Union Jack is something which has come naturally to Tories, whereas a left people’s patriotism has never been something Labour felt comfortable with, with the honourable exception of 1940-45 and the Churchill-Attlee coalition government.
Conservatives have traditionally been more prepared to ‘bend the rules of the political game’ than their opponents – from abolishing levels of local government outwith their control from the Greater London Council to Scottish regional councils, attacking Labour Party trade union finances, or altering the constituency boundaries of the Commons to aid their electoral prospects – as will occur in the next Boundary Review. Labour and Lib Dems have engaged in such activities at points: devolution to Scotland and Wales were seen by some Tories in this light, but hardly turned out to Labour’s advantage.
Conservative leadership has carried with it more of an understanding of the need to focus and communicate externally, cut one’s cloth to popular tastes, and win over floating voters, than Labour, who have often been motivated, as now, by internal factors and developing the supposed correct line. Judging the difference between the two main parties at the moment, it is surprising to remember that at points, post-1945, the mid-1960s and post-1997, Labour seemed the natural party of government.
The old notions of leadership involved giving expression to powerful social and cultural tribes. This is no longer the case; the Conservative Party for all its recent success under Cameron, hasn’t won that impressive a share of the popular vote and has a shrunken, ageing membership of approximately 120,000 (the much cited 150,000 figure being three years ago). Labour no longer even know who its members are and, whether a formal split happens, is a party on the verge of divorce with its disparate forces only staying together to see who can control the assets which are increasingly tarnished: namely, the Labour banner and brand, and the trade union monies.
The decline of the old tribes has seen new forms of leadership emerge such as Nigel Farage’s one-upmanship that, for all its detractors and critics, dragged David Cameron to promise a European referendum, and brought about Brexit. Boris Johnson’s political style has seemed to be one of wanting to be liked and of bringing light relief to voters – qualities which are not exactly leadership.
Very different has been the emerging world of SNP leaders as the party became first a serious electoral force, from 1974 onwards, and then, a party of parliamentary opposition and subsequently, power. For all the kudos and authority held by both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, there has still been, behind the scenes, a sense of collective leadership for a shared project. This has echoes with the formative years of Labour in office, when socialism was defined as whatever a Labour government did in power. And whatever the strains of office, this sense of cohesion and collective organisation, will remain through the storm of Brexit until indyref2.
As Scotland and what is left of the UK faces trials and tribulations, it will become clearer that the leaders of tomorrow are going to have to be very different from the transitional figures we have seen until now – Cameron and Blair in the UK parliament, and Salmond and Sturgeon closer to home.
Authority across the world is a much more contingent force, having to be constantly negotiated and re-won, than it once was. In the developed world, soft people power matters more than the old forces of hard power. Politics is now about domestic and cultural diplomacy, making alliances at home as well as abroad, and a form of statecraft which is less centralisation and pulling levers, and more co-operation, persuasion and adapting to change.
Modern times require a kind of leadership which mirrors and morphs in response to the age we live in: one of continual disruption, disputation, and huge shifts in power and authority. We now know that this cannot be faked, and we know what the anti-models are in response to this - from the say-it-like-it-is populism of Farage and Trump, to the conservative leftism of Corbyn and McDonnell. There is a gendered dimension to this in that most of the examples of bad leadership have come from men, and most of the skills for the future are more associated with, but not exclusive to, women.
Tomorrow’s politics and political leadership is going to look very different from the archetypes we have come to know – which have often promised so much and disappointed so many. That will require rethinking how political parties, movements, and even, governments, ply their trade, as well as how politics is communicated, discussed and reported. Such epic change will involve a lot of bumpy rides, shocks and difficulties, but we either embrace it, or face the prospect of more widespread, and even, ugly, populism and xenophobia. Twenty-first century leadership is going to be as demanding and challenging as at any period in the 20th century – but with fewer certainties and role models.