Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

How to Become a Leader

A lot has been written about leadership, but to my knowledge, no-one has yet articulated what seems to me to be the simplest rule of gaining power:

Convince the people you want to lead that you are uniquely placed to solve their most pressing problem.

This process is most easily accomplished not by convincing people that you have this skill or that attribute, but by convincing them of an analysis of the problem which makes you the natural choice for solving it. Blair, I think, was more than familiar with this technique: certainly, from Lord Irving’s account, he was accomplished at arguing his own indispensibility even as a young graduate.

His ascendency in the Labour Party can be explained in this sort of way. The Party saw its most pressing problem as being unelectable, and accepted an analysis of that problem which attributed this to its being too left-wing, too radical, and lacking a certain sort of middle class respectability. The origins of this analysis pre-date Blair, of course, but Blair was the epitome of the solution to its ultimate articulation: a successful professional who looked like he had never been in a factory, let alone worked in one, public school educated, with a commitment to law and order, free markets, and a concept of a fair society that owed more to philanthropy than any troublesome questionning of distributive justice.

This analysis seems still to have considerable sway in the party, if the spread of leadership candidates is anything to go by, and we are faced with the prospect of the party drifting further to the right in the near future. In this context, I would like to explore the possibility that the analysis – that Labour lost the election by failing to appeal to right-of-centre voters – is flawed.

There are several factors which should make us suspicious of it. To begin, we have to acknowledge that the Labour Party which lost the 2010 election is not the party which lost the 1979 election or even the one which fell at the last fence in 1992. It is not characterised by the press as a hotbed of revolutionary politics. No-one has used the term “loony left” for over a decade. No; the party which lost the 2010 election is probably closer to the Blairite vision (if I may call it that) even than the party which won the 1997 election. Over its time in office it has become less progressive and less distinct from the parties to its right and we must ask whether continuing in that direction is going to help matters.

More significantly, there are three things which the analysis fails to address which it seems to me must be a part of the true story.

First: the party’s belief in Blair’s indispensibility allowed him to lead us into an illegal war for which he has never been (and probably will never be) held to account. Either Blair manipulated the intelligence, in which case he is criminally dishonest, or was incapable of evaluating it, in which case he is woefully incompetent. In either case it was clear by 2005 that he was unfit to lead the country. Yet the Party continued to support him as leader. Having established, in the best case, that the intelligence services couldn’t be trusted, Blair introduced legislation for detention without charge on the basis of arguments made by those very services. The Party tempered his initial proposal of 90 days, but still passed legislation allowing 28 days’ detention, and left a climate in which Smith and Brown still felt able to try to extend this to 42 later on.

These are just two cases where the executive showed how little respect it had for the values of the Party or its supporters. More importantly, it showed that the Party was so dependent on Blair that it would not hold its senior members to account however egregious their behaviour. In the end, the Party’s need to hold on to power prevented it upholding some of the very values it wanted to gain power to support, and now we are faced, in Ed Balls at least, with potential leaders who seem willing to ditch pretty much any part of the party’s ethos if it will get them into No. 10.

While I don’t want to overstate the impact of the war, or Labour’s assault on civil liberties (issues about which I feel, perhaps, more strongly than many of the electorate), the executive’s arrogance in these matters, and the Party’s inability or unwillingness to moderate it, can have done nothing to encourage the electorate to believe that the Party can be trusted with power.

Second: Diversity of opinion is a good thing in a political party, but internicine warfare is not. The Blair-Brown ticket worked well because Blair’s supporters had most of the power and Brown’s had enough jam today to keep them happy and the prospect of a great deal more jam tomorrow. Once Brown took over as PM, however, the Blairites had little better to do than try to undermine him and his own supporters started to see that he was not really going to reinvigorate the party as a force for the left (which I think, while he had been the Pretender, had always been their hope).

We are now faced with a party so fractured at its senior levels that it has quite literally turned brother against brother. Public perception must be close to the point where people are thinking not of one Labour Party but two, the children of Blair and Brown squabbling over their inheritance. As an Ealing comedy, or perhaps a serial by Aaron Sorkin, this is excellent material, but it’s hardly an augur of good government.

Third: the Party lacks a vision. It wants power, but cannot say what it would do with it; it is united in name, but not in purpose, because it has no purpose. On this point, the Coalition parties are marginally ahead. They have no real vision, but have at least started to talk in those terms, while Labour offered more of the same. We should try to understand Labour’s failure in May not in terms of failures the day-to-day business of government (too many immigrants, not enough tax credits) but in terms of a country hungry for a new direction and a party doggedly following the orthodoxy of the last twenty years.

Thatcher not only reduced the role of government but transformed what people thought it was for. Major continued this trend, reducing the business of government to little more than the administration of the tax system. By the time Labour came to power in 1997, ideas like nationalisation, which just twenty years earlier were central to Labour policy, were no longer even thinkable. Global free market capitalism, with perhaps a little tinkering, was the only way forward.

Now, however, things are beginning to change. A global recession brought on by fiscal mismanagement, for which no-one has been held accountable, is making people think, and think critically, about issues which had previously been taken for granted. People are seeing that reports of the demise of history have been greatly exaggerated.

There is room – albeit, at the present time, a fragile and limited sort of room – for a new narrative, a new ideology, a new vision of a better world. We stand on the dawn of an era when government might, once again, become a force of the people against their oppressors. (If the US is anything to judge by then there is, I think, much more appetite for this amongst the electorate than amongst the polyarchy – Obama’s supporters got rather less Change than they had hoped for.)

This means that there is a new opportunity for Labour, but it is one which will take courage for the Party to sieze. If we want power, we must ask not why we lost it, but why we deserve it. The answer to that question is, I believe, that the Labour Party is the natural home for those of us who are willing to stand up and be counted in the fight for a better world – not a world where we fiddle around the edges of what the wealthy permit us to do, but one where we make a genuine stand for justice, liberty and prosperity for all.

The recent progressive focus on local issues at the expense of ideological questions has been useful practically but has allowed the untrammeled ascendence of a conservative hegemony which has brought the world into recession. The time is ripe for us to start to tell a new story, and the Labour Party is the natural incubator for the seeds of that narrative.

It is unlikely that the next leader will be elected with anything like these arguments in mind. What we can hope, however, is that there is enough appetite for new ideas in the Party as a whole for the important business of fashioning a unifying vision of the future to begin. As for the leadership, it would be a great shame if a power-hungry lurch to the right meant another loss at the next general election; and a much greater shame if the Party, trapped on the tracks of the Blairite analysis, failed to reclaim its place as the true home of progressive politics.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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