Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Leadership in politics

Following Ed Milliband's recent speech there has been another outpouring of commentary on the nature of effective political leadership. Specifically, can Milliband ever demonstrate it, and is there a role for it any more in today's focus grouped and spin doctored political climate?

Before discussing Milliband's or Cameron's abilities as political leaders, I would like to focus on the broader question of what effective leadership actually is. There have probably been millions of words written (and delivered by inspirational speakers with face mikes) on this subject, and countless academic and commercial institutions dedicated to its study so it is perhaps impertinent of me to think that I have anything to add. Ah well, that has never stopped me in the past, so here goes.

One aspect of effective leadership that I do not believe has been sufficiently discussed is the extent to which leaders hold up a mirror to their followers. Effectiveness in leadership (the consensus seems to be) should be defined not by what the leader does or says but by what the followers achieve. The kind of leader (known as  the "hero head" in schools) who focuses all of their attention on their own inspirational dynamism has long been shown not to be particularly successful.- the conductor who spends all his time blowing his own trumpet isn't going to get much of a performance out of the orchestra.

Yet truly effective leadership is about more than just supporting ones followers and letting them get on with it. Leaders need to inspire and motivate too. The most effective leaders render themselves redundant eventually as their followers, invigorated, empowered and united, set off in pursuit of a common goal. Yet paradoxically the followers would not have been able to achieve that degree of energy, self confidence or unity alone. It was the leader who brought out those qualities and forged that sense of shared purpose.

So how do leaders do that? Partly no doubt it can be about personal charisma and visionary thinking, but these qualities only take one so far. Indeed in some contexts they can get you stoned to death as a heretic rather than lauded as a leader. And in a more mundane context we will have all come across people who are personally charming and/or full of excellent ideas but no one seems particularly inclined to follow them in any important respect.

Partly it is to do with social structures. The boss of a company or the Prime Minister of a country becomes its de facto leader and to some extent people get into the habit of seeing them as such. So even when David Cameron made an utter tit of himself over the Jean-Claude Junckers affair he was seen (by the Press at least) as leading the UK into battle with the reactionary forces of the old EU.

But mostly, I believe, an effective leader does it by showing their followers an image of themselves that is more dynamic and forceful and more focused on the goals the leader wants them to strive for. I was about to say 'better' but of course it is not always clear that the image leaders show followers of themselves is better in any real sense. Churchill presented the British wartime population with an image of themselves as stoically pessimistic, resilient, iconoclastic and always ready for a bit of a laugh at anything and that image was uplifting in a sense. However Churchill was not the only effective wartime leader. Hitler showed the German people themselves as the inevitable inheritors of the New World Order: strong, efficient and ruthlessly intolerant of weakness or impurity in others. Stalin revealed to the Russian people their own brutal vindictiveness, their paranoid distrust and their willingness to submit to tyrannical overlordship in the face of external threats.

So what of today's leaders? Obama I think did briefly show Americans themselves, not as they were but as they could be. However as the machinery of State surrounded him and took him further and further from the people, and as his own ethics became fatally compromised by extra-judicial killings in Pakistan and the Yemen the clarity of that vision clouded and few Americans seem to see any version of themselves in him any more.

The leaders I am most interested in in this regard though are David Cameron and Ed Milliband. How successfully does each of them hold up a mirror to the British public?

In the case of David Cameron it seems, extraordinarily, that he does it very successfully indeed. This is not because he is particularly empathetic towards, or even that interested in, the lives and attitudes of ordinary British people. He is clearly an arrogant, over-privileged toff with nothing whatever in common with any but a tiny minority of the richest members of the electorate. He has also lead a government that has shown frightening contempt for the well-being of a large tranche of the population at the opposite end of the wealth scale.

However the version of themselves that David Cameron shows the British people is remarkably in tune with his own relationship with them. He shows the British people themselves as resentfully sorry for themselves, baffled by modernity, distrustful of the big bad world beyond the Channel yet simultaneously convinced that everything British (including schools, the NHS and the civil service) is by definition crap. And so they allow him, nay work with him, to isolate Britain in Europe, tear up the institutions that made this country what it is and punish the weakest and poorest in society for their temerity in being weak and poor.

With Ed Milliband the case is very different. He appears to be of the Gordon Brown school in this regard, with no apparent connection to the British electorate at all. Tony Blair was hugely successful in showing his followers a vision of themselves as younger, trendier, more metropolitan and European- in short, more New Labour. Until his messiah complex got the better of him and he drifted away into the self-delusion that led us into Iraq and Afghanistan. However Gordon Brown and now Ed Milliband were utter disasters in this regard.

The most revealing incident for me was the notorious occasion when Gordon Brown (thinking he was off camera) called a Labour voter, Gillian Duffy, a "bigoted woman." What was key for me was not so much the incident itself (Gordon Brown was never known for his social skills) but the scale of the mea culpa that Brown indulged in afterwards. You see, it seems that Labour have become so terrified of being seen as out of tune with the electorate that they are desperate to pander to the lowest common denominator on subjects such as immigration, welfare 'reform' and crime. And Ed Milliband, badgered by his spin doctors to appear more 'a man of the people' adopts cringeworthy poses that actually just emphasise the opposite.

This is not authentic leadership. This is not even showing the electorate an image of themselves that inspires them to follow. Churchill was about as far from being a man of the people as it is possible to get and he made no compromises in his addresses to the populace. He told them that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat and they followed him almost to a (wo)man. What Ed Milliband (or somebody on the left) desperately needs to do if they are to provide the sort of leadership this country needs is to say to the electorate, "You are better than this! As British citizens you believe in decency and fairness and you are not going to stand for this dismantling of the Welfare State. You have always supported the underdog and you will again, whether the underdog be a homeless family in Birmingham or a newly arrived Syrian refugee."

That is an image of itself that I genuinely believe Britain could unite behind, but Ed Milliband is running out of time to show it to the electorate. His recent speech saying that he was about substance not image was all very well and it outlined some of his core beliefs and principals, but frankly the British people don't particularly want to know what Ed Milliband thinks. They want to know what they think- what they should believe in. How they should live their lives.

And if Ed Milliband doesn't tell them then David Cameron and Nigel Farage certainly will.

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