Sunday, 6 September 2015

What would it mean for the Labour party if Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader?

I would begin by saying that Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader appears a foregone conclusion, except that the combined effects of unreliable polls and extreme press coverage make any such definitive statement questionable. It really is quite hard to dig beneath the hyperbole-ridden narrative to discern what real people actually think, but what I can say is that a remarkable range of people of my acquaintance seem (sometimes to their own surprise) to be pro-Corbyn.

However his election will not (would not) be the end of the story. There is a line of argument that suggests that he will lead the Labour party, and henceforth the country, back to the sunlit uplands of austerity-free social justice and progressive socialism, and another that he will preside over internal division and electoral collapse unmatched since the days of Michael Foot. Others of course believe that it won't make a blind bit of difference either way.

So what is the truth? And, more generally, what difference does it make to a large organisation like the Labour party (or an even larger one like the United Kingdom) who is or is not appointed its leader?

I have always found it mildly irritating when presenters on TV history shows say of a castle that it was built by King Alan (or whoever. There never was a King Alan, I don't think, but I like the name). Whatever the truth about the construction of the castle in question, one thing can be said with some certainty: King Alan did not build any part of it. Indeed King Alan would probably have struggled to tell one end of a pickaxe from the other and would have been very unlikely to have had any meaningful understanding of the load-bearing properties of stone arches. Why should he? He would have had people to do all that.

The same thing applies in a more general sense to the leaders of almost any large organisation. It is often said of chief executives that they "built the business up from nothing" and of head teachers that they "turned the school around," but what does that actually mean? The chief executive of a widget-manufacturing company will never have manufactured a single widget and neither will the head teacher have done much in the way of teaching of the students in their school. Indeed in very large and hierarchical organisations the head will have had very little direct involvement at all in any aspect of the running of their organisation. There will be levels and tiers of management between them and any of the actual workings so that their role becomes purely strategic.

So is that the fundamental importance of a leader then - to provide strategic direction? That would seem almost too obvious to be worth stating. Yet even there the importance of the leader is a shifting and amorphous thing. In really big organisations the only ways for the leader to provide strategic direction are through the appointment of (a few) key individuals and the occasional statement of principle. Yet the really effective leaders are those who appoint independent-minded people with strategic understanding of their own and then delegate to them not just tasks but responsibility and decision-making power too. And if they do that, is it not the people they appoint that begin providing the strategic direction? What is more, though the central decisions and keynote policy statements that a leader makes would appear to define strategic direction, in reality that is often less clear. Keynote policy statements are often pretty vague and amorphous things until they are translated into working policies, and that is work that is never done by the leader who made the initial statement.

All of this is very true of party leadership and of the office of prime minister as well. The PM may have made a grand statement in a party conference or an election manifesto, but that means nothing whatever until it is translated into deliverable policy by an army of civil servants, by which time it may well resemble only very loosely the vision that the politician initially outlined. They can hire and fire of course, but only (in most cases) within the relatively restricted pool of elected MPs, each of whom will have his or her firmly established strategic vision, to the point where cabinet reshuffles seem less like opportunities to provide strategic direction and more like attempts at herding cats.

And yet, it is the leaders who have made the political weather over time, is it not? There would have been no New Labour revival without Blair, and (obviously) no Thatcherism without Thatcher. And to take the example most closely related to the topic of this post, it was Michael Foot whose appointment hammered the last nail into the coffin of Old Labour, was it not?

Well, yes and no. Thatcher came to define a generation with its unholy amalgam of unbridled free-market capitalism, social division and the diminution of all forms of collective action. Blair was synonymous with Cool Britannia, PFI and the availability of highly skilled, cash-in-hand Polish builders. Yet did they change the weather or simply reflect meteorological changes that would have happened whether they arrived or not?

And what of Michael Foot? A more decent, principled politician it would be hard to identify yet the utter collapse of the Old Labour project did take place on his watch and the worry that the appointment of the modern-day politician who most closely resembles him (Jeremy Corbyn) will have the same effect seems a reasonable one.

I would argue though that the contexts are utterly different, and context is all. The assumption from a cursory analysis of UK history would be that Blair and Thatcher were effective leaders and Foot ineffective, but that is to ignore their context. Blair and Thatcher each in their own ways articulated a desire (which struck a chord with the electorate) for change - for an escape from a set of attitudes and process that people had tired of. In Thatcher's case it was an escape from the ageing and crumbling post-war consensus on the need for large and bureaucratic collective structures (nationalised industries, banks, unions) to to keep the country on the straight and narrow. In Blair's it was the nasty parochial anti-communiarianism of Thatcherism people were fed up of.

But what of Foot? Well it seems to me that he didn't offer the populace escape from anything really. In a time when many people were pretty much fed up of collective action, in "the longest suicide note in history" he proposed more of it. There might have been a great deal of unease about where Thatcher was taking the country, but even the working class (so-called Essex Man) was guiltily seduced by the idea that maybe they wouldn't have to sit through interminable union meetings any longer but could sell their council houses, get a credit card and spend, spend, spend.

Jeremy Corbyn's context is very different. It is free-market capitalism that the general populace is sick to the back teeth of now. They have had enough of city wide-boys putting their pension pots on the 3.45 at Chepstow and laughing all the way to the bank when the bet failed, leaving them having to work until they are 75. There is a depressing uniformity, and has been for years, to what politicians are allowed by their spads to say in public and at least Jeremy Corbyn is saying something different, and even appearing to say what he thinks rather than what a focus group in Wolverhampton has determined is the most electorally acceptable thing for him to say.

Being a refreshing voice on the media circuit is very different to being party leader of course, let alone PM, but what is interesting is the effect Corbyn has had during the campaign, even on what one might think to have been the archetypal tough audience- his leadership opponents. Until he emerged as the potential winner the Labour leadership[ contenders appeared to be vying with each other for the "Blandest Political Statement Imaginable" prize - desperate to show how electable they would be by never saying anything whatever that might alarm or offend (or indeed interest) anyone at all. Yet, stung into action by Corbyn's direct honesty and inexplicable popularity they have suddenly started coming up with ideas that one couldn't imagine having been pre-approved by Conservative Central Office. Yvette Cooper caught the changing public mood rejecting Tory little-Englandism by arguing for  the admission of 10,000 Syrian refugees and Andy Burnham said he would include Corbyn in his cabinet and agreed with many of his ideas.

And I can't imagine Corbyn being a Brown-like control freak intent on stifling any and all opinions that are not congruent with his own world-view. The role he has laid out for himself in the campaign is something between what Belbin would call a 'co-ordinator' and a 'plant' and that really isn't a bad position for a party leader, or indeed a PM, to take. If he can regenerate the self-belief and political engagement of the Labour party and remind them why they (presumably) got into politics in the first place then maybe all he has to do is make a few high-minded statements of principle and let others get on with the business of translating those into policy.

For too long Labour has been frightened of its own shadow and ashamed of the political compromises they have had to make to cling to power. But that is no sort of atmosphere to bring out the best in people. So if Corbyn at least gets people thinking a bit and gives his colleagues the confidence occasionally to say what they actually think, then maybe that is all that the Labour party needs.

We'll have to wait and see.

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