Labour’s century-old problem: leadership performance

Author: John Gaffney
This blog post was originally published in the British politics and Policy LSE blog on the 12/07/2016. For the original version, please see: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/labours-century-old-problem-the-politics-of-leadership-performance/
A shorter version of this article also appeared in the Sunday Express on the 03/07/2017.

There is turmoil in the Labour Party: once again related to the question of leadership. From Hardie to Corbyn, the question of leadership has driven the party on and off the rails; and at the heart of its dilemma is the still – one hundred years later – unresolved question of the leader’s triple relationship to the party, the parliamentary party, and the electorate.

The great irony is that the Labour Party hates the topic. Worse than that, it doesn’t understand it. ‘Leftism’, like republicanism, posits an impersonalism: we are equal, we progress as a collective, no one is indispensable. To think otherwise, will lead us to infantile hero worship or worse, tyranny. (The right makes the opposite mistake of fetishizing leadership.)

This blind spot in Labour’s vision of politics means that whenever leadership issues arise, and they do all the time, they immediately become crises because it doesn’t know what leadership is, doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t like it – so doesn’t know what it entails. The whole issue is compounded for Labour with the emergence of ‘celebrity politics’ – which it also hates – not realising that there is a wide range of ways to play this.

Tony Blair is the best recent example of knowing how to ‘perform a character’: regular guy, modernizer, decisive, in-touch with national sentiment (e.g. the Diana speech), and so on. In fact, Blair’s low point in terms of rhetorical performance was not over Iraq or Bernie Ecclestone, but the slow handclapping of the Women’s Institute when in 2000 he addressed their conference and made, to their fury, a ‘political’ speech.

What the Labour Party has always done to cope with the very real issue of leadership, rather than seeing leadership as a performance within a cluster of relationships (with members, media, etc.), has been to apply a series of simplistic character traits – usually negative – to its leaders: the treacherous (MacDonald, Blair); the idealistic (Hardie, Henderson, Foot); the not up to it, though ‘good and decent’ (Foot again, Miliband, Corbyn); the modest (Attlee); the wily (Wilson); the reliable (Callaghan), and so on.

Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015 not because he was left-wing but because his performance was stunning. And his three opponents’ performances were awful: Did we overspend? – “Yes we did.” – “No we didn’t.” – “I wanted to vote against Osborne’s welfare cuts but I couldn’t but I will next time.” – “You should stand down.” – “I still go for a drink with my old friends up North.” Into these dire exchanges Corbyn erupted wanting to talk about everything, and he fired people’s imagination and created a stampede of excited support.

Then he stopped, and that is why we are where we are today. And, ironically again, he stopped performing at the moment of his victory. His victory speech was in direct contrast to his style throughout the campaign, of the ‘I don’t mind if the media attack me but not my family’ type, singularly underwhelming for the occasion. And since winning, he has just talked to the Corbynistas instead of ‘enchanting’ all parts of the party by choreographing his leadership style and ‘seducing’, as it were, his opponents.

And Corbyn’s poor performances during the Brexit campaign ‘betrayed’ his ambivalent attitude to Europe. And ambivalence is a major political resource and a rhetorical device that has to be deployed with enormous care. We are now in an age of the politics of leadership performance. Those now trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn would themselves do well to heed this. In the Conservative leadership race it was clear that in her leadership launch Theresa May, of all people, has already understood this.

Britain’s next PM: Theresa May sank rival by painting a more convincing portrait of leadership

Author: John Gaffney
This article was originally published in The Conversation, on the 11/07/2016. For the original link, please visit: https://theconversation.com/britains-next-pm-theresa-may-sank-rival-by-painting-a-more-convincing-portrait-of-leadership-47229

Though ultimately brief, the Conservative Party leadership contest offered fascinating insights into the nature of British politics today. Rhetoric, performance and gender replaced talk of policies and political priorities.

In the end, Theresa May showed that she had a much more powerful grip on the realities of wielding modern political power and will be the UK’s next prime minister. Andrea Leadsom’s inexperience, meanwhile, was exposed in the most public, and almost humiliating manner.

This election was not about the nature of the ship (the British state) nor its direction – because the ship is unstable and the course is uncharted waters – so it has had to be about who was better equipped to be captain.

The contest was therefore about character. And the captain must be a character who is steady, determined and reassuring. In the glare of the public spotlight Leadsom failed on all those fronts. May looked like she was already at the ship’s wheel.

Inevitably the popular press obsessed over perceived parallels with another Tory leader. But when Margaret Thatcher stood, it was in order for the party’s right to oust Ted Heath, and many quietly believed she too would be dispensed with soon after. The debate over whether a woman could be prime minister was a live one then. Now, thankfully, it is not.

There was in fact a sense during this campaign that a woman prime minister might be better suited to these changed times. The boisterous Brexit boys all crashed into each other and fell down after having knocked all the Notting Hill boys over. The last Brexiter standing was a woman, who has now dropped out to leave May on a clear course for Number 10.

Theresa May is viewed to have served well in the tough post of Home Secretary. She has an image as being competent and hardworking – but not dour or unsmiling – and she clearly saw that she needed to perform to that character and build upon it.

At the launch of her campaign, May smiled, joked and laughed. She painted her own portrait according to both the received view (tough, no-nonsense, uninterested in flashy personality politics) and the new appeal to “compassion” and One Nation Conservatism that will be needed in the new Conservative leader. She expanded her character and presented herself as a leader who would also heal and reconcile.

It is clear – both within the party and the country – that the sense of a nation divided is acute. May is evidently aware that unity of some kind needs to be established. She was also transforming her quiet backing for remaining in the EU into Cassandra-like foresight of the impending division – the irony being that the best person now to lead Britain towards leaving is a “remainer”.

May also presents as the serious-minded and dutiful daughter of a modest English Clergyman. This is a strong myth in British society, with its Brontë undertones. And in terms of image it is worth pointing out that this is a much more powerful and intricate myth than being a Clergyman’s son.
Rookie error

Andrea Leadsom, meanwhile, stumbled soon after her campaign took off. It had started well. She seemed more personable than other Brexiteers and May. Her supporters immediately underlined her “steel” and her “compassion” along the same lines as May. They tried to cover for her relative inexperience by referring to Tony Blair as having had no experience before 1997 (perhaps, with the Chilcot report just out though, that was not the best of defences).

But the alleged “bigging up” of Leadsom’s CV (ironically, it is a generally held view that women don’t do this enough compared to men) was a first broadside into her image of representing a new way of doing politics – a widely-held assumption being that women bring honesty and integrity to the dark arts of politics.

The fatal shot, however, was self-inflicted. Leadsom revealed herself to be such a novice as to think that her greatest appeal was as a mother. Her bid was evidently to appeal to the party faithful but ultimately, she had to throw in the towel even before the Conservative party membership could have its say.

It was a catastrophic error to think being a mother would be enough to counter the perception of May as a politician of experience and skill. So, the way to Downing Street is now clear for May – and the days ahead will surely prove a greater test of her qualities than this very short-lived leadership campaign.