Saturday, 21 November 2015

Instinctive Leadership: We Need To Talk About Jeremy

The often used comparison between Jeremy Corbyn and a geography supply-teacher clearly strikes a chord. In large part of course that's down to his appearance and manner - the bike, the dress sense, the way he gives the skunk-eye to those unruly kids on the opposition benches - but it's an image that chimes for a rather more important reason; nobody believes he's here to stay.

In fact in recent weeks I’d suggest he’s been more like a boxer (in attitude, if not in appearance). Not a boxer who's bravely taking the fight to the opposition, more like a boxer who's decided to throw the fight and doesn’t care how obviously he does it. Cameron barely has to show his pasty knuckles before Jeremy helpfully throws his grizzled chin towards them.

I won't waste time here detailing the series of prat-falls that the Corbyn-led Labour party has taken in this last week. Suffice to say that Corbyn, aided and abetted by loyal allies John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone, has overseen what John McTernan describes as "Labour's worst week ever". If you need convincing of quite how bad the last week has been, of quite how poor Corbyn's political instincts are, I recommend you read that article.

Instead of dwelling on the series of tactical missteps that Corbyn has made, I'd rather use this blog to contemplate the lessons that the Labour Party has to be learning from this painful experience, to ask what characteristics the next leader of the Party will need to possess.

Clearly the overwhelming majority of Labour's voting members believed that Corbyn was the right man for the job. There's no doubt that he's an admirably principled politician and I'm not personally bothered by his dress sense or even his depressingly anti-charismatic manner. What bothers me - what should surely bother anybody who believes that Labour values should be represented in government - is his lack of instinctive leadership skill. If that's a concept that Labour's voting members didn't understand or appreciate before electing Corbyn, it's one they surely must now.

To be clear: I'm not arguing for somebody who has instinctive leadership skills instead of strong principles, I'm arguing that the Party has to rally round someone who has both.

Whether in business or politics: successful leaders lead.

If you think that sounds like a glib truism, consider this extract from the speech Corbyn made today (21/11/2015)
Every week I’ve been asking people for their suggestions of what I could raise with David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions - and thousands of people send in their own questions.
Over the summer, the parliamentary party got a decision badly wrong. We abstained on the welfare bill. Would we have made that mistake if we had asked you, our members, what we should have done?
Why not give members the chance to take part in indicative online ballots on policy in between annual conferences - and give our grassroots members and supporters a real say?

We want to see this democratic revolution extend into our party.. opening up decision-making.. to the hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters that have joined us since May.
Some will read those words and think it's great that he's listening and trying to create a more democratic decision making process; I read them and despair. These are the words of a man abdicating his responsibility to lead. I want my Party leader to pin the government down at PMQ's with incisive and politically astute questions, not to read out letters. I want my Party leader to listen to their party and then to lead them to take bold decisions, to be willing to change members' minds rather than just attempt to read them. A leader's job is to do much more than just divine the opinions of those they lead, their job is to do more than just act as a conduit for the aggregated opinions of those their followers.

This matters not just in terms of how Corbyn leads the Labour Party, it matters because the Party needs people to believe he would be capable of leading the country.

In a representative democracy the people delegate decision making power to politicians; that's how we actually get things done. We appoint our representatives, expect them to ensure they are well informed (in a way that only somebody for whom it's a full-time job could) and place our trust in their judgement. We delegate responsibility to our elected representatives, we don't expect them to swing round and delegate back to us, we expect them to get on with business. Elections are where we pause and pass judgement on whether they have served us well or let us down. I get the impression that were Corbyn PM he would happily run daily referendums rather than take decision making responsibility himself. That approach wouldn't be a triumph of democracy, it would paralyse the function of government.

I'm exaggerating of course, but think about it. Would Steve Jobs have revolutionised the way we use technology if he'd taken a more democratic approach to decision making? Would the Chief Executive of any business be successful if their corporate strategy was determined by polling their employees? 

I've never been a fan of Thatcher's political convictions, but she was undoubtedly a politician who got things done. When asked whether she believed in consensus she famously replied:  "Yes, but it should be a consensus behind my convictions". I'm pretty sure from Attlee and Churchill through Thatcher and Blair you'd find politicians who got things done shared some of that attitude. It's about having conviction, trusting your instincts and being willing to lead.

Which is where we return to the problem with Jeremy. There's no doubt he has conviction, but there's considerable doubt as to whether he trusts his own political instincts. From "would you press the button" to "shoot to kill", his faltering responses betray the fact that he knows his convictions are out of kilter with majority public opinion. As for willingness to lead - well you just have to read that extract from today's speech to know the answer to that. He doesn't want to take responsibility for difficult decisions; he's throwing the fight.

So if not Corbyn - and it's surely not - who is the person who has both the conviction and instinctive leadership skill required to get the Labour Party back on track?  I don't know, but I do know that sensible party members had better work out who it is pretty quickly and rally round them.


  1. Hilary Benn is the name most often mentioned these days. Yeah, I know...

  2. He's got convictions but they're largely insane and he has an infant-like ("I must not tell a lie...") relationship with them!

  3. I agree that it's unlikely Corbyn will be leader in 2020. Maybe less than 50% chance of lasting 2 years.

    However I must take issue with your desire for instinct and conviction.

    To me there are two ways we can arrive at a viewpoint. We can use our instincts or use data.

    Instincts lead you to be convinced that Scotland is being cheated by England and would be better off independent.l Data leads you... Well I know of a certain blog...

    Is crowdsourcing a way of getting data? Maybe. It depends on how you do it. So I'm not giving Corbyn a pass here. But one thing I'd love to see is more challenging of received wisdom (and instinct...) and it appears to me that we have far better tools to acheive this than ever in human history. The fact that I'm reading your blog and responding is just one example.

    So if a leader can get ideas in from a much bigger circle than the political bubble, then surely that has the potentiall to be a good thing?

    Corbyn may not be the man, but I'd rather have an evidence based approach over instinct any day of the week.

  4. Corbyn's followers are proficient haters while claiming they are all love and peace - quite like some Scottish natonalists, indeed I have been sworn at by both using the same adjectives (both sects have a limited command of the English language)

    Corbyn is a figure from Evelyn Waugh, only not so well written.

    NB: I think Lallands Peat Worrier also wears a jacket with patches, but i expect that is the only thing the urbane gentleman has in common with the urban one.

  5. A leader has to win. Anybody who says otherwise is kidding themselves on.

    Principles are fine. I have a lot of the same principles as Jezza. But principles are cold comfort for the most desperate in society when Labour are parking their principles backsides in opposition for the next twenty years.

    Get it together Jez, or get your stuff and move on. Otherwise we'll have a Tory gov. in Westminster and a Nat gov. in Holyrood who seem content to let public services choke in order to further their own twisted narrative. They. Are. Laughing. At. Us.

    People are more important than principles. Find a leader who can win. Help the most desperate. And for God's sake, LEAD!

  6. A good example of leadership, from the left of the Labour party, was Ken Livingstone and the congestion charge. He decided it was the right thing to do, went ahead and did it, and now even Boris Johnson accepts it should stay.

    If he'd held endless consultations and a referendum, it would never have got through. Cities like Edinburgh which tried this approach saw it fail, even with the successful example of London to point to.

    Of course, I'm referring to Livingstone the successful mayor from 15 years ago, not the rank embarassment he is today.

  7. @Martin: As with all things, balance is needed.

    The George W Bush school of saying "I'm the decider", and then taking catastrophic decisions without regard to public opinion or empirical fact, is very bad; but it's not necessarily better to hide behind public or party opinion, and be afraid of taking a stand and arguing for it.


  8. Jeremy is a true leftie and with Labour being blamed for failure because of "Blairites" and with the labour left now baying for blood it had have its day.
    The left has to see for itself that its choice will end in failure. The left had no trust left for blairites saying "left of centre is best ,,,trust us" anymore but they will see that in time for themselves.
    It's simple win a GE you need to win from the middle ground from the Tories...there is not a snowballs chance in hell of jeremy taking the middle ground ...ever ...therefore unless the leadership changes Labour will be the party of opposition for many years to come. Lets face it there was even a worry that Ed was too far left to win in the last GE but yet compared with Jeremey he was far right ! Middle England will never ever Vote for Jeremy.
    I's like to see someone confident as a speaker preferably with a background in economics coming forward in the future and to win a GE they have to be left of centre..its the only way ...the days of Labour and Union power in the Factories and Foundries are gone. Middle England middle class has to be the target after all its what most workers aspire to it not ?

  9. I am not sure this blog has the correct problem in view. Its underpinning objective appears to be to get the Labour Party back on track. However, there are at least two major challenges. The first is the sudden shift of focus in Government and nationally towards security issues. Corbyn, and Labour, had previously had a moderately good chance of persuading the electorate that tax credit cuts were excessive and unfair, and that Osborne's focus was wrong. It would need to have been a long-term turning of the electorate against the Conservatives, because the next General Election is over 4 years away, and a lot can happen in that time. However, the landscape is changing and Corbyn's domestic focus has possibly been blown away by the sharp shift on security issues where he is far more vulnerable. Corbyn holds onto form, such as the need for UN backing on action against ISIL in Syria, only to find himself faced with a unanimous Security Council resolution, and an English electorate that is moving towards intervention and increased security expenditure. No-one knows where the money will come from, but cries against continuing austerity are likely to be drowned out. You can have guns and butter, but not both at the same time. The peace dividend of the past 20 years has to be recommitted to defence and security. A reformed Labour Party would need to recognize that not only is Corbyn not fit for purpose, but neither is the majority of the current party membership. Labour has to look much more like the Conservatives in order to survive, and pretty sharply too, before Corbyn starts deselecting the majority of Labour MPs before the next election.

    The second challenge is that posed by the SNP. As Alex Bell discussed in his recent, perceptive piece in, the SNP has become the new "Scotland party", and that status is likely to persist for years. Not only does it deprive Labour of about 40 MPs, but it runs the gauntlet of English dislike of a Labour/SNP coalition. This dislike is, I suspect, far more visceral than many Scots would like to recognize. We know from Bell's article (and your blogs) that the SNP case for independence is economically delusional, but the English are beginning to understand that the Scots are effectively welfare beneficiaries at English expense. With impending boundary reform, Labour will find it almost impossible to secure a majority in the Commons, and we will have a Conservative government for some time. SNP attacks on the Conservatives will only strengthen the feelings of rUK against Scotland. Indeed, I actually think that the majority of rUK is already in favour of chucking out the Scots and keeping the £9 billion that currently subsidises them.

    Politics in the rUK will eventually shift to evolve an effective opposition that will, in turn, become a Government without SNP votes. But, as with SNP domination north of the Border, it may take 20 years. Importantly, there is no evidence that it will emerge as a growth from the current Labour party. I would pick a resurgent Lib Dem replacement as more likely.

  10. Just to endorse David Green's sound post, if any Scots doubt the extent to which serial SNP wingeing and grievance mongering at Westminster have pissed off rUK have a read at the comments below yesterday's Times article on The SNP demanding all Scottish licence fee monies being exclusively spent North of the Border. RUK may beat indyref2 to it by divorcing Scotland. (I say this as a Unionist resident Scot.) Im sure the current SNP vote is at a historically high watermark and continuing SNP Government sleaze and incompetence will gradually bring it down over time. But who can provide opposition North of the Border? Labour is a busted flush, and the conservatives could rebrand as IS and not do worse. Challenging times.


  11. Amusing Nicola Sturgeon having a go at Labour's problems when she must be thinking about so much of her own issues , especially after Alex Bells published comments last week.

    I found some interesting comments here , perhaps she should be considering her own future ?

    "The book reveals how Miss Sturgeon took almost full control of the referendum campaign plans and preparing the independence White Paper.
    “That was her baby – she was in charge of the whole thing,” recalls one ministerial colleague."

    She could really have done Scotland a big favour and resigned last time.

  12. "the conviction and instinctive leadership skill required to get the Labour Party back on track." I still have problems with this concept. After all, Hitler had convictions. The principles behind them were certainly distasteful to many (except, of course, a substantial fraction of Germans at the time), but they were convictions. So getting a conviction Labour politician is not necessarily the answer. To my mind, getting the Labour Party back on track presupposes a set of co-ordinates or agreed policies that are regarded as a legitimate default state to which Labour can return. The problem is that Miliband set up a form of membership whose majority is at serious odds, both with the Labour caucus, and many of the 9.2 million voters who voted Labour. So getting Labour back to its endorsed policies (the ones its voters bought when they voted Labour in May) is being pro-Trident and pro-responsible economic management. It needs someone with those convictions. We cannot be certain what the Labour caucus under a different leader would support, but it is likely to have been in line with its manifesto, with Corbyn sniping from the back benches at Westminster from a position, both literally and metaphorically, in close proximity to the SNP.

    It is easy to see, with hindsight, how Labour arrived in its current state. The rot started under Miliband, but the proximate cause was the SNP rout of Labour in Scotland. Let me be absolutely clear, the SNP had every right to attack Labour, and everyone, including the SNP, has to live with the outcome. The effect of the SNP intervention was to drive Labour in rUK from the field, and seriously to destabilise it. The destabilisation fell on the fertile ground of the Miliband changes to Labour's leadership election. The net effect, taken with future boundary changes in England that are overdue, has been to create two natural parties of Government. The SNP for Scotland, and the Conservatives in rUK, a situation that I personally think will last some time. It has introduced some serious asymmetries. The SNP's dislike of the Conservatives is visceral, and arguably beyond rational, whereas the Conservative view of the Conservatives is somewhere between bemusement and polite but firm rejection. The question for the Union is where this asymmetry will end.

    1. As I recall, even with the changes to the leadership election process, Corbyn never would have had enough MP support to make the ballot if the moderates hadn't twisted some arms to get him on there. Burnham in particular was instrumental in this. The idea was to have a far left candidate on the ballot so that when Burnham or Cooper won, the moderates could say to the lefties "Look, your candidate had a fair go, now get in line and support the party leader". They had no idea that he would actually win. Now that he has won, and it's obvious to everyone that Corbynism is what the Labour rank and file really wants, it's going to be damn hard for a moderate to come out on top for a while. A fascinating study in unintended consequences.

  13. I am now increasingly of the view that it will end badly. Inevitably, the SNP in its embodiment as the devolved Government in Scotland, has started to develop an interest in foreign affairs and defence. Given that the devolved Scottish Government is nothing more than a glorified regional council, it should arguably have left defence and foreign affairs to the Scottish members at Westminster and let the votes lie where they fell. But that is asking for too much from the SNP. So, we have a situation where rUK adopts a more muscular defence policy that the Scottish Government increasingly wishes to repudiate. In doing so, it is arguably repudiating the core Labour position as well. After all, the Trident renewal policy was initiated under Labour, not the Conservatives. It is difficult to know whether the SNP position, vis-à-vis defence, is principled opposition or merely opportunism, driven by blind dislike of anything Conservative. Whatever the reason, it is likely to be a further strain on the Union. So just when I thought that the economic arguments against independence were slowly gaining traction, we are faced with a broadly unforeseen set of circumstances that provide ample fuel for further division. It is only a matter of time before the Scottish Government position is seen as freeloading on the back of rUK, enjoying the benefits of a defence policy that they don't want to pay for. So, getting Labour back on track means, in my view, getting it back to its manifesto, as a basic minimum. Then adopting policy developments that reflect a greater rUK concern about security than at any time in the past 10 years, and adopting a responsible economic policy. It will not be easy for rUK to keep the SNP onside; nor possibly the Scottish voters Labour so desperately needs to build a majority at Westminster.

  14. @David Green
    Some excellent points here. I work in the defence business and have seen at first hand that there is now a reluctance to place long term orders or contracts in Scotland. I am not surprised that the Type 26 frigate order meant for Clydeside has been deferred yet again - I think they could eventually be built south of the border. I am also aware of defence and aerospace companies with Scottish plants gradually moving R&D work out of Scotland in anticipation of future problems.

    At least one regional politician outside Scotland has actively lobbied for the relocation of Trident because of the economic benefit of jobs and money in his deprived part of the world. If Trident leaves Faslane so will the rest of the submarine force and there will be no balancing influx of forces.

    Ultimately the British government cannot let the tail wag the dog. The SNP is seen in the defence world as being in the pockets of CND and the Stop the War Coalition, so it will hardly be surprising if there is a steady move to disinvest in the place. You may note that George Osborne's desire for a 'northern powerhouse' openly excluded Scotland.

    Scottish nationalists should be careful what they wish for, because the results in terms of lost jobs, investment and influence may be far greater than they appreciate.

  15. I love a sporting metaphor, but I think you have picked the wrong one from boxing here Kevin. Corbyn isn't a boxer throwing the fight, doing the dirty on his own supporters. No, on the contrary, he is more the hard working patsy brought in to make up the numbers against a far superior opponent. He is there to take a beating, and though the bookies and the public have already written him off, he alone doesn't seem to know it. So he throws shapes and talks big, when everyone knows he just isn't up to it. He doesn't know though. He doesn't even have a clue what is coming. When you spend too long in your own mind gym, indulging in mental sparring with your buddies, you forget that you are going to have to do the business in a proper fight. You don't realise how disciplined you need to be in this dirty vicious game. It is when you do that you are going to get hurt. Rather like a boxing fan who knows the score, it is hard to even watch the inevitable pounding.

    Today we saw the Shadow Chancellor, telling a Chairman Mao joke at the dispatch box. Many of the public look on bemused. These people aren’t doing this because they want to lose. It is way worse than that. They think their antics are impressive. They aren't. I remember these people from Uni. They sat in the student bar and thought that calling people Mensheviks was a clever and witty insult. Don’t worry if you don’t get that. That is the point. Only nerds get that reference. Every one else just shakes their head and thinks they need to get out more.

    They will lose and lose badly, and like our beloved Nats, will no doubt blame the loss on the dreaded MSM or a false consciousness amongst the people (yes, we really are back to that). One thing they are not doing though is throwing the fight. If only


  16. So what IS David Milliband up to nowadays ? :-)
    Just playing Devils Advocate here you know ...