Leadership, Democracy and Organising: Rethinking Political Leadership Will Play a Crucial Role in Rebuilding the Labour Party

By Stears, Marc | Soundings, January 2011 | Go to article overview
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Leadership, Democracy and Organising: Rethinking Political Leadership Will Play a Crucial Role in Rebuilding the Labour Party


Stears, Marc, Soundings


The Labour Party is not comfortable with leadership. Of all the leaders of the Labour Party who have gone on to be prime minister, only one is even close to being universally well remembered by the broader party - Clement Attlee - and by all accounts he was the most unprepossessing of political heavyweights. The others have each been widely accused of possessing some terrible flaw. Gordon Brown is denounced as a charisma-free control-freak, who led Labour to one of its worst electoral defeats; Tony Blair stands accused of having betrayed the party's founding values; James Callaghan brought us the winter of discontent, even if affably so; Harold Wilson was more trickster than strategist; Ramsay MacDonald abandoned the party altogether and joined forces with the Conservatives. Whatever the individual merits of the governments these men led, in each case something prevents the party from embracing their memory.

Each of these cases is, of course, in part an individual historical question. There is also, however, a general problem with leadership in Labour that poses a severe challenge for the future of the party. Without a clear understanding of why Labour leadership is so frequently taken to have gone wrong, it is difficult for us to answer some of the most important questions in our own politics. Without a distinctive take on what it is to be an effective leader within Labour it is impossible for any of us to know when our leaders are leading well, how to hold them to account, how to become leaders ourselves, or how to develop new leaders for the future. Yet without answers to these questions, Labour leadership will always be second best and the Labour tradition will be weakened as a result.

The two poles of Labour leadership

Ever since the party's founding, Labour's approach to leadership has swung dramatically backwards and forwards between two equally unsatisfying poles, each of which reflects a distinctive Labour mood.

In the first of these moods, Labour insists that there is something inherently suspect about the very idea of leadership. In this frame, the party trumpets its egalitarianism and insists that no-one should think of themselves as 'above' the crowd. Leadership is deeply problematic because it presumes that one individual, or group of individuals, can and should be 'ahead' of the others, by virtue of personality, expertise, or ability to represent key interests. The party of democratic socialism, the argument goes, cannot be comfortable with such a notion. There would be no leadership in a socialist utopia, and thus there should be no warm endorsement of the idea of leadership in the party at present. Instead, party members should keep a constant look-out for those who strive for positions of authority in order to aggrandise themselves. In this mood, the party constructs far-reaching mechanisms of democratic accountability, and continually strives to foster a culture of equal participation. It allows candidates to be recalled by constituency parties and trade union groups. It insists on crafting its appeals to the electorate on the basis of the content of its programme, and eschews any based on the personality of its spokespeople.

In the second of these moods, Labour despairs of the senseless optimism of its first outlook. The denigration of focused leadership, Labour activists sometimes charge, leads not to utopian togetherness and collective harmony but to party disintegration. Without the smack of firm authority, the party becomes a mess, incapable of designing a programme of its own, let alone advancing one effectively to the electorate. What is required, then, is that the party fights the electoral battle on the terms that battle demands. And the battle demands singularity. It needs a singular focus for the public, a singular decision-maker at the centre, and a singular figure with whom the broader movement can identify. In this mood, the party turns to an almost cult-like admiration of its official leader.

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