Who will be the new Labour leader? It really doesn’t matter, apparently

An Oxford professor says we overestimate the importance of those at the top of the political ladder

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

‘The leader’s role in election victories and defeats is greatly exaggerated,” says Archie Brown. “In a very, very tight contest the relative popularity of party leaders can mean the difference between victory and defeat, but that’s very rare.”

Brown, who is an emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University, has just published The Myth of the Strong Leader, a thought-provoking book about political leadership in the modern era. It features profiles of, among others, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair.

A lifetime of studying political history has led Brown to conclude that the public and the media overestimate the importance of those at the top and that this tendency has become more pronounced.

“Most leaders don’t make a vast difference,” he says, “and most of them are less important than they are inclined to think they are.”

That said, the Irish Labour Party’s postelection game of musical thrones is familiar to him. “Politicians desperately trying to look for ways to save their seats think a change of leader will be the answer, but it very rarely is,” he says.

“You’ve got people saying in Britain that Nick Clegg [the deputy prime minister] should be removed as Liberal Democrat leader, as though that would dramatically improve their fortunes. It might improve for a couple of weeks, but that’s it.

The Australian Labor Party “got rid of Julia Gillard and brought Kevin Rudd back, and for a week or two the party’s ratings went up. By the time the election came it hadn’t made much difference – and Labor had a very heavy defeat.”

Brown takes Blair to task in his book for personalising his party’s election wins. “He talks as though he won those elections,” he says.

“Labour had a sufficient majority in three elections when Blair was leader, but he didn’t make that difference. The conservatives were trying to win for the fifth time in a row in 1997. That’s almost impossible, and they’d lost their reputation for economic competence. If [the former Labour leader] John Smith had not died he would have been prime minister, without question.”

Brown’s central idea is that we’ve got a skewed notion of what effective leadership looks like. He maintains that the kind of fast, no-consultation, no-U-turn decision-making favoured by the public, the media and politicians such as Blair can be disastrous.

“I’m opposed to making the leader an overmighty individual,” Brown says. “Leaders who pull their weight around need to be pulled down a peg or two . . . We tend to have an ideal of a leader who’s all-wise and all-powerful. And in a democracy we shouldn’t want them to be all-powerful. They’re certainly not going to be all-wise.”

He mentions Blair and Neville Chamberlain as examples of prime ministers who tried to make unilateral decisions. Chamberlain, he notes, kept strong personalities such as Harold Macmillan and Winston Churchill away from his cabinet lest they disagree with him. In contrast, Attlee derived his strength from the more inspirational ideas of others.

“Attlee’s biggest achievement was to hold a strong team together, people who didn’t always like each other and were very much rivals. In the early postwar period [the Labour minister] Aneurin Bevan was probably the most inspirational person in the cabinet – and the person who introduced the National Health Service. That kind of leadership tends to be undervalued. People think a great leader is someone like Margaret Thatcher, who gets her way and is very bossy.”

Within our limited discussion of leadership, he says, actual achievements can be obfuscated by rhetorical ones. John F Kennedy, an ever-popular US president, is barely mentioned in Brown’s book; the more maligned Lyndon Johnson he presents as someone who, despite the disastrous Vietnam War, got “more important legislation through in a short time than any other person. He’s one of the great reforming presidents of the century.”

Some leaders, the professor says, do make a difference. Transformational leaders, such as Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, change the fabric of the societies in which they live.

On a slightly less grand scale, he says, in more democratic societies there can be “redefining leaders” who change the parameters of public debate, often at times of crisis. “Today parties rely far too much on focus groups,” Brown says. “They find out what the middle ground is and they go there . . . The Labour government led by Blair just moved into the centre ground defined by Thatcher.”

Real “redefining” leaders, he says, “change people’s view of what the centre is. Attlee’s government moved the centre leftward. The Thatcher government of 1979 to 1990 yanked it rightwards.”

Brown believes we shouldn’t want individual leaders to be particularly important. “It doesn’t make sense in a large, complex democracy for one person to be the repository of all wisdom and the great decision-maker,” he says. “There are a lot of people involved. We should encourage a more collective leadership, accept that this is bound to happen and undermine the myth of the strong leader.”

So is there any point in the Irish Labour Party changing leader? “The Conservatives in Britain had a whole series of leaders – William Hague, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith – and all these changes in leadership didn’t produce success. What changed in the end was that the Labour government had been in for a long time and people were getting fed up. It wasn’t the leader who was decisive. Often, changing leader is a false hope.”

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age is published by Bodley Head

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