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

“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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