Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Force is Strong With This One

Andrew Adonis has come in for some criticism over a tweet on Saturday suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn cannot win the next general election.

As many have pointed out, British political history has seen plenty of party leaders who have first lost and then won a general election, starting with Robert Peel at the dawn of modern political parties. Adonis attempted to excuse his dodgy claim in a subsequent tweet through a combination of qualification and counterfactual: "No UK leader since Attlee has lost a 1st election but won a 2nd - & he wd have lost 2nd had 1940 election not been cancelled" (ignoring the non-existent 1940 poll, Churchill lost his first two elections as party leader, in 1945 and 1950, before finally winning a Commons majority in 1951). When it was pointed out that Ted Heath lost his first election as party leader in 1966 and then won his second in 1970, precisely contradicting the good lord's claim, Adonis was reduced to grudging concession. Perhaps his wonky recall reflects the modern tendency of party leaders to resign after defeat and even retire from politics altogether, in the manner of David Cameron. But as a man with a doctorate in British history, you'd expect Adonis to know that this is a relatively novel development.

In the nineteenth century both Gladstone and Salisbury had intermittent stints as Prime Minister, as did Baldwin, Churchill and Wilson in the twentieth. In his determination to hang on as Labour Party leader after the 1987 defeat, Neil Kinnock was pretty old-school in this regard. The shift in the political culture appears to have happened in the Blair years, not just because the Labour leader won at the first attempt and would eventually retire unbeaten and relatively youthful, but because both the Tories and LibDems started to more regularly rotate leaders in their search for the magic ingredient of electoral success. This reinforced the idea that the popular vote was heavily determined by the personal popularity of the leader, with the inevitable corollary that electoral defeat required the sacrifice of that tainted individual. Though Blair set the tone, the roots of this attitude probably lay in the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, with both the extreme personality cult of the post-Falklands years and the ruthlessness of her eventual removal by the Conservative Party when electoral defeat seemed imminent.

The purpose of Adonis's tweet appears to have been to advertise a rambling article he has just published in Prospect magazine, with the clumsy title: Forget ideas—do the maths, and it’s clear political leadership always comes down to character. Given that "character" is a difficult concept to define at the best of times, and that the mechanism by which superior leadership translates into electoral success isn't explained by Adonis (how could Roy Jenkins possibly fail?), it should come as no surprise that his maths is laughably subjective: "To test my thesis more systematically, we need to be specific about the leadership qualities which matter in electoral politics. They should, I suggest, be assessed on two dimensions. There are the quintessential abilities—charisma, confidence, acumen, empathy. ... But there is also the ability to embody and express the 'spirit of the time', which can sometimes propel men and women of more modest leadership attributes to the front because of their almost intrinsic ability in keeping with the zeitgeist". In passing, Adonis claims that "Justin Trudeau is presently giving a leadership masterclass in Canada", which I think is Yoda for "The force is strong with this one".

Adonis proceeds to award points to the two main party leaders in each UK and US general election since 1944, with the quintessential accounting for 2/3rds of the score. This weighting is itself dubious, begging the question by suggesting that personality always outguns the zeitgeist, but it allows him to attribute Labour's victory in 1997 to his Blairness, rather than popular disillusion with the Tories after Black Wednesday and sleaze, and also attribute the party's loss in 2010 to Gordon Brown's personality flaws, rather than popular disillusion with New Labour's programme. The post hoc zeitgeist score invariably reflects the result, but its under-weighting requires some transparent tweaking to give Attlee a narrow one point lead over Churchill in 1945, which hardly reflects Labour's landslide victory. The ultimate purpose of this ridiculous exercise is to claim that Jeremy Corbyn cannot win the next general election unless the Tories are mad enough to field either a wounded Theresa May or a suicidally inappropriate Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

What's particularly funny about this is the employment of a "table" at a time when Adonis is loudly criticising university vice-chancellors for paying themselves on a par with private sector CEOs. The VCs have insisted that they are part of a global market for talent, which itself reflects the league table of academic institutions through such impeccably neoliberal mechanisms as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Times Higher Education rankings. While Adonis now claims that the current tuition fee scheme is a "Frankenstein monster", he still insists on the good sense and sincerity of the original marketisation reforms that he helped progress as an unelected minister. As ever, the problem is not the creation of an artificial market, with subjective metrics acting as price proxies and in which privileged actors are incentivised to extract rents, but the political abuse of the market by a cynical government, here bent on reducing state support for higher education. That Adonis should proceed to invent a leadership metric based on criteria lacking any empirical validity does not appear to have struck him as ironic.

Though he distinguishes two dimensions in his assessment of political leadership, both are essentially metaphysical, centring as they do on the nebulous concepts of charisma and zeitgeist. The idea of the leader as a vessel for a higher power, whether the Holy Ghost or the spirit of the nation, is hardly new, though I would be guilty of shooting fish in a barrel if I were to dismiss Adonis's scheme as of a class with divine right and the F├╝hrerprinzip. What Adonis is really about is promoting the idea that leadership can extricate us from political paralysis, like Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot. The metaphorical knot, you'll not be surprised to learn, is Brexit. Tony Blair has re-entered the stage once more, this time to suggest that we can avoid leaving the EU by introducing tougher restrictions on immigration. Adonis himself has pushed this obviously concerted plan by suggesting that Merkel and Macron are open to a compromise on freedom of movement, though he provides no evidence in support of this claim beyond the latter's talk of reforming the posted workers directive, which the EU27 sees as a technical matter independent of the principles of the single market.

There may well be some wriggle-room, simply because the UK has not hitherto availed itself of all the controls on movement available to members, but it is naive to believe either that the eurozone core (where freedom of movement remains popular) will reverse the historic trend towards greater integration or that essentially cosmetic changes will satisfy UK public opinion. The weakness of Blair's case is shown in his recourse to patriotism in his closing words: "At this moment which will define Britain’s future, all our MPs should behave as if they are the leader of our nation, with the responsibility to put country above Party". Right on cue, Nick Cohen produces one of his conflicted diatribes in which he manages to reject scoundrel patriotism while marginalising anyone who doesn't feel the pull of the volk: "All of us feel the power of nationalism. By definition, if you are concerned about public life, you are concerned about your nation and its future. ... In the next few months, as the sense of futility grows, cornered Conservatives will lash out and accuse everyone who crosses them of hating Britain. The only proper response is to say that if we truly hated our country we would not care about the wreck the right is making of it".

This turn to the cadences of Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn (subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, lest we forget) is no surprise from Cohen, who has built a career on the d├ętournement of the ethical strain of English socialism as a critique of, well, English socialism. What is more unusual is to see unrepentant centrists like Blair and Adonis attempt to adopt this rhetorical style. I suspect the latter's "populist" attacks on fat-cats is part of this manoeuvre, even if his choice of university vice-chancellors leaves many people nonplussed. After all, he could have garnered more popular support if, as a former transport minister, he'd ripped into Richard Branson's extortion of the public treasury. His pride over HS2, like his pride over academies, has perhaps biased him towards attacking a sector that he feels has never fully appreciated his genius (the call to take up the post of warden of an Oxford college has yet to come). I fear his fast and loose attitude to historical facts will not help his cause. As for Blair, his latest intervention will simply have hardened hearts: the force isn't what it was. So much for quintessential abilities.


  1. Your latest tweet matches this post quite well, because much of what passes for past and contemporary political analysis could well come from the back pages of a newspaper. 'Managers who don't win the championship in their first year with a club virtually never win the title'. They compare political figures like they would assess Clough and Revie, and try to pretend that the reason parties are elected to government is because of the 'management', in the same way that they would suggest that if Mourinho was in charge of Yeovil they would win the Champions League in five years.

    1. Ironically, Mourinho has a habit of winning the title in his 2nd full season in charge (and then falling out with players & club in the 3rd). Following Adonis's logic, he'd never get the chance.

  2. Herbie Kills Children21 September 2017 at 19:48

    I think Adonis has a point when he says leadership is about "Character", in that yes it really is that superficial!

    One reason among many to get rid of leaders and free those suffering under the suffocating hierarchy.