Thursday, 25 April 2019

Exemplary Leadership

The elections for the European Parliament have long attracted eccentrics and grandstanders, but this year's crop of candidates are particularly eye-catching in their delusions of significance. This is for two reasons. First, Brexit has turned these elections into a large-scale opinion poll in which the candidates' beliefs beyond the central issue are largely irrelevant. Ironically, Brexit means that the European elections have lost much of their political substance. Second, the launch of two new parties with hopes of winning seats, the Brexit Party and Change UK: The Independent Group, together with the reformation of UKIP, has led to the scraping of some pretty odd barrels. A feature of this candidate pool, beyond the usual over-representation of fatuous business types, is the assumption that media prominence (or notoriety) is helpful. Though neither Claire Fox nor Rachel Johnson would accept that they are the same as Count Dankula and Sargon of Akkad, their utility is all about followers and name-recognition.

This scramble for "personalities" might appear like another unfortunate by-product of Brexit, but it is part of a wider, long-term trend away from political substance towards style: from Tony Crosland to Jess Phillips. Though the political establishment has decried the "unicornism" of Brexit and the anti-intellectualism of Trump, that same establishment lauded first Justin Trudeau and then Emmanuel Macron for their "refreshing" style and their refusal to be tied down to boring old substance on issues such as favours for the rich. The roots of this clearly go way back, through Blair and Clinton to John F Kennedy at least, but there has been a noticeable inflation during the neoliberal era as government has ceded more and more of the substance of the electorate's lives to the authority of the market, and it is no coincidence that those politicians who argue for the state to take a more substantial role, such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, are routinely criticised for their lack of leadership style as much as their "dangerous ideas". Similarly, civic groups taking a lead - eXtinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg being recent examples - are decried as cultists or harangued for having the temerity to speak out of turn.

Exemplary leadership in the neoliberal era is often confused with appropriate form, in the sense of speaking the right words and making the right gestures in the face of contingent circumstance (consider Blair's supposed coaching of the Queen in 1997 after the death of the Princess of Wales). The praise for Jacinda Arden after the Christchurch mosque attack was a recent example of this, with her largely emblematic decision to tighten New Zealand's gun laws being a case of pushing at an open door rather than persuading the country to change course through compelling argument. When government has set out to persuade, it has often proved unequal to the task, either because it lacks real commitment (the tragedy of the Iraq War was that all bar a handful of zealots knew it was a mistake from the start) or is simply incompetent (the 2016 remain campaign springs to mind). What the media meant by Arden's "leadership" was her (no doubt sincere) empathy and representation of public sentiment. In contrast, Theresa May's awkwardness and lack of empathy isn't historically unusual (cf Ted Heath), but it looks more obviously deficient in a Prime Minister who lacks substantive authority.

Much of contemporary politics can be seen as a failure of leadership, but one that reflects a systemic contradiction rather than an unfortunate dearth of talent. Neoliberalism places the CEO on a pedestal but then insists both that politicians should be more CEO-like and that politics must cede to the market. The result is politicians who are business administrators with delusions of Napoleonic grandeur. May's particular failure reflects both the division of the country and the division of the Conservative Party. Her personal culpability lies in her belief that superficially uniting the latter was more important than bridging the divide in the former. Within Tory ranks, the remain/leave divide has morphed into a more fundamental liberal/conservative culture war. According to Nick Timothy, "With Brexit and immigration the defining issues at stake, the Tories have no future as a metro, liberal party. They have to become the champions of community and solidarity. In other words, the National Party". As with earlier varieties of "realignment", such as Blue Labour and Red Toryism, this trades in imagined communities but goes the whole hog to use the N-word, rather than just euphemisms like patriotism, and implicitly yokes the national interest to reduced immigration.

Talking of imagined communities, the poor calibre of The Independent Group of MPs at their launch, with unimpressive old hacks like Mike Gapes and Anne Coffey forced blinking into the limelight, was a sign that the embryonic party would struggle to make an impact once it lost its utility as a stick with which to beat Labour. While Tom Watson's decade-long image makeover hasn't erased the memory of his past sins as a Brownite enforcer, he has the obvious advantage over Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna of still being part of the "struggle for Labour's soul", while they are now appreciating the disadvantage of not being personally popular among the natural promoters of "sensible politics" in the media, despite their ideological congeniality. Since their departure from Labour, the core members of TIG have failed to expand beyond an agenda of resentment and entitlement, and even seem surprised that they are expected to do the hard graft required of a smaller party to secure media coverage. Banging on about Labour anti-Semitism already feels stale, not to mention hypocritical in view of the evidence of bigotry among its newly-announced candidates for the European Parliament elections.

The addition of three Tory MPs hasn't helped, both because the inevitable tonal shift to the right has made the group even more loath to be pinned down on social and economic policy (beyond the implicit "no change") and because those Tories, Anna Soubry in particular, have also been lacking in anything approaching a political vision beyond "remain". Their unwillingness to express regret for austerity or to countenance voting down the current government is not just a reflection of their true conservative beliefs, it is an object lesson in strategic folly, passing up the opportunity to create a distinctive policy position between the two main parties while throwing away their limited leverage. It's as if they simply weren't paying attention to the DUP over the last two years. That Heidi Allen has been made interim leader suggests that the new Change UK party will be characterised by an inability to articulate meaningful change, with the result that its leadership will be at best anodyne and at worst tediously bitter.

The contrast with Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party is stark. He may be a lazy chancer who flees from responsibility, but he understands what a campaigning party looks like and how to channel its energies and fortunes through a figurehead: the Farageprinzip, if you will (his decision to eschew a membership for subscribers is telling). That he is now emphasising both the "betrayal of democracy" and the need for more comprehensive change to the political system is astute as it offers a conservative radicalism that has potentially broad electoral appeal and also plays to the prejudices of many in the media (it is also amusing trolling of Change UK). Of course, this could never be translated into meaningful success in a Parliamentary election because any attempt to firm up its policy platform beyond Brexit and a nebulous critique of "the system" would result in the same tensions and embarrassments that dogged UKIP. Despite claims that it will finally unlock that elusive "Northern vote", the Brexit Party's role (beyond funding Farage's lifestyle) will be to act as a ginger group for the Conservatives.

As Nick Timothy's Telegraph article indicates, there is now an appetite within the Tory Party for a split. It is clear that around two-thirds of the membership would be happy with a "National Party" that featured not only Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg but Nigel Farage too. The parliamentary party is weighted more towards the liberal end of the spectrum, but many centrist MPs now know that preserving their political careers may require them to abandon the Conservatives and build a new support base in the form of a "metro, liberal party", in Nick Timothy's formulation. The obvious vehicle for this would be Change UK, which increasingly looks like a centre-right party and which would benefit from the focus that a full-throated commitment to liberal conservatism would bring (I suspect Leslie and Umunna could reconcile themselves to this). Were a major Conservative Party split to happen, it could potentially be terminal for the Liberal Democrats (that the collapse of both parties could be traced to the miscalculations of the coalition years would be some irony). The chief impediment to this scenario playing out is the lack of leadership, with both factions too riven by personal jealousies to easily separate and coalesce, but circumstances, most obviously a poor showing in the European Parliament elections, could force the issue.

The one party that currently appears to be in a healthy state in terms of its leadership is Labour, funnily enough. This isn't because Jeremy Corbyn is more cunning than he is given credit for, or simply because the party is on the right side of history, but because of its institutional preference for collegiate leadership. Viewed over its history, the "democratic centralisation" of the Blair years was the exception, not the rule. Corbyn has, perhaps more from habit than design, pursued an approach to leadership that is strong on genuine delegation, tolerant of disagreement and has little regard for stylistic affectation or the expectations of the media. This has been presented by both the wiseacres of the press and the Blairite rump of the PLP as weakness, division and a simple lack of suitability, which reflects both their overt hostility to Corbyn's politics and their ideological distaste for egalitarianism. The approach may well prove flawed in time, but over the last three and a half years it has been largely successful. David Cameron's "stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband" seems a long way away now.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Philliskirk28 April 2019 at 19:57

    'Neoliberalism places the CEO on a pedestal but then insists both that politicians should be more CEO-like and that politics must cede to the market. The result is politicians who are business administrators with delusions of Napoleonic grandeur.'

    Yes, and this is one of the major factors that is creating the current crises of democracy. If the state is the 'national capitalist' and its leaders like CEOs or directors, then they are dictated by the bottom line, and appealing to enough of the population to maintain power is a dangerous distraction from this, whether thay want to pursue self-destructive urges like Brexit, or simply demand more workers' rights or welfare spending.

    As such, it is unsurprising that politics has increasingly turned to the dark arts of advertising, but given that it is more difficult for politicians than businesses to provide a 'product' that people want or are happy to accept, then this does little to help matters in the long term. I suspect that 'managed democracy' or some kind of authoritarian technocracy might well be on its way.