How Lula put Blair to shame

Observations on leadership

The scenes outside the Peacock Theatre at the London School of Economics on a hot Monday afternoon were like a rock concert. Hundreds were jostling one another in the queue for returns; groups were waiting hopefully by the stage door for a glimpse of the star; fierce doormen were refusing entry to anyone without a ticket. When a short, stocky, middle-aged man walked on to the stage, the entire audience rose to give him a standing ovation. The new hero of the international left, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, born a Brazilian peasant and now a president, had come to give a lecture on his first months in office.

"Lula" has often been compared to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. All three have in turn felt the weight of expectation as they have tried to deliver social change without alienating either the public or the markets. But it's the differences, in both presentation and substance, that are more striking. Lula, faced with an expectant audience, did not play up to it. Clinton would have held the moment, made clear his pleasure at being adored, and then seduced the audience entirely with his lazy smiles and languorous manner. Blair would have selected the self-deprecating Englishman from his repertoire before moving on to the grave statesman, with scripted pauses and theatrical appeals. Lula simply held the lectern and began to speak, almost in a monotone, about how he was dealing with Brazil's problems.

His passion and humour emerged gradually. He was elected with more than 60 per cent of the vote on promises to deal with hunger, poverty and unemployment. But he inherited an economy at risk of defaulting on its debts, a tumbling exchange rate and an inflation forecast of 40 per cent. He has now repaid some debt, raised the value of the currency and brought inflation sharply down. The price has been delay to most of his ambitious programmes. What makes Lula so unlike Blair and Clinton is that he is neither looking for excuses nor trying to hide his radicalism. The hungry, he said, could not wait. The man who had left school at 12 to work as a cleaner clearly spoke from experience. That was why he had launched Zero Hunger, with a mix of state aid and private money, which aims to feed 15 million of the poorest Brazilians. That was why he must now carry out land reform. He had struggled for it all his life; now he was in power, he had to implement it. If I fail, he said, I cannot blame anyone else.

Along with that surprising declaration of responsibility, he appealed for support for the poorest people in the world, not only from Brazilians, but also from rich nations, which needed to offer fairer terms of trade. Lula has an acute sense of the difficulties of shifting resources from one group to another. "I am a romantic," he said: "Pockets are the most sensitive part of a human. That's why we need to touch hearts and minds first." He has been touring international gatherings and making speeches whenever he can because, he says, politics is about human relations. No one wants to help those they don't trust.

Lula exudes trustworthiness because his motivations and honesty are so apparent. His approval ratings at home are now above 70 per cent. What is so striking to an English audience is that he acts as a man who has nothing to hide because he's not preoccupied by re-election. His policies may fail; his balancing act may be impossible; Brazil's precarious economy may defeat him. But for those who remember Blair's five feeble election pledges, and the way they were first fudged, and then failed, it is extraordinarily moving to listen to a man who has made radical commitments, and who says, simply, that he wants to go down in history as the president who fulfilled his election promises.