What does a modern Labour Party expect from its leader?

What the party has never had and needs today more than ever is a theory of leadership.

This is the time of year when Ed Miliband gets a pasting from the polls and the media. It has happened regularly since he became Labour leader in 2010. And virtually all the comments, criticisms, and attacks involve the crucial and dangerously undermining issue of leadership authority. Is Miliband up to it? Is he really leading the party? Is he a credible future prime minister? Where are the policies? Where is the leadership? His – fewer – defenders basically stress the opposite – that he is a good leader because he absorbs the criticism and is in fact calm, ruthless, and determined, or else that it doesn’t matter if the leader is less popular than the party, the party will win anyway.

This cacophony confuses and is drowning out two related but very separate issues: the question of the elaboration of policies and the party’s 'voice' on the one hand, and the question of Miliband’s leadership of the party and eventually of the country on the other. For a hundred years the party has been organised around the former – policies, policy programmes, and manifestos – its very existence is based around these; it knows nothing, however, about the latter – the role of leadership within a centre-left party.

Let’s look at them separately. First, policies. The current lack of policies is no accident. What the party, backed, indeed led, by the leadership has been doing in this area is nothing short of a fundamental ideological revision. For the last two years, the Policy Review has been a review of social theory and ideas, not of policy; and the input of the responsible capitalism, relational state, Blue Labour and One Nation thinkers in the party has seen a dramatic attempt to take the party away from New Labour, even away from Clement Attlee’s Labour, towards, or back to, an earlier tradition of localism, mutualism, community, self-help, solidarity, and self-reliance. And the rhetorical efforts of the Policy Review chair, Jon Cruddas, have been to take this emerging narrative and modernise it.

The move, over the next two years to a real policy review will be the test of whether One Nation is underpinned by a theory of power – this will determine whether this newly-fashioned craft, built from many traditional materials, will fly. But the critics will be confounded as the barrage of new policies emerges over the coming months. The question is not whether there will be policies, but whether the policies, based upon One Nation, will be bold, far-reaching, and inspirational enough for the party to deserve to be carried back to power and government.

This brings us to the other issue, Miliband’s personal presence and leadership. The party – rightly or wrongly - has always had theories of power and the policies that flow from them, theories of how capitalism works and what should be done about it to create the good society. What it has never had, and today needs more than ever in a society with unrelenting focus on the issue, is a theory of leadership itself. For the Conservative Party, a theory of leadership is hard-wired into the DNA. Leadership is a give and there are two desirable types: the grandee and the executive manager. Cameron is a hybrid of the two. Ironically, Margaret Thatcher was not an ideal-type Tory leader at all, but a happy accident that the Tories ran with, most of the time in a state of complete bemusement.

On the left though, there is a serious problem. In this age of perpetual media scrutiny, spin, and leadership image, the UK left has no idea what leadership is. In fact, it does not really believe it exists, or should exist. If Miliband’s personal popularity falters in the polls there is a storm of criticism, much of it little more sophisticated than the tabloid press’s attacks: he should have been here in the summer; where was he, in France somewhere? And where are those policies? The Tories grabbed all the headlines (Did they? What headlines?). François Hollande decided not to go on holiday this year and his ratings remain catastrophic; Angela Merkel did and hers are stratospheric. As the adage says, be careful what you wish for.

The left needs to ask itself a whole series of questions about leaders and leadership. What is the nature of leadership for the left today? What is its place in the traditions of the British left? In what way should the leader personify the party in the public sphere? What is the relationship of the leader to the party’s narrative or narratives? What is the role and place of leadership competition in a modern centre-left party? Are there leadership archetypes in the leftist imagination (and are they all male?). Practically, what should the leader of a major political party be doing in the silly season when the media can’t find solid political stories to talk about?

Miliband did extremely well at the 2012 conference – even the media agreed. But how should he talk to the party, the media, and the public between conferences? As well as developing the party’s ideas, expressing its deeply-held beliefs, and bringing forward a raft of policies for the next election, the party should – before collapsing once again into Miliband bashing - pay more attention to this historical and ideological blind-spot impeding its view of the world and of politics: what constitutes leadership in the left’s imagination and what does a modern Labour Party expect from its leader?

Ed Miliband makes his way to give a speech on the high street in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear