Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Think Jeremy Corbyn's not a leader? You don't understand what leadership is

What it means to be a leader has changed, argues Hilary Wainwright. 

 'He's a decent principled man, with great integrity. But he's not a real leader' is the constant refrain from Jeremy Corbyn's critics.  At the same time, 52 per cent of the population have railed -in the Brexit vote - against the establishment, jam-packed with would-be and retired leaders of the kind that critics want to put in Jeremy's place. Isn’t it time we asked what kind of leader we need for today's circumstances and therefore put the conventional parliamentary idea of leadership under scrutiny?

Let's start by distinguishing Corbyn's electability from his credibility as Prime Minister on the model required by our present unwritten constitution by which immense and mostly invisible powers are concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

First, then, the conditions for his electability. A starting point must be that the general election he will face will not be taking place in a functioning political system with a high turnout and strong levels of trust in the main political parties. Rather, he will face a general election after a decade of growing disengagement from politics especially by the young and the poor and insecure, to a point where the present government was voted for by only 24 per cent of the eligible electorate and many constituency Labour parties were struggling to ensure a quorum at their meetings.

For a leader to be electable in today's mood of anti establishment politics, a leader and his party has to be able to reach out beyond the political system and to give a voice to those who have no vested interest in the system. Neither left nor right in the Labour Party have been good at this, preferring to assume that the party’s links with the unions provide it with an inbuilt communication with the wider public.

Corbyn, aided by the one person one vote system for electing the leader has not taken union membership support for granted, and has shown himself able to reach out and demonstrate that he would open spaces in politics for the disenfranchised and ensure they had a voice. As a result, he has re-engaged hundreds of thousands of young people.

Typically the young don't just engage with institutions as they are, they bring new ideas and they shake things up, producing new political configurations with the potential of attracting more of their generation.

Moreover, this is the generation whose culture, including political culture has been shaped by using the tools of the new information and communication technology to share, collaborate and network, aiming to emancipate themselves from overbearing authority, hierarchy and other forms of centralised, commanding domination. A collaborative, facilitating kind of leadership and political organisation is the only one with which they can engage. They are mystified why the parliamentarians who have resigned cannot work together, with the division of labour and mutual support that they take for granted.

On the other hand, as the Brexit result demonstrates there are distinct problems to be addressed amongst the white working class with strong feelings of abandonment and powerlessness leading, with the aid of Boris porkies, to a scapegoating of immigrants and of the EU. Again, I'd argue that the current Labour leadership, with their commitment to fight austerity, are well placed to reach out to those whose lives and communities have been all but being destroyed by cuts, low pay (and no pay), privatisation and casualisation of Tory and Labour governments of recent years and before that the decimation of industry by the Thatcher government.

Corbyn can commit himself to putting money where his mouth is when he says that immigration is not the cause of people's social and economic desperation.

But the Leave vote also indicates that the problems are not simply economic. What also surfaced was the problem of power and powerlessness. Here there is a confluence with the aspirations of the young, to achieve some control over their future.

But while the urban young use new technologies to create forms of daily collaborative control over their lives; people without easy resources of mobility and communication need increases in control that they can feel, today. Here the role of the unions is vital. And not just as campaigning foot soldiers for the general election but for their initiatives in seeking to bargain not only for better wages but for greater control the organisation and purpose of their work, especially in the public sector, also for their growing organisation of part-time and casual workers and their suppor for co-operatives as a way in which precarious workers can develop collective strength.

Greater control of our working lives however is limited if our wider political environment is controlled by a remote, over centralised political system by which there is little or no chance of a voice in decisions about housing , the environment or the national and international decisions of war and peace, trade and investment which shaper our lives.

This bring me to the second understanding of leadership: that judged according to the criteria drawn from the nature of Prime Ministerial power in the British state, a position shaped by decades of adaption – but not transformation – of the job description of the headquarters of a global empire.

The 'strong man' notion of leadership by which Corbyn appears all to often to be judged is not therefore just a matter of a macho style. It is embedded in the nature of the UK's unwritten constitution and the immense but opaque power that it gives to the executive: extensive powers of patronage, powers to go to war be ready to press the nuclear button, negotiate treaties of various kinds and in many ways preserve the continuity of the British state.

Here I want to argue that the conditions for his electability are entirely within our grasp, especially if his critics in the PLP showed some of the respect for party unity that the left have shown throughout the party's history. However his credibility as Prime Minister, a different kind of prime minister from the current model, would require an effective challenge to the centralised nature of power in our political system. A challenge that would need to be made now, while in opposition, with extensive popular participation. This project of democracy has been Corbyn's  declared goal but he and the shadow minister responsible ,Jon Trickett, have been demoralisingly slow, probably due to the paralysis imposed by the constant attacks to which he has been subject from day one. Yet the new politics that Corbyn proclaims surely needs an explicit agenda of institutional change not simply a change of style at the front bench dispatch box.

Questions of institution and of policy are closely allied. JC's critics are rarely explicit about how far their criticisms of Corbyn are of his capacities – to match up with the responsibilities of highly concentrated power - or whether in fact the implicit issue at the heart of the rebellion – maybe not shared or recognised by all the resignees – is a disagreement on policy: on nuclear power, on war, on security , on respect for the continuity of executive power (a disagreement over which will surface on Wednesday with Corbyn's statement on Chilcot)  And possibly a belief, reflecting the influence of shadowy pressures coming from 'the permanent state' who quite simply will not allow a socialist who means what he says, to be Prime Minister .

Either way, it would be perverse in the face of the strength of anti-establishment feeling from young and old, to replace a leader committed to breaking establishment power, with one who is committed and ready to preserve it. 

Hilary Wainwright is the editor of Red Pepper.

Getty
Show Hide image

Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

“Given the loss of Scotland, it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing a list 50 constituencies in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.