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5 July 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:29am

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. 

By 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.

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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.

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