The Growing Importance Of The Party Leader


As any economist and cultural observer will tell you, although we do a lot of trade with the US, it’s not a partnership of equals. Sure, we’ve got them hooked on Downton Abbey and somehow got them to take Piers Morgan off of our hands, but it’s mostly one way traffic. This Americanisation is also manifesting itself in politics, for British elections are becoming increasingly presidential.

Now, America isn’t entirely to blame (or thank) for this. Although the grassroots and keyboard warriors of the respective parties are wildly different in their views and opinions, there really isn’t much to separate the parliamentary parties. They broadly agree on the big questions, differing only on the minor technical details. Increasingly the only things separating them are the party brand and the leader.

If the Tory internal politics is guilty of anything, it’s of being too quick to turn on a leader. In way this was always going to be the case with the Conservatives, being as they are less a united party and more a loose confederation of warring tribes. Indeed, it’s the sign of healthy internal debate and a party that is free to challenge the authority of the leader. Even when Thatcher was at the height of her popularity, there were vast swathes of the party who couldn’t wait to see the back of her. John Major, who still holds the record for receiving the most votes in a General Election, was continually undermined by the famous ‘Men in Grey Suits’.

And it’s not just the Prime Ministers. William Haugue, IDS and Michael Howard came and went in blur. And this highlights one of the salient problems with a party that always has the knives at the ready; leaders don’t always get a chance to establish themselves in the party and, more importantly, with the public.

Labour seem to have the opposite problem in that they are too forgiving of under performing  leaders. This may come in part because of the unusual way the Labour Party picks with leaders. The most obvious difference between it and other parties is that it’s not just Labour Party members who get a say. Ed Milliband famously wasn’t the preferred option of Labour rank and file, relying instead on Union support to pip his more popular brother to the post. The point being that right from the start, Labour leaders aren’t dependent on the support of their grassroots as other party leaders are. Now it could be argued that this is a great strength. Freed from the petty internal squabbles that plague every party, Labour leaders are free to focus on policies, elections, and hounding the opposition.

The obvious problem of course is that it’s very easy to get stuck with a duffer. Michael Foot had a formidable intellect and is much loved by elements on the Left of the modern party, but electorally he was a disaster. Despite regularly enjoying fifteen to eighteen point leads over Thatcher in the opinion polls, he never came close to toppling her. Neil Kinnock, although not quite as Left Wing as Foot, was similarly unable to win over the British public, despite Thatcher’s, by then, waning appeal.

Not only did Foot and Kinnock fail to break Thatcher, they helped brake the back of British socialism as a mainstream political force. For in the eyes of the British public, rightly or wrongly, Labour was British socialism and British socialism was Labour. Even if Foot and Kinnock didn’t cause its demise, they certainly presided over it. Why were the leaders kept on? Was it misguided solidarity or a stubborn belief that nothing needed to change because the British public simply didn’t know what was good for them. (more on that mindset here)

Blair, at least, could point to three election victories as a reason for loyalty, but what of Gordon Brown? There was the briefest hint of a plot when he assumed the leadership, but it quickly fell away as the party quietly fell into line and supported an unelected Prime Minister. Was the prospect of a few more years in power worth allowing Brown to circumvent the democratic process? It seems so.

It’s tempting to argue that Conservatives distrust centralised power and so challenge it, whereas Labour value unity, structure and solidarity and so don’t. However I don’t think that’s the reason, or at least not all of it. Much depends on the leader themselves. None of the post Thatcher Conservative leaders can be said to have ruled with a rod of iron. A softer style of leadership will naturally allow space for opposition to ferment. Blair maintained loyalty through patronage and the spendaholic approach to public finances Labour grassroots love.

Where do the current leaders stand? Cameron (Call-Me-Dave) has maintained the softer approach, and has gone further by trying to take the sharp edges off of the Tory brand, with mixed results. His party went along with the logo change, the green policies and the Big Society, but only with the carrot of a Tory majority. He now faces regular rebellions, especially on core Tory issues like Europe, taxes and prisons. Ed Milliband is getting better, but that’s starting from a very low base. He’s respected by his peers, but is a long way from being seen as a statesman. Indeed up until very recently, if you typed ‘Milliband’ into Google, you would get hits on his brother before him.

There will be those who question the importance of the leader in future elections. “What about Cleggmania?” I hear you cry. That all fell flat, the Lib Dems lost seats, didn’t they? Well yes they did, but they got one million more votes, just in the wrong places. The importance of that can’t be over emphasised.

Little wonder UKIP are so keen to get their man Farage onto the Leadership Debates in 2015…


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