A warning from the Labour party: The difference between leadership and management

Politicians think government is 90% policy and 10% management, in reality it’s the other way round.’ Civil service aphorism

As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens  another.’ Proverbs 27:17

A lot is being written about the Labour leadership election and rightly so. That a candidate unable to get the support of more than 20 MPs from the fringe left may be about to become leader of the opposition is astounding. Good reasons have been given for this state of affairs but I fear one more than any other has been glossed over.

Jeremy Corbyn is a far better candidate than Yvette, Andy and Liz.

Objectively he makes the best speeches, is the best communicator, has the clearest message and has the most coherent and (at least within the party) popular ideas for changing the labour party. Now whether the rest of the country will warm to him is another thing but one question that has to be asked is how a parliamentary party with 231 MPs to choose from has picked such mediocre mainstream candidates? Compare it with the recent Liberal Democrat leadership election and Norman Lamb and Tim Farron’s impressive campaigns.

Both Norman and Tim had clear ideas, good communication and clear divergent messages about where to take the party between a social liberal and a more centrist direction. Yvette, Andy and Liz on the other hand have a difficulty with sounding human, making speeches or actually looking like they have any coherent beliefs at all.

Why? How come 2 from 8 look better leaders than the 3 from 211?

I believe a big reason is what has happened to the Labour party over the past 20 or so years and in particular the type of politician that increasingly inhabits the Labour party.

One thing unites the 3 mainstream Labour candidates, they all came up through political hackery. They’ve all been researchers and SPADs in and around Westminster and after a significant amount of jobbing they were all given safeish Labour seats. Now that career path provides skills and good office management experience but did it ever involve leadership? Did it ever involve building a movement?

Compare that to Norman and Tim, both are self-made MPs, both have worked as councillors, both built their political following from the ground up in safe conservative seats. They come from an environment where having a cohesive set of beliefs, ability for oratory and leadership are mandatory skills.

Compare it to Jeremy Corbyn, a lone socialist pacifist voice whose very career is based on fighting unpopular battles, community work and ideological self-definition.

Even compare it to Tony Blair, he began his parliamentary career in the early 80s during the ideological infighting between Solidarity and Militant. He was given challenges from the beginning, which made him a better leader a decade later.

Yvette, Andy and Liz have never had to do any of this, the need to self-define was ended by 13 years of Labour government. The young MPs and researchers who came through Labour at this time never faced the challenges Tony Blair did. Rather the battles they faced were more about office politics than ideology. If it seems like the Labour elite talk too much about ‘how to win elections’ it’s because that’s all they’ve really had to discuss for the last 20 years.

The Brownite – Blairite battles cast a heavy shadow and serve as an interesting warning to other political parties: never become too unified, never trample ideological debate, never become a finishing school for the careerist. The New Labour vanguardism that served so well during the 90s rooted in the ideas of Anthony Giddens and Anthony Crosland has become a timid managerialism incapable of defending itself from actual ideology.

This is not a problem the conservative party faces; they have had decades of internal battle on ideological lines, particularly on Europe and the struggle between the right and the moderates. There is also a difference between leading a party for social change and a party of conservatism, managerialism suits the Tories. As Clinton said ‘Liberals want to fall in love, Conservatives want to fall in line.’

It is easy imagining falling in line with David Cameron, it is hard imagining falling in love with the 3 ex researchers and perhaps Andy, Yvette and Liz should have considered staying on as researchers or joining the civil service. The skills they have developed would be better served in such managerial roles; they have nothing to do with leadership.

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45 Comments

  • Ed Shepherd 4th Sep '15 - 9:45am

    The most sensible article that I have read on the Labour leadership debate.

  • John Tilley 4th Sep '15 - 9:47am

    John Dixon
    Do you think you might have scored an own goal with your opening statement ? —
    “….. That a candidate unable to get the support of more than 20 MPs … may be about to become leader of the opposition is astounding. ”

    How many of our MPs supported Norman Lamb in our recent leadership election? Was it 2 ?

  • John Tilley 4th Sep '15 - 9:50am

    Perhaps a better perspective on what is going onion the Labour Party —
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/18/jeremy-corbyn-rivals-chase-impossible-dream

  • Tsar Nicholas 4th Sep '15 - 9:57am

    After last night’s Sky TV debate a friend who is pretty right wing emailed to say that he thought Corbyn won hands down.

    I am beginning to wonder if Corbyn may have a Reaganesqe sort of appeal in his down-to-earth folksy manner. Voters were initially hostile to Reagan but warmed to him personally.

  • Good point though I may add that management skills are very important to see the leader’s policy ideas actually being implemented. Therefore having people like the other 3 around him is about the only way Jeremy Corbyn can lead let alone pretend to be fit to govern.
    Only a combination of an inspiring campaigners and good managers can work.

  • John Tilley 4th Sep '15 - 10:08am

    “…Even compare it to Tony Blair, he began his parliamentary career in the early 80s during the ideological infighting between Solidarity and Militant. He was given challenges from the beginning, which made him a better leader a decade later.”

    This is a fanciful piece of Blair mythology that not even the man himself would pretend to.

    A more accurate record of Blair’s position within the Labour Party can be found in —
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Blair#Early_political_career.2C_1983.E2.80.9394

    Blair’s letter to Michael Foot in 1982 explaining how he had come to Socilaism through Marxism tells us something does it not?

    There are enough baseless myths about Blair without adding to them in LDV.

    I apologies for commenting three times in this thread but as all three comments are to correct matters of fact I hope this will be alloŵed.

  • @Simon Shaw

    You’ve surpassed yourself:

    “Norman Lamb didn’t become Leader of our Party. So the true comparison is how many MPs supported Tim.”

    Please let us know how many Lib Dems supported Farron? Is it greater or fewer than 20?

  • Labour seem to be set on choosing the third poor leader in a row. Ignoring the dreadful policy choice of some them look at their leadership flaws….

    As well as being a dreadful communicator Gordon Brown spent years developing and utilising splits within the parliamentary party and could therefore never expect to unite them.

    Ed Milliband had none of the real charisma that is needed to convince people to follow. I doubt very much that there are many who felt the urge to switch to Labour having heard or seen a Milliband speech. Whether it’s right or not with modern communications media charisma is a necessary attribute for a leader.

    Corbyn does have a bit of charisma and he does strike a chord with those who deserted the Labour party during the Blair years. However he was a perennial member of the Labour awkward squad rebelling almost as much as he supported measures that would have been in his own Party’s manifesto. How then can he expect centrist or right wing members of his own party to follow him into the lobby?

    In the services, barrack room lawyers such as Corbyn tend to get most support from those who would shy away from, or have been overlooked for, positions where they have to take the tough decisions. Leaders need to demonstrate loyalty in order to get loyalty, unless there is to be a wholesale change of Labour MP’s and candidates then he stands no chance of holding the Party together as an effective force.

    All of which is of course an opportunity for the Lib Dems if they can show the public they have learnt the lessons of 2010 – 2015, otherwise we are looking at another long period of Tory rule…

  • @John Tilley
    @Simon Shaw
    @Steve

    According to Wikipedia only one of our MPs endorsed Norman (12.5%), three endorsed Tim (37.5%) and 36 Labour MPs nominated Corbyn (15.52%).

  • @James Gane
    Thanks for that. So, the answer is 3, which is one more than the 2 that supported Lamb and 17 less than the number of MPs estimated to be supporting Corbyn.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Sep '15 - 11:09am

    Steve Way

    Corbyn does have a bit of charisma and he does strike a chord with those who deserted the Labour party during the Blair years. However he was a perennial member of the Labour awkward squad rebelling almost as much as he supported measures that would have been in his own Party’s manifesto.
    How then can he expect centrist or right wing members of his own party to follow him into the lobby?

    Why do you suppose he does expect that? He has stated that if he were leader he would not try to impose his own view on the party and would accept democratic decision making.

    One thing I would say about Jeremy Corbyn however, which John Dixon has glossed over, is that he represents a safe Labour seat. He’s never had to go out and win votes. All he needs is to wear the Labour rosette and he gets in. That is very different from almost all Liberal Democrat MPs. I’ve always found that one of the reason Labour got lost and out of touch is that for most Labour politicians the real fight is the internal one to become candidate, and the actual getting elected after that is a formality.

    Corbyn is doing well on the novelty factor and benefitting from the over-the-top attacks made on him by people who themselves are unpopular. However, much of what he says is sounds-good hand-waving. He doesn’t have answers to the difficult questions that could be asked about what he stands for. In practice I think he could end up more pragmatic than is being supposed. But I think eventually his lack of experience of actually going out and winning real votes will show.

  • The party should prepare to replace Labour as the authentic alternative to the Conservatives. Time to focus on places where you are strong and vibrant like Joe Ottens Sheffield stronghold..your time is near are you ready. Can you tell the voters the reality of our political situation like Joe and reap the rewards that will surely come. Time to speak plainly and strong – like Councillor Otten.

  • John Dixon:

    I do not think you are being objective in your assessment of the Labour candidates. Corbyn might have the most popular ideas amongst the Labour party and its £3 supporters (this will soon be apparent), however, it is far from clear that he makes “the best speeches” or has the clearest message. The “coherence” of his policies is very dubious. Is Corbyn really supposed to “sound human” (whatever that means)? Most of what he says could be preduced by a lefty Labour auto generator. Actually your claims that Tim and Norman are so much less mediocre than Labour’s offering shows that objectivity is not really what this is about.

    I grant you that Corbyn has a different approach to how he swats aside questions, but his approach has more in common with Natalie Bennett than any other leader. My guess is that a better “objective” case could be made for Cooper. Cooper’s problems stem from the fact that she is basing her pitch on the practicalities of being a future Prime Minister, rather more so than the others.

    Corbyn, it seems to me, has emerged from a small, select, self-confirmatory and self-congratulatory group.

    The main error here, though, is that there is a confusion between ability to win an internal election and being a leader. I should be lost surprised if Corbyn turns out to be rated as having leadership qualities.

  • Phil Rimmer 4th Sep '15 - 11:38am

    Dragging this back to SPADs for a moment ………… I would ban them from Westminster/European candidate approval until they had gone out and lived in the real world for five years or so. Let’s face it, most are politically committed nerds who see a SPAD appointment as a fast track to a seat. If that fails, they fast track to policy or PR jobs in the commercial and in a very few cases, charitable, sectors. The problem is that they tend to start young, straight out of studying, and as a result all they ever learn is politician speak. They never even get the chance to learn to speak human which is the reason most Labour and Tory ones get picked for safe seats. They invariably end up as calculating machines with all the empathy of a brick.

    Let me be clear, this isn’t an argument against young MPs. I would vote for an inexperienced Liberal teenager over a Liberal former SPAD or a tired old political hack any day. No, it’s the dehumanising effect of being a SPAD that I object to. Long-term it may be useful experience, but short-term the effect is appalling.

  • It seems Corbyn has something. My closet relative, a strong Tory, watched the debate last night in an objective manner and said Corbyn was head and shoulders above the others in personality, presentation and straightforward appeal. “I know what he stands for and represents, I don’t agree with much of it, but it ceratinly resonates whether you support him or not”. Me I did not bother being more concerned about our own predicament and how to get out of it in a rational not wishful manner…

  • Just a quickfire response to all the responses above (thanks for them all by the way!)

    The point of the article is to suggest that the skills acquired by young Labour MPs in government (although useful) have not involved building movements, leadership and serious fundamental ideological debate. That this explains how two MPs from a talent base of 8 can look better candidates than 3 from a talent base of 211. My view of the 3 mainstream candidates is based on my viewing, it is subjective, but it is also from the perspective of someone purely interested in their abilities, not their content. I’ll look further into Bair’s history although that he actually had to deal with ideology at all is something compared to Yvette who seems to be improving but only in the sense of someone learning on the job. I’m not so much interested in the number of MPs who supported Tim and Norm, more the tiny talent base they were chosen from when compared to the PLP.

  • The problem with the other candidates is they have nothing very much to say and say it badly. This leadership campaign has really exposed them as scripted PR munchkins. Cooper., who I initially thought a natural , literally furrows her brow on cue like a an automaton that has a “concerned” setting. Burnham has no real opinions on anything so vacillates whilst delivering wouldbe soundbites about how there’s more to him than soundbites and Kendall is honest about her views but completely out of step with the Labour Rank and File. The basic problem is that Corbyn is an outsider and the others seem rudderless without their discredited glorious leader.

  • Neil Sandison 4th Sep '15 - 12:37pm

    What we are seeing is a return to conviction politics be it Tim Farron, Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon or on the right George Osbourne( as Thatcherite as they come) or Nigel Farage .That may not be good in the short term for individual parties but in the long term it may be good for British politics which has become sterile and plastic to most of the British public.
    Tell it as it is with no spin is now back on the agenda.

  • @Matthew Huntbach
    “Why do you suppose he does expect that? He has stated that if he were leader he would not try to impose his own view on the party and would accept democratic decision making.”

    Agreed he stated that on policy making, but if you assume that the Labour Party is in power and the majority of it’s MP’s and members back a policy that has been decided by conference (novel for Labour I know but bear with me) he will still need the dissenting voices to fall in line behind the policy to get it through the House of Commons. There are a number of MP’s who may feel, particularly ex-ministers, that when they needed his support he rarely provided it even when he had stood on a manifesto containing the policy.

    You are, of course, quite correct that whoever wears a red rosette in his constituency wins..

  • 4th Sep ’15 – 1:36pm ……..
    As James Gane points out 37.5% of the Lib Dem MPs endorsed Tim. 15.5% of Labour MPs “endorsed” Corbyn, but a lot of those apparently didn’t really do so, so only around 10% of Labour MPs positively support him…..

    Proving Churchill’s ‘take’ on statistics…..(particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments)

  • Simon Shaw a high profile Councillor like Joe Otten telling like it is. The party should make sure Simon or Joe are given the opportunity to fight any winnable By Elctions that come around in the future. The no nonsense approach will get the party a hearing and aid in replacing Labour as an authentic opposition. Time the party got itself heard.

  • Silvio,

    Joe Otten’s stronghold is one of the most Tory places (Dore and Totley) in the north of England. If the Liberal Democrats are going to replace Labour we will have to be moving into the Labour strongholds in eastern Sheffield that we won in the 1990’s, and where we now get votes < 5%….. The fact that the Sheffield Liberal Democrats, who used to control the Council, are now almost confined to Sheffield Hallam is a failure of the ruthless targetting strategy we have adopted, particularly in the defensive years of the coalition, but also well before that. The big success is that we still have Sheffield Hallam, of course, but it has come at a considerable cost…

    However I really hope that Joe and his colleagues are looking at the potential boundary changes which will split Dore and Totley off from the rest of Hallam if the 2013 proposals are adopted, adding Stocksbridge (LD vote in 2015 10%, but once represented by the Party) and Penistone in Barnsley (no Lib Dem candidate since the mists of time). Dore would be added to another potentially winnable seat where we are strong in a couple of other wards but very weak in others. These potential boundary changes here and in other areas like Leeds and Bradford are hopefully informing any new targetting strategy which is going to have to cross municipal boundaries…

  • Corbyn currently has 20 MPs endorsing him, Farron had 3 (although if we count Farron then surely it’s 50%!). Corbyn therefore has 567% more MPs supporting him than Farron!

    “15.5% of Labour MPs “endorsed” Corbyn”

    Well, there were two and a half times as many candidates for the Labour leadership of course, so to normalise things let’s divide Farron’s 37.5% by 2.5 to give…………….. 15.5%. Oh, that’s the same popularity as Corbyn!

  • theakes,

    I suspect that the election of Corbyn will see a significant boost to Labour over the next couple of years, which may make things difficult for us where we are fighting them. The activists are going to be energised and the leaflets will flood out where they are threatened… Any potential splits will be delayed and I would not be surprised if Labour hit the 40% + ratings they were getting in 2011 and 2012. This will give us opportunities to take Tory seats if their rating goes down to the low 30’s again (but we have to refrain from attacking Labour in the same terms as the Tories as we did for the last 5 years – we will need tactical votes from them. Attack them where they have done something wrong but please not the knee-jerk responses to the use of the word “tragedy” back in 2011 that we have seen this week…)

    However looking further I don’t think Corbyn is going to be seen as Prime Minister material once the Tory press really start targeting him in the run up to 2020. And as the poll ratings fall so the cracks will appear again…

  • paul barker 4th Sep '15 - 3:35pm

    Its worth remembering that Cooper & Kendall were far from being the first choices to carry the Moderate/Centrist banner while Burnham was seen as being from the Soft Left. The front runners among the moderates chickened out.

  • Simon Shaw 4th Sep ’15 – 2:37pm ……[email protected]
    I don’t think it needs statistics to support the point that John Dixon and I were both making, which is that, if he is elected Leader, Corbyn clearly has a major problem in his lack of support among Labour MPs….

    Then why use them? If you want to play games with figures why not try; Corbyn has the support of 20 MPs; Tim has the support of 7….

  • Richard Underhill 4th Sep '15 - 5:00pm

    Steve Way 4th Sep ’15 – 10:35am
    Ed Miliband, now a backbench Labour MP will say that he will campaign against inequality.
    The elelctoral system he created is having surprising consequences, but he does not intend to apologise.
    His proudest moment was a U-turn on Syria. If he listened to the World at One on BBC Radio 4 on 4/9/2015 he will have heard a call for a “safe area” in Syria to be created. Dr Fox is a former defence Secretary, but was unclear about who should invade. Turkey? USA? France? UK? All of the above? Ed Miliband should be willing to take a job in the Shadow Cabinet under Labour’s new leader, whoever that may be. If he does not he deserves to get the same ultimatum from his local party that William Hague received from his, do a job, or stand aside.

  • Don’t forget that our Nick was a SPAD…. to Leon Brittan no less…… Like other Spads, Cooper and Balls, he was eased into a Yorkshire seat he didn’t know much about …….

    Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy are the ones to watch out for for Labour in the future……. and, yes, agree with David Wallace that Jeremy Corbyn could prove much more formidable than some folk think.

  • The other thing about Corbyn is that he’s a much more polished than those who underestimate him would have you believe. Polite, doesn’t stumble over words, doesn’t try to inject pre-learned responses to questions and very relaxed in front of a camera. As this article says he’s actually a much better communicator than the other candidates which aside from anything else is one of the reasons he’s beating them.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 4th Sep '15 - 9:04pm

    Corbyn was brilliant on BBC News today. Fab that he just refused to get in the car, actually funny mock confession about owning two bikes and a very relaxed and chatty manner – but still able to express himself well.

    The man is quite likeable and even though his ideas are mostly a bit off the wall, that might go in his favour. That combination hasn’t harmed Nicola Sturgeon.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Sep '15 - 9:28pm

    Caron Lindsay 4th Sep ’15 – 9:04pm Please support the Liberal Democrats.

  • “Because someone calling himself “Steve” asked for them. Satisfied?”

    I only asked because someone calling himself “Simon Shaw” made this astoundingly silly comment: “So the true comparison is how many MPs supported Tim.” – the answer to which is: 3 MPs. 3 MPs supported Farron compared to the quoted value of 2, from John Tilley, that endorsed Lamb. “Simon Shaw” wanted this correcting to reflect the true support for Farron: 3 MPs, not 2. I’ll repeat that again: 3 MPs, not 2. Happy now, “Simon Shaw”? That’s a killer argument to destroy the Corbynistas.

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '15 - 11:26pm

    @James Gane “According to Wikipedia only one of our MPs endorsed Norman (12.5%), three endorsed Tim (37.5%) and 36 Labour MPs nominated Corbyn (15.52%).”
    The sad thing about this is that the two Lib Dem leadership candidates comprised 25% of the MPs by themselves. And those that supported the path followed by the party that led to this sorry state of affairs do not seem to think that their work is done yet so on the bright side, the next leader might be supported by 100% of the Lib Dem MP.

  • SIMON BANKS 6th Sep '15 - 6:38pm

    Interesting points, but I heard Yvette Cooper speak at a seminar when she was a junior minister and thought her very impressive – a good speaker, clear, specific, down-to-earth, definitely human, relating well to her audience. Perhaps the question is what’s happened to her since.

    We should also be cautious about setting ourselves in one category and Labour in another on this point. Most of our MPs – including most of the ones who lost in May – may have had contact with the real world outside the political bubble, but I increasingly suspected that some people at Party HQ had just that university to intern to party researcher background and did not remotely understand the mass of activists because they did not share their experiences.

    This is an area where a new leader can display both leadership and an understanding of management (not management itself because it wouldn’t be directly his responsibility).

  • Dave Orbison 7th Sep '15 - 11:07am

    Steve Way… you criticise Corbyn because he was part of the awkward squad and voted against his party . Then you refer to MP’s voting against conference decisions. Tut tut. But are you seriously suggesting this never happened with the LibDems? More importantly rather than just label someone as ‘awkward’ for taking a stand why not focus on the issue on which he was voting. He voted against the Iraq war for example. Surely you agree, or most LibDems did that this was a good thing for Corbyn to do. The non Tories have a simple choice going forward. We can retreat into our bunkers and focus at taking potshots at each other and playing the Tory media game of labelling politicians in an attempt to undermine their credibility OR we could focus on supporting each other on areas of policy where we agree and campaign together. Given the debacle of the Coalition and the LibDem rebellions against their own policies and Ministers, I would have thought Corbyn compared to the others on offer would have been seen as progress.

    But if you want to play the tribal game by all means continue to do so but always from the the fringe.

  • Dave Orbison

    “we could focus on supporting each other on areas of policy where we agree and campaign together. ”

    This is actually what I THOUGHT the Lib Dems were about, the much vaunted “grown-up politics” but sadly it never transpired.

  • @Dave Orbison
    I think maybe re-reading what I actually said may be of help. I was talking about his ability to lead and not criticising his decisions. The Iraq war decisions, unless you can show otherwise, were neither in a manifesto nor decided upon by a Party conference. He wants policy and decision making to be collective, for that to work on closely debated issues he will need to convince those who disagree to fall in line in the division lobby. His problem when trying to do so is that, he has not been willing to fall in line in the past. This would not have been a problem if it were only issues such as Iraq when a principled decision was taken, or on things like Tuition Fees when Labour blatantly broke a promise to the electorate. But he voted against his leader in around 1/4 of the votes in the last two terms Labour were in office, that is not a solid platform to convince someone who is wavering of the need for unity.

    As for being tribal have a search back through the last few years on this site and you will see I have been calling for more, not less, working with Labour including prior to the last election on policy etc.

  • Dave Orbison 7th Sep '15 - 3:13pm

    @Steve Way If you are willing to support an alliance based on policies then all power to your elbow and I hope others may follow. That said I don’t think Fallon has distinguished himself by trying very hard and with little success to make capital at Corbyn’s expense. I expect Tory rags to spin and misrepresent comments suggest as the ‘Bin Laden tragedy’ – I even wouldn’t have been surprised if Clegg and his ilk had done the same. Somehow I expected better of Farron – perhaps it’s early days. As for Corbyn’s rebellion – I see leadership as ‘doing the right thing and having the courage of your convictions’. There was much that I would disagree with the Labour Front Bench over and so I am not at all worried at Corbyn’s track record. In fact to the contrary. Does this mean that Corbyn will have to suffer rebellions too. Yes, obviously but I would hope that those MP’s will become increasingly marginalised as the Labour Party, hopefully, changes direction. In that respect I hope the LibDems will too. Both parties have suffered far too long controlled, and I use the word advisedly, by Leaders who were not democratic, paid lip-service to members wishes and mistakenly thought that aping Tories was the road to power. The electorate are crying out for a change or at the very least a clear alternative backed by reasoned argument. I hope Labour, LibDems, Greens and SNP will work together when ever they can as I am convinced the product of such collaboration would be so much better for this country than the alternative.

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