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Here are the qualities you need to be a top political leader

You must have a background in epic Westminster battles, and a nose for PR

What are the qualifications that make a good leader? Bizarrely, the question is rarely posed. In order to become a nurse, teacher, police officer, doctor, lawyer, or train driver there are clearly defined requirements. The criteria needed for political leadership are vague if they exist at all.

Ed Miliband’s speech on leadership last week was deeply subjective – a leader reflecting on what it takes to be one is hardly going to be objective. But Miliband has done us a favour by raising the question of what leadership is all about.

As I am not about to make a run for office myself, here is my, more objective set of qualifications, ones that should be considered whenever there is a vacancy for the top job in a political party.

Before I begin, I make an unfashionable observation. Politics is a tough vocation requiring distinct areas of expertise. I do not believe that we would have better politicians if more of them worked elsewhere first.

When outsiders move into politics they often struggle to adapt. They make mistakes because they do not understand the unique rhythms of politics, the fatal dangers of one word out of place. There is nowhere to hide. When there is a crisis in the private sector some of the top people disappear, refusing all requests for interviews. In politics that is not an option. Some of the best politicians have been mastering politics for their entire careers. It takes some doing.

To get to the very top demands a titanic range of skills. Let us begin with one of those raised by Miliband. He played down the significance of presentation, partly because he is getting low marks for this particular art form. 

Of course, no leader is going to declare that he is not up to what he regards as an essential component of leadership. But communication is vital, marking out the difference between politics as a vocation compared with most others. Leaders have to find a way to convey what they stand for. He or she must be, or become, a decent speaker and an engaging interviewee.


Miliband’s speech was unusual because he was trying to find a way to communicate by insisting he was not very good at it. If I were forced to list the absolute number one qualification I would suggest previous ministerial experience, or at least some background in major political battles, epic conflicts that help to shape the real political giants.

In recent decades the value of experience has been almost entirely overlooked. Some of the fragilities of Cameron, Blair and Clegg are explained by their early rise to the top. None of them had any previous ministerial experience. Clegg had only been an MP for a single Parliament when he became Deputy Prime Minister. I have often wondered how Blair would have dealt with Iraq if he had been a Home or Foreign Secretary before becoming Prime Minister.

Miliband looks young, but if he were to win he would be the first PM since Margaret Thatcher to move from opposition with past experience of being in power, a big plus for him even if he makes nothing of it because he regards the recent past as too electorally toxic.

The most demanding qualification is another essential one, although we columnists tend to underplay it. A leader must have the skill to build a programme of policies that is linked to a party’s values while appealing to the widest possible section of the electorate.

There is no point in having a programme that a party adores if it is guaranteed to lose an election. But if a leader leaves their party too far behind in a bid for wider electoral appeal, they will soon cease to be party leader. In the media we demand that Cameron should do “x” or Miliband should do “y” without recognizing that if they were to do so their party, or the electorate, could turn on them.

But another essential skill is to recognise when rare political space opens up for a leader. This was Thatcher’s genius. She noted that with the schism in the Labour party in the 1980s she could go much further in following her more drastic instincts. In her early years she was more cautious, even promoting her internal opponents. But when the likes of Shirley Williams left the Labour party she was off on her radical crusade.

Leaders must also possess boundless energy and the ability to respond to unexpected crises. It is not enough to simply give the appearance of boldness in an emergency, or proclaim boldness while merely following media fashion. They must be genuinely courageous, and able to resist orthodoxy. Finally, especially in a crisis, a leader must be indifferent to criticism and attacks from the media. I know of no leader who meets this final qualification.

There may well be two leadership contests after the election. Is there a titan out there who meets the criteria?

Thankfully, there’s a big difference between politics now and in 1914

It has been an unnerving experience in recent weeks to tune into to Radio 4 and hear, in 1914: Day-by-Day, the historian Margaret Macmillan narrate a mix of primary sources written during the build-up to the First World War.

At the end of one entry Macmillan concludes: “The Russian view in favour of war has hardened.” The diary was followed by the opening of PM, with a stream of headlines about the hardening of Putin’s line in relation to the shooting down of the Malaysian plane and the robust words, but imprecise actions, of EU leaders in response.

There were grim echoes and one big difference. By some freakish accident the pragmatists in 1914 were written out of the script. Macmillan points out that one of the more useful was Archduke Ferdinand, a senior figure in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that wanted to work with Serbia rather than invade it.

Ferdinand’s assassination triggered the moves towards war, as less flexible leaders trapped, or choosing to be trapped, by alliances and a defiant strain of nationalism ploughed headfirst into conflict.

In contrast, the imprecision in the EU, including the ambiguous actions of British ministers and the tentativeness of the Obama administration, is almost reassuring.  Of course the West’s near impotence in the face of Putin’s nationalism is no panacea, in the same way that choosing not to fire missiles at Syria did not solve the Syrian nightmare. But actions taken without a clear end in sight, and because leaders are fearful of inaction, can be even more nightmarish. Just look at what happened after August 1914.