Leaders are nowhere near as strong as they appear to be. Parties, the media, parliamentary arithmetic, local elections and referendums mean that leaders spend most of their time nervily keeping their fingers crossed. In spite of these intimidating constraints, the fashion in British politics is for leaders to project themselves as all conquering mighty figures. The Iron Lady was not for turning. Tony Blair had no reverse gear. Neil Kinnock warned that if anyone got in his way he would shoot. Gordon Brown fought a leadership contest against himself, seeking to prove his “strength” by being the the only candidate.
Whatever else happens, the personal style of Jeremy Corbyn and the fragile context in which he leads marks a significant change from the era where leaders were defined unrealistically by their triumphant machismo. What’s wrong with debate, Corbyn asks. I will try to persuade my colleagues on some issues, but I might not succeed, he argues. I am merely the leader, he implies.
Corbyn’s policy agenda is far from clear. Clarity is impossible when leader and front bench are at odds on several key areas. In contrast, Corbyn’s style is distinctive and fully formed. In his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday he was relaxed and witty, addressing Labour’s unprecedented divide as if it was a chance for grown-up politics – an impressive performance.
The context gives Corbyn no choice but to make the most of his fragility, an overwhelming mandate from his party and intense public opposition from most MPs. Oddly the unusual circumstances liberate him from the rules of politics that have applied since the late 1970s. In recent decades interviewers have tormented leaders by pointing out that they may not be able to impose their will on their party and are therefore “weak”. Corbyn replies modestly that he has a mandate from his party but MPs take a different view on some issues. He will try to persuade them. Thank you and good night. My guess is that voters will like his style.
The outdated assertive style began – as with so much else in modern politics – with Margaret Thatcher. Before her, leaders muddled through. On the day he retired, Harold Wilson suggested his greatest achievement was keeping his party united. Jim Callaghan never pretended to be fully in control of a Cabinet that included Tony Benn and David Owen. But when Thatcher was Leader of the Opposition in the late 1970s she gave a series of interviews in which she declared defiantly there would be no time for lengthy discussions with her Cabinet. She knew what she wanted to do and would get on with it. Circumstances led her to adapt a combative public personality. While Labour leaders struggled in their eternal battles within the Labour Party she would be “strong”. Her electoral triumphs meant her style became the only acceptable form of leadership.
Thatcher’s self-confident assertiveness was partly an act. She modified her economic policies at precisely the point she claimed she was not for turning. Behind the scenes she was often nervy. Nonetheless, Labour leaders also felt compelled to appear “strong” when they were quite often defensively expedient or in a weak position. The agonised contortions were sometimes almost painful to watch as their “strength” was put to the test, which is why all of them except Blair were poor interviewees.
Corbyn’s less assertive style is part of a new pattern. David Cameron’s leadership also marked a return to less macho politics. Tonally he is emollient and led a coalition government in which there were open differences between ministers from the two parties.
Labour is a wide coalition in itself, which Corbyn has no choice but to acknowledge. “What’s wrong with two different opinions at the top of the party?” he asks. In spite of his fiery reputation, Corbyn’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, adopts a similar tone. His conference speech yesterday was pitch perfect. McDonnell put forward radical proposals to be tested rather than as determined acts of provocation. He seeks the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and authors of bestselling books on inequality. He has hit the ground running. Before he spoke, he disarmingly told interviewers that they would find his conference address boring. This is attractively counter-intuitive. He is also a better communicator than some anticipated and will, I suspect, prove to be more formidable than his internal critics assume.
Corbyn and McDonnell portray their approach as “new politics”. There is no such thing. They seek to navigate a way through the crowded political stage. We are witnessing an extraordinary power struggle in which Corbyn’s internal opponents also search for space.
Being in Brighton this week is like being immersed in a mystery or thriller where no one is sure what form the end will take.
At a Progress rally on Sunday night, bringing together the Blairite wing of the party, there was mocking of Corbyn, a degree of contrition in the light of the slaughter of Liz Kendall in the leadership contest, but only the haziest outline of a way forward. They know they want Corbyn out and assume this will happen; some give me quite detailed timetables as they anticipate a contest in 2017. They know little else for certain.
But even if there is a new leader in a couple of years (and that is by no means certain) he or she will not be able to pretend to be a figure with no reverse gear and who runs a mile from any internal debate. Under the current voting system, the UK will continue to be ruled by one of two big coalitions and more obviously constrained leaders. Corbyn, and to some extent Cameron, are leaders who do not and cannot pretend otherwise.Reuse content