Where Are All The Great Leaders? An Op-Ed by Nicholas Diamond-Krendel
Shortly before he died, Roy Jenkins commented that political journalism was something of a repetitive challenge when there were only two significant figures, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He compared the barren landscape of the day with the fertile ground of the 1970s and 1980s when a columnist could reflect on the activities of Benn, Crosland, Healey, Owen, Williams, Mrs. Thatcher, Joseph, Heseltine and, of course, Jenkins himself
15 years on from Jenkins’ comment and the situation appears to be worse than ever. Can I be alone in hankering after the conviction and charisma of a Blair or the intellectual heft of a Brown right now? Looking along the front benches today, I’d have Cameron and Osborne back – true they may have set our country on this wretched course, but at least they had a certain swagger and sangfroid that the Brexit debate has sorely lacked.
So why don’t we get the leaders we deserve (or think we deserve) or the parties that represent us? Why are we all so turned off by listening to May and Corbyn, McDonnell and Hammond, Abbott and Javid (or is it Rudd? – no, Javid), not to mention the rest of the miasmic swamp of Graylings, Goves, and Hunts.
Perhaps it's the settled orthodoxy of modern political debate – the triumph of free market economics and social liberalism. Most politicians agree on the need for taxation, the welfare state, controlled immigration, maintaining a modern military and contributing to global aid. And yet at the helm of our two main parties are the most left-wing Labour leader since Michael Foot and a Tory prime minister who is more Thatcherite than Cameroon. And we are beset by huge era-defining challenges – rising inequality and climate change, the challenges thrown up by untrammelled global capitalism and, at least in this country, the question which dominates political discourse, whether we see our future as part of an integrated, assimilated, free trading Europe or a plucky, independent island nation, punching above its weight and making its own way in a world of shifting allegiances.
Nor does the familiar excuse of voter apathy offer a compelling explanation. Voter turnout at general elections over the last two decades has been steadily on the rise from 59.4% in 2001 (the lowest level since 1918) to 68.8% in 2017. The turnout for the EU referendum in 2016 was even higher at 72.2%.
So whether it’s at the ballot box or school children skipping class to protest about climate change, yellow-vested agitators hurling abuse (or worse) at politicians in the streets, or bilious Twitterantes filling our social media waves with cantankerous missives of no more than 280 characters, not caring is no longer something from which we as a nation seem to suffer.
Could it be that social media has radicalised us in a way that no longer leaves room for the (semi-) courteous conventions and complex procedures of parliamentary debate? Yes, Twitter has increased political engagement among people who were previously shut out of the political process but the website is also a vast polarising machine, at best creating vast echo chambers for our own deepest held preconceptions and social identities, at worst providing an anonymous platform for uninhibited vitriol. And it’s not just ‘Twitterantes’, other platforms like Facebook and Youtube can bring all manner of crackpots and conspiracy theorists into our bedrooms at the click of a button, whilst Instagram constantly dangles in front of us the elusive carrot of immortality and everlasting happiness.
Then there’s the electoral system. Are people finally waking up to the reality that we do not in any real meaningful sense choose our own politicians. Sure, on a warm spring evening every few years, 70% of us (on a good day) troop into the assembly hall of our local primary school or abandoned village hall to participate in the familiar civic conventions of democracy, but how many of us go in there knowing that our penciled scrawl will have absolutely no bearing on the end result, however diligently we write it and however many times we re-read the list of options. And that’s just in our own constituencies, let alone the 600 or so others.
And what about the candidates we are asked to choose from, with each candidate planted there by his or her constituency party, at great personal cost (financial and otherwise) to the individual and his or her family. Are we to believe that these people truly are the best of the best when they are chosen by party members who between them make up less than 2% of the electorate? And when the individuals standing spend into the tens of thousands of pounds funding their own campaigns? According to Chuka Umunna, who recently left the party he sought to lead in 2015, he was told during his leadership campaign that there were quite a few MPs who weren’t going to support him because they didn’t think their working-class constituents would ever vote for a black man.
This comment is revealing in two ways. First it shows just how deeply poisoned the well that we drink from is and that our politics is starting to imitate social media platforms in echoing our most deeply held prejudices. Second, that our politicians are simultaneously out of touch with and scared by the electorate, so much so that they would rather stand behind an inferior candidate with whom they themselves do not identify than risk rejection at the ballot box.
Perhaps this, more than anything, is the key difference between the politics of today and that of the 70s and 80s. The big beasts of yesteryear were interesting, charismatic figures not only holding the stage but also representing, and in some cases defining, important ideological positions. Keith Joseph may have ruined his own chances of leading the Conservative Party with his ill-judged Edgbaston speech in 1974 on the moral and spiritual decline of Britain, but at least he said it. Without our elected politicians saying what they believe to be true, the vacuum is filled by the Tommy Robinsons, Katie Hopkins and Lauren Southerns of this world who will use all the platforms at their disposal to sow division, just for the sake of a few extra hits.
The forming of Umunna’s The Independent Group in Parliament is perhaps the most exciting event to occur in British politics in recent times and gives a glimmer of hope amidst the current stasis. The 7 MPs who resigned the Labour whip just over two weeks ago will have obvious comparisons drawn between them and the Gang of Four who left the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981 but, on the face of it, none of the original 7 or the 4 who have joined them since seem to have the stature or charisma of a Roy Jenkins or a David Owen. Nor do they have their own “Limehouse Declaration” or a clear set of policies or values behind which to coalesce. Perhaps they never will. But it’s a start and the clearest manifestation so far of a new kind of politics, a politics which seeks to lead public opinion as well as reflect it and which might be our last chance to effect real political change without descending into demagoguery and the politics of hate.