18th July 2016
–By Keith Nieland-
“And what have Kings that Privates have not too, save Ceremony, save general ceremony?” – Henry V
Shakespeare’s Henry V is not a play about history but one about leadership. It tells the story of a leader, short of resources and outnumbered, who inspires those who look to him for leadership to a great victory. Once secured, it shows how Henry makes peace with his enemy. Henry sets out a fine vision and, through great words and a well thought-through strategy, secures his goals.
Likewise the movie Twelve O’Clock High is not about a Second World War bomber unit but again about leadership. It tells how General Savage played by Gregory Peck acts against his natural character to convert a crew with low morale into a fighting unit.
Jeremy Corbyn would be well advised to read one and watch the other although there would be no guarantee he would draw the right lessons. Henry V and General Savage are both clear about their goals: they articulate them in an inspiring way, they lead by example, everybody is included, they demand respect, both build teams that deliver and make maximum use of their resources.
Pop into your local Waterstones and you will find shelf after shelf in the business, psychology and history sections of books about great leaders and leadership. Biographies about Nelson, Churchill, Richard Branson etc; books about the skills of leadership, the personal qualities and strategies of a successful leader. The skills are often contradictory. Good leaders are good listeners but are also able to communicate inspiring visions. They constantly scan the horizon of the environment in which they operate, be it in business, politics, sport, looking for signs of change so they can adjust the direction of their organisation so it can succeed in the future. Good leaders are not necessarily popular but demand respect and must tell it how it is even though initially it could be unpopular. Political parties need skilled and experienced leaders as much as do business organisations.
So, a week last Sunday I watched Jeremy Corbyn being interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show looking for evidence of leadership.
Now Marr is not the world’s most testing interviewer and he began with a question about how Jeremy had voted in the EU referendum. Here was a golden opportunity for Corbyn to lay out Labour’s post-Brexit vision for the country. An opportunity to accept the reality of the vote but also an opportunity to articulate a new and inspiring sense of direction. Jeremy has a way of sitting sideways during television interviews which I think makes him look defensive and evasive. He ignored the opportunity the question offered and immediately went on the defensive, “I am surprised you asked me that question” he quibbled. He then fell into another trap of poor leadership by talking about process. He mentioned touring the country to talk at union meetings. I have news for Jeremy. Most working people do not belong to a trade union. They do not see them as relevant to their world of work and would no more join one than swim the Channel naked on a pink lilo. They are not anti-union but just do not see their relevance to their workplace given increasingly people work for small employers or are self employed. Even if they are union members they have better things to do with their time than go to union meetings – life is just too short.
The accusation being put to Jeremy was that Remain lost because not enough Labour voters had supported it and that his campaign had been lacklustre and he was, therefore, in part responsible for the outcome. His response was to summarise his meeting schedule. A good leader knows that the best way to get your message across is to have a clear and consistent one and deliver it on television time after time. During the campaign Corbyn had one live TV appearance and never appeared on TV with leaders of other parties to show a bit of cross-party solidarity. It was little wonder, polls said, that the majority of Labour voters did not know what Labour’s Brexit position was or that many of them thought it was Leave. I suppose it was their fault for not getting along to a local union meeting.
The Marr interview rambled to a conclusion with Corbyn using words and phrases guaranteed to put off those floating and undecided voters who happened to be watching. He talked about his mandate, making cases and campaigning and his door being open. In an age of disappearing tribal loyalties and voters moving between parties depending on who offers them personally the best deal it was a big turn off.
Corbyn failed his first big test of leadership. During the most important election in the best part of 50 years you do not go on holiday in the middle of it. Nor do you leave gaps in your diary and you certainly do not act in such a way as to make your own party’s referendum campaign leader doubt your commitment to the cause. An opportunity to lay down a marker with voters, to register in the minds of the electorate, for the media to say you had a good campaign irrespective of the outcome, was tossed away.
The speech Corbyn could have delivered on the Marr Show was stolen and delivered for him by Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street on Thursday evening.
I mentioned earlier the importance of good leaders constantly scanning the horizon of the environment in which they operate. This is particularly important in politics as votes mean prizes and votes come from offering solutions to voters’ concerns. Any visit to a bus stop queue let alone a check of the opinion polls tells us what voters’ chief concerns are. They would appear to be immigration, the economy, the NHS and welfare (See: Ipsos-MORI).
This contrasts starkly with Corbyn’s platform of anti-austerity, public ownership, peace, affordable housing and workplace rights. According to Corbyn’s followers anything else would make the Labour Party a Tory-lite organisation. Just reflect for a moment on how ludicrous that statement is: if Labour is to respond to voters’ concerns it would make it in the eyes of Corbyn’s supporters Tory-lite and, therefore, unacceptable.
Just over a year ago voters returned an austerity government. They do not love austerity but see the necessity to balance the national books. Voters have little interest in public ownership – they just want services delivered effectively and in a timely fashion and do not care who delivers them. Everybody loves peace and revisiting the Iraq war is of little appeal to voters in 2016. Affordable housing does ring bells with voters but, given that Labour appears not to want to address their priority concerns on immigration and the economy, I doubt it will be listened to. Workplace rights does not make it on any list of voters’ concerns I have seen.
So we have a major failure of leadership in a political party. A failure to recognise and respond to the most important concerns of voters. It is little wonder Labour lags 8% behind the Tories in the latest polls and Corbyn’s approval rating stands at -41%.
We should not be surprised that those who work closest with him on a day to day basis, Members of Parliament, have lost confidence in him.
In the forthcoming leadership election there needs to be a close, forensic examination of both Corbyn’s motivations and skills. Does he want to be Prime Minister? Does he want to see the return of a Labour government? If so, what does he say are voters’ principle concerns and how does he propose to respond to those concerns? What offer does he intend to make to those non-Labour voters that are necessary to harvest if the party is to return to power? How does he intend to make maximum use of the talents available to him across the Labour benches? How will he inspire them to follow him?
Most importantly, how will he inspire voters to follow and trust him? What is his vision for the future that builds from the reality of 2016? What is the road map for getting from where we are today to victory in 2020?
We can weigh votes for Jeremy Corbyn in sacks. It will not make him an effective leader. The only mandate that truly matters comes from the electorate. He, therefore, needs to be honest with himself and us. Does he truly want to lead a Labour government and if so how does he answer the questions above? If the priority for him and his followers is to seize control of the Labour Party he again needs to be honest so members can choose. Do they want a Labour government that can make a difference to people’s lives in the way every Labour government since 1945 has done or do they want a banner-waving, marching, petition-writing and ultimately ineffective party of protest?
Who will emerge as Labour’s Henry V or General Savage?