A slim majority of voters think Labour’s fortunes would improve if he were to go. I find this implausible. If Labour were to get a new leader, would many voters really think?:
This is not my only reason for thinking it doesn’t much matter who leads Labour.
I was worried by high taxes, recession, the destruction of our civil liberties, mismanagement in every government department and pointless and unwinnable wars. But now that nice Mr Miliband is in charge, I’ll vote Labour.
First, the economic literature is unclear on whether leaders can contribute to organizations. Three claims that they do seem unconvincing:
1. This new paper shows that basketball coaches can make a significant different to team performance, with teams performing “substantially better” if their coach was an outstanding player 20 years previously.
This result, however, probably doesn’t even translate into proper sports, let alone politics. As Arrigo Sacchi said: “If you want to be a jockey, being a retired racehorse is not necessarily an advantage.”
2. This paper (pdf) shows that Danish companies who’s chief executives suddenly died suffered, on average, an 11% fall in profits in the following two years, suggesting CEOs do make a difference.
The trouble is, it’s unclear why profits fall. Sure, it could be because the CEO was a strong leader. But it could also be because his death causes increased office politics as potential successors jockey for position.
3. This paper (pdf) shows that national leaders can make a huge contribution to economic growth; for example, Mao held back the Chinese economy disastrously.
But this result seems to only apply to autocratic leaders, not democratic ones.
So, the hypothesis that leaders matter generally is not a strong one.
This matters, because any new Labour leader is at a huge disadvantage relative to leaders of other organizations.
A key way in which leaders can change organizations is by changing personnel - be it coaches picking the right players, or Jack Welch’s 20-70-10 system, or Jim Collins’ “getting the right people on the bus.” But this lever is largely unavailable to a new Labour leader. No-one seriously thinks a mere Cabinet reshuffle - whoever does it - will revive the party’s fortunes. It’s not as if a new leader could recruit David Davis.
But let’s ignore all this, and grant that the “great man” theory of history is right, and that leaders can make a difference. This still leaves two questions.
One is: wouldn’t it be a remarkable coincidence if a great man is around just when we need one? As John Prescott pointed out, no potential successor “has anywhere near the skills and experience” for the job.
Secondly, even if someone could grow (quickly) into the job, what makes us think the party could spot that person? The party pretty much all thought Brown would make a good PM just a few months ago. If they were so wrong then, why should they get it right this time? Talent is scarce - but so is the ability to spot it.
So, let’s be clear. New Labour’s problem is not that the wrong arse is in the PM’s chair. It’s that the party is intellectually as well as financially bankrupt. It’ll take a lot more than a new leader to fix this.