The ancient Celts used to sacrifice their kings when their crops failed. Looking at those anonymous MPs who want Ed Miliband to stand down makes me wonder if thinking about leadership has progressed in the last few thousand years.
Just as the Celts thought that the right leader would appease the angry gods, so some MPs seem to think he (or she) will appease an angry electorate. This ignores some nasty questions, such as: to what extent is the problem Miliband rather than Labour itself? Could it be that social democracy has little to offer to a reactionary electorate in an era of slow growth? Could any leader may much difference, given that the number of constraints that s/he faces? And is it possible for anyone now to be an effective leader?
Let's develop that last question. Think about the qualities a Labour leader needs. S/he must: connect with voters whilst appearing a "credible" future PM - a tricky balancing act: must develop policies which are efficient, egalitarian and popular, which might be an empty set; must build an efficient party machine with the people and funds to fight elections; and must smooth the egos and conflicts within the shadow cabinet.
It's quite possible that nobody meets all these criteria*. And even if such a person did exist, a party that appointed Gordon Brown leader unopposed and elected Ed Miliband might not have the competence to elect them; as someone once said, the one thing rarer than talent is the ability to spot talent.
I fear that the urge for the right leader is an example of something that's infected the left for a long time. I've called it Bonnie Tyler syndrome - holding out for a hero. It's an example of cargo cult thinking - assuming that the right leader will deliver results without asking: through what precise mechanism will s/he do so? As Archie Brown has said, "The idea of the strong leader is the pursuit of a false god." It is, he says:
an illusion - and one as dangerous as it is widespread - that in contemporary democracies the more a leader dominates his or her political party and Cabinet, the greater the leader. A more collegial style of leadership is too often characterised as a weakness, the advantages of a more collective political leadership too commonly overlooked. (The Myth of the Strong Leader).
In a world of complexity and bounded rationality, diversity trumps ability.
Sadly, however, a collegial leadership in which the leader was - as Prime Ministers once were - merely primus inter pares conflicts with our celebocracy in which the media (and maybe voters) demand "strong leaders". The Green Party used to have a group of principal speakers but caved into media pressure. And a leader who tried to delegate power would be stigmatized as "weak."
In this sense, the question of whether Miliband should stand down - yet again - obscures more profound issues: is leadership and hierarchy really the best way of running political parties and government? Could it be that our idiot political culture which demands "strong" leadership is, in fact, an obstacle to good governance?
* Even with the massive benefits of an unpopular Tory party and benign economic climate, Tony Blair delegated a lot of policy-making to Gordon Brown, and took Labour to the brink of bankruptcy.