Here’s an intelligent idea from Richard Wilkinson:
If we can't have a Lab leader who can inspire and do the nitty gritty of Parliamentary politics, let's split the job in two, not the party.
David Owen has suggested how to do this. He writes:
When the Party functions at its best, the role of the Left is to keep the Right honest, to block its tendency to surrender too much in its electoral pursuit of power, to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategy. The role of the Right is to keep the Left focused on the point that principle is impotent in the absence of power.
He proposes a triumvirate of leaders: a party chair, elected by the members, to build Labour as a social movement; a PLP leader, elected by MPs; and a general secretary to coordinate the two and organize campaigns*.
This might seem radical by the low standards of politics, but it is in fact simply sound business practice. As I’ve said, what matters in important jobs is not just the ability of the individual but the match between the individual and the role (pdf). If Labour can’t find an individual who can adequately fill the role of single leader, it should redefine the role. If all you’ve got is round pegs, you should drill some round holes.
Decent organizations often do this. They rejig departments to make the best of what they’ve got.
So, what could possibly be wrong with David and Richard’s suggestion?
To make it work would, of course, require cooperation among the three leaders, for them to subordinate their egos to the good of the party. This, though, should not be too much to ask. Millions of workers have to leave their ego at the office door every day. The same should be expected of politicians.
A bigger obstacle would be that this would invite a sneer from the right: “if your man isn’t good enough to be your sole leader, how can he be good enough to be Prime Minster?”
There is, of course, an intelligent answer to this. It’s to point out that leadership works best when it is collective, when the Prime Minister isn’t some messiah but merely primus inter pares. More collective leadership – and less deference – might have saved us from the war in Iraq.
Sadly, however, I’m not sure this answer will have the traction it merits. Our debased political culture – for which the BBC is partly responsible – requires the cult of the celebrity. The Greens tried to have collective spokespeople, but succumbed to personality politics. This, of course, dooms the left to failure: a culture in which Farage and Johnson are considered attractive personalities is not one in which basic decency can thrive.
But perhaps there’s something else. I fear that many on the left have a need for heroes. The Webbs’ support for Stalin, the Che Guevara T-shirts*; and the misplaced support for Hugo Chavez are echoed in the more fanatical support for Corbyn the man. Paradoxically, in this sense some on the left have more in common with neoliberals than they realize. They are looking for heroic leaders just as neoliberals look for heroic bosses – and both are wrong.
If the left is to have a future – which is in doubt – it must ditch the cult of personality, and recognize that organizations, ideas and policies matter more than individuals. I doubt, however, whether it can do this.
* Owen Smith proposed something like this when he suggested Corbyn be made party president. However, that was probably an attempt to sideline Corbyn, which is different from what David and I have in mind.
** A great song by Richard Shindell.