The country’s leaders have developed a trend for unleadership rather than leadership at a time when the country needed it most, writes ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.
Hats off for enterprise to ‘Brandon from Romford’. He called into a phone-in I was doing on LBC with Iain Dale, to ask me about leadership – not because that was the subject of the phone-in, but because it was the subject of his dissertation.
I get dozens of such requests from students of politics, history, international relations, media and plenty more. Though I try to do some, I can’t do them all and so inevitably end up saying ‘no’ more than ‘yes’. But how not to say ‘yes’ to a young man so determined to gather ‘original source material’ that he casts around social media to see who might be on the phone-ins as he nears dissertation deadline day?
He said his dissertation was on leadership in modern politics, that he had studied Tony Blair and David Cameron, and wanted to know what advice I would give to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as they struggle with Brexit. I said they should be honest with the country about the real choices posed by Brexit, and about the consequences. It sounds fairly obvious but the fact May still seemingly cannot see it underlines perhaps why, added to other reasons such as her inability to relate to people, or inspire them, or have a clear set of inviolable principles, or have a clear plan and stick to it, she is not really a leader.
But then, by the same definition of leadership as charting a clear course based on honestly spelling out choices and consequences, nor is Corbyn. He too is not being honest, either about his own general stance – it is hard to escape the conclusion he prefers the idea of leaving the EU to the idea of staying, or even having a referendum to test the will of the people almost three years on – or about the real consequences of the real choices Brexit forces us to make.
A ‘jobs-first Brexit’ is every bit as unicornological as the have-cake-and-eat-it fantasies sold by Boris Johnson before the referendum; the ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ nonsense sold by Theresa May since (‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the most costly and irresponsible of them all); or the glib solutions offered by Nigel Farage now as he goes around pretending that Brexit can be done easily and that when it is done the challenges people face in their lives will be met. Both are epic lies.
This is why, though I concede that Farage is a good campaigner, that does not make him a good leader, for much the same reason as Corbyn is not. Good leaders are prepared to spell out the difficult choices people may not wish to confront, as well as tell their supporters the things they want to hear.
Corbyn says we can have Brexit and yet still do all the good things any Labour government would want to do, like have less poverty and less inequality, more money for better schools and hospitals, more money to treat pensioners better, more money for more police on the streets. But can we? Really? Post-Brexit, when we now know that any version of Brexit will deliver a significant negative economic impact? Can we really have it all?
Farage, at the other end of the political spectrum, says that if only we would believe in Brexit as much as he does, if only these useless career politicians could make way for a proper career politician like him, all would be wonderful in this new country called Brexitland.
It is not the hardest shtick in the world, to wind up an audience to paroxysms of adoration by telling them that the political class is stealing their vote from them. What the shtick fails to recognise is that what MPs have actually been doing is their job – scrutinising detail, (something Farage has tended to avoid in his time as an MEP, as detail and fact can get in the way of myth and fantasy), holding May to account and making a genuine analysis of the good or bad that the Brexit on offer will do to the country.
The shtick is also made easier if you feel no shame when pretending that your current position – ‘no-deal is what people voted for and would not be a problem’ – is diametrically opposed to the position you outlined in the referendum, when no-deal was never going to happen, because ‘they need us more than we need them’.
It is easier still for Farage to get away with the dishonesty at the heart of his campaign when the narrative is barely challenged, either by a media that is either ideologically committed to Brexit or excited by the ‘Farage surge’ as a story, or by two main party leaders united in hope that these elections never happen. Farage campaigns relentlessly. Has anyone seen anything remotely resembling a campaign message from Tory or Labour HQ?
After talking briefly to Brandon from Romford, and then at greater length to Iain Dale about the respective positions of May, Corbyn and Farage, I came up with a couple of words, which I think sum up the times we are living in.
For Labour and Tory this appears to be an ‘uncampaign’, and that is the product of ‘unleadership’. The election machinery is in place but May and Corbyn are both desperate that, even late in the day, some kind of grubby Brexit deal can be secured and the elections avoided. It is a very odd thing when politicians on opposite sides unite in wanting to avoid connection with the electorate.
Of course Farage, with a new betrayal narrative to play with, can think of nothing better than another election to an institution of which he wants no part, but which has given him a very good platform, a very good living – and pension – over the years. So he is not an ‘uncampaigner’ when it comes to the European elections. Yet he is an ‘unleader’ when it comes to the bigger question of Brexit as a whole. On that he too is scared of the electorate. Scared of the idea of a confirmatory ballot on Brexit for he knows deep down, for all the white-haired placard wavers who come to his rallies, he is right to be scared of the result.
He tells all who listen that if there was another referendum the majority for Leave would be even bigger. If he really believed that, he would want to bring it on. Everything in his character and his history says so. He doesn’t want to bring it on though, does he? Because just as May and Corbyn fear what the European elections might tell them, he fears what a referendum would tell him.
He can turn out a crowd for a rally. But could he get a million on the streets, as the People’s Vote campaign did? Those people, or the six million who signed the Revoke Article 50 petition in a matter of days, are not going to back the Brexit Party. But are they going to back the Labour Party? They could. They might. But only if Jeremy Corbyn drops the un from ‘uncampaign’ and ‘unleadership’, and comes out fighting not just against May, but against Farage’s values, against the new false prospectus he offers, and for a People’s Vote, whatever the outcome of the Brexit process.
Brandon from Romford, I have an idea for you – a dissertation on ‘unleadership’, how and why it developed at a time the country so badly needs the opposite, its role in the decline of the UK and its politics, and what if anything might be done to reverse it. Happy to help. I think it’s an interesting and important subject. Feel free, given you inspired it, to use this as original source material.