The UK’s 2010 election, like most (but not all) elections, is all about the desire for change and the fear of the unkown. In the light of the current appallingly dull yet strangely addictive television debates between our political leaders, what are we learning about their leadership skills and the change (or lack of change) that they are promising? What compelling visions are being set before us? What stirring calls to arms are being declaimed in ringing tones? What deep and visceral emotions are being stirred, driving us from our beds of sloth to buckle on the armour of endeavour?
Um . . . it’s a good question. I’ll have to get back to you with the answer later. Still working on it.
In the meantime, try this as a speech from a would-be leader:
“I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their own lives to build a new world here in the West . . . Their motto was not ‘every man for himself’ but ‘all for the common cause.’
“They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within. Today some would say that those struggles are all over – that all the horizons have been explored – that all the battles have been won – that there is no longer an American frontier . . .
“But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.
“It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric – and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me regardless of party.”
Now that’s what I call inspirational. John F Kennedy, of course, in his presidential nomination acceptance speech of July 1960.
Management & process; change & inspiration
There are, if I’m not mistaken, some pale shadows and faint echoes of JFK’s great speech in David Cameron’s introduction to the Conservative party’s current manifesto.
“A country is at its best when the bonds between people are strong and when the sense of national purpose is clear. Today the challenges facing Britain are immense. Our economy is overwhelmed by debt, our social fabric is frayed and our political system has betrayed the people. But these problems can be overcome if we pull together and work together. If we remember that we are all in this together.
“Some politicians say: ‘give us your vote and we will sort out all your problems’. We say: real change comes not from government alone. Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions of us are fired up to play a part in the nation’s future. Yes this is ambitious. Yes it is optimistic. But in the end all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians’ words without you and your involvement.”
It’s not bad. I’ve read worse. But are we listening? Are we inspired?
Leadership is all about change. That’s what leadership does. Management, on the other hand, takes an established and successful process and attempts to perfect it: it tries to eliminate variation and inefficiency. People can themselves be ‘managed’ to join in this process with the usual rewards and sanctions: you don’t need to be inspired in order to work to improve the current system, you just turn up and do your best to try to earn a bonus and to avoid getting sacked.
Change, in sharp contrast, is risky and unmanageable. Nobody can be certain where change will lead or whether the leader’s vision will be successful. To set off into the dark, following our leader, we need to be inspired.
And when any leader sets off into the unknown, shouting, ‘Follow me!’ they face an unavoidable moment of truth. Will people actually follow, or will they stay put, shuffling their feet and muttering about the need to stay home and look after the family and that Aunty Flo is coming to stay at the weekend; about their persistent back problems and the fact that the roof is leaking?
For us to embrace difficult, scary, uncomfortable change, something has to touch us at a sufficiently deep emotional level to make us think, “I don’t care – I’ll do it! Lead on!”
The threat of invasion is a good example. The promise of a brighter future is another.
So where is the UK electorate at the moment? What change are we embracing and what leader might we follow? What clarion calls do we hear from our political leaders?
The absence of ideology
Intriguingly, the New Labour project, launched by Tony Blair with the New Labour, New Life for Britain manifesto of 1996 (which led to New Labour’s landslide victory of 1997) was deliberately ‘managerial’. Its vision, such as it was, was merely that life under New Labour would be fine, and possibly better than it was under the divided old Tory party.
New Labour was scared stiff of ideological vision. It had survived its own life-threatening struggle with the Trotskyite (and subversive) Militant Tendency, and had watched the Conservative party under John Major tear itself apart over ideological positions on Europe. New Labour was desperate not to talk about the class struggle or about the common ownership of the means of production (the subject matter of ‘Clause 4’ of the Labour constitution, symbolically dumped in 1995).
“You won’t find us banging on about ideology,” New Labour seemed to say. “Look how sensible our policies are; a tweak to this level of spending; a minor adjustment to this tax. The nation and the economy are safe in our hands. We don’t believe in anything apart from having a good time – honestly! Things can only get better! Trust us!”
Today’s Labour party is stuck with the legacy of the New Labour ideology-free zone. The only ideology that has crept back in with Gordon Brown is the old-fashioned statist tendency: nanny knows best; she fully intends to take as much money off you as possible through an increasingly complex tangle of taxes and will then spend that money in your own best interest.
This tendency has reached its apogee with the nationalisation of banks and the supposed ‘bailing out’ of the economy by the expenditure of massive amounts of borrowed money. As a direct result, Gordon Brown’s only possible position in this election is to promote a complete lack of change. “Vote for us, and we promise not to change! We got you into this mess . . . I’m sorry, that should read . . . We rescued the country by spending vast amounts of money that we don’t actually have. And if you don’t vote for us, you put all of that money at risk. You may not like where we are as a nation at the moment, but it could be worse! Don’t change!”
The absence of vision
The Conservatives, on the other hand, have a very clear incentive to promote change, but they have been surprisingly uninspiring about it.
“Say no to five more years of Brown!” Well, yes. We get that bit. So where’s the positive bit?
Well – the Big Society, I suppose. Everything else is the same old ‘managerial’ stuff. A bit less spend here, a bit less tax there. Even the £6 billion pounds of cuts that represent the Conservatives attempt to start rolling back the level of national debt is portrayed in a very tentative light – more as a set of ‘efficiencies and savings’ to help us muddle along than as the beginnings of a long-term project to tackle the key issue of this generation. We’re back to being managerial again.
The Conservative Party has failed to set out a compelling vision; a reason to embrace change.
They might have said, “We believe in smaller government and lower taxes. We will set off in a new direction.” Instead they have said “We believe in a Big Society” (I assume that this is some policy wonk’s notion of a clever idea: not Small Government – Big Society!) and “Gosh, we’d love to cut taxes, but you know how things are.” There may well be a compelling vision hiding in there somewhere, but it has not been set out.
Which leaves us with the Liberals. Now they, amusingly, can realistically call for change. The Liberals have the unique advantage of not being either the Conservative or the Labour party. Their exact programme; their policies; the managerial detail – these don’t really matter. With our drift towards a presidential style of government, and now with our new ‘Choose your own President!’ TV series, we needn’t worry about exactly who our own Liberal constituency MP is, or what he or she is actually standing for. The Liberals are their leader! We will elect Nick Clegg (because he seems to be – well – OK, really.)
This is change! We feel – probably foolishly and without great introspection – those telltale emotional forces that will drive the decisions of many of us. We feel hope; we feel the glimmerings of excitement. With one bound we might be free! Things really night get better!
Vote for Obama. And hope!
During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I often thought that a more honest campaign slogan would have been, not, “Vote for change!” or, “Yes we can!” Given the deliberate absence of any substantial policy programme, the appropriate slogan for the campaign might well have been, “Vote for Obama. And hope!”
That’s pretty much where the UK’s electorate are now. But it just might work.
Human beings like change. We can often be downright difficult and contrary. “We just felt like a change”. We can even be deliberately disruptive: “This is probably a bad idea, but we’re going to it anyway – just for fun.”
Change is gonna come. At the moment, none of our political leaders is really grasping that change, or setting out a compelling vision of the new future.
We are stumbling hopefully and even wilfully into that future, but we are not being led there.
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