A little bit of inspiration and a lot of challenge - RSA

A little bit of inspiration and a lot of challenge


I am generally sceptical about the idea that there are certain winning leadership traits. Indeed, the most authoritative studies seem to disprove the conventional idea that success is down to charismatic individuals.

But when it comes to their own troops, political leaders must try to inspire and challenge. Some are better at the former some at the latter. Tony Blair challenged his party but in the end lost its affection. Gordon Brown made the comrades happy but let his Party sleepwalk into defeat. I find myself generally more tolerant of those who find it hard to inspire – after all we are not all orators – then those who fail to challenge, which is often simply a failure of nerve.

I had three reasons to think of this in the last couple of days. The first was an event I spoke at yesterday called the Green Fair. There were 200 hardy souls crammed into a rain-sodden tent to listen to a panel of environmentalists plus Ken Livingstone and me.  

As is often the case when faced with a group of like-minded people, I found myself wanting to shatter the consensus. When one of my fellow panellists said that Boris shouldn’t have taken tainted money from Barclays for this bike scheme (cue applause) I responded that the eco-movement needed to be careful that it didn’t send the message that you couldn’t be green unless you were also opposed to global capitalism. I may unwisely have added a few gratuitous comments about the headline act on the stage being called DJ Tofu (although apparently he is a great man) and people living in yurts and knitting their own yoghurt, but it did at least stir things up a bit.  By the end of the event a third of the people thought I was a fascist, a third thought I was deranged and the remainder seemed grateful to hear the occasional dissenting voice.

Ken was much more popular. Indeed he didn’t give a single answer which wasn’t music to the ears of the largely red-green alternative audience. It wasn’t so much that that I disagreed with him (although I occasionally did), my concern was that he didn’t use the opportunity in any way to challenge his audience. Why is it, he might have asked, that the public is becoming more sceptical about climate change? Or (and this is a point I made) why is it that there are so many different environmental movements with so many different approaches and ideas? Imagine what would happen if they all got together and agreed a simple realistic common priority for action in the next twelve months – that way real change could be achieved. But Ken was in inspire not challenge mode and I left feeling even less convinced than before that he can win next year.

A second prompt to leadership thoughts was a piece by Bruce Anderson in this morning’s FT. In it he points out that David Cameron is leading two coalitions. The official one and then one in his own Party:  fending off Tories who want a return to Thatcherite certainties is something that requires continuous vigilance.

Listening to the apparently uncompromising tone of George Osborne on the Today Programme this morning, it seems more important than ever that the PM challenges his ministers to speak out to the whole country and not just inwards to themselves and other true believers.

The final prompt was figures showing Labour’s total reliance now on trade union funding. As the centre left loses another European election – this time in Portugal – the scale of Mr Miliband’s task in persuading voters to back his Party in difficult times seems to grow by the day. Labour’s leader is reasonably popular among his own members but he will not even start to create his own electoral coalition until he can find a way of showing he has the analysis and the courage to challenge his own side’s steady drift into the warm embrace of long term opposition.

We think of leaders standing at the apex of their organisations. But in relation to their own supporters poltical leaders in our electoral system speak both from the top – from where they try to inspire – and from the side, closest to the voters. It is from there that they must challenge.

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