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In its critique of Labour’s record, the Coalition is in danger of reinforcing a model of authority which undermines a core principle of the Big Society…..

I hope he’s having fun but otherwise, to be honest, I don’t give a damn about Andrew Rawnsley’s holidays.  It’s not always been like this. Until quite recently I was on the list of people The Observer would approach to fill in when their esteemed columnist had a well-deserved rest. I played this super sub role for other papers too; The Times, FT and Standard all had my number. But the ‘phone stopped ringing some time ago.

Maybe I just wasn’t good enough; the world is full of discarded newspaper columnists. Perhaps comment editors have forgotten me. A complaint to the Charity Commissioners led my Trustees to err on the side of caution and ask me some time ago to avoid blog posts that could be construed as political advice. Or is it just that – five years after leaving Downing Street - I am too much of a mouldy old has been.

Anyway, being a mature, magnanimous and deep thinking person I let such thoughts detain me for no more than a couple of hours before deciding to read the Observer piece today by the new holder of the ‘Andrew Rawnsley is away’ crown; Rafael Behr. The well-made argument of the piece is captured in its last paragraph:

“The coalition will work hard in 2011 to pin the blame for all the bad things happening on Labour. Some of that blame will stick, especially if Ed Miliband makes himself an easy target, standing on too many barricades. But the strategy relies on the public dwelling on the worst bits of Britain before the coalition and forgetting the best bits. It relies on people thinking of the New Labour era as the bad old days. I suspect that goes against the grain of popular memory. And while memory is a bad historian, it is the stuff that political loyalty is made of.”

I leave readers to judge whether Behr is right about either Labour’s record or the Coalition’s tactics. My concern is with the model of leadership implied by an account of the Labour years that focus almost entirely on failings by Government.

As part of my general immersion in thinking about organisations (and as part of my new year’s resolution to be a better CEO in 2011), I am reading a fascinating book called ‘Leadership without Easy Answers’. Here is its author, Ronald A Heifetz writing about what he calls ‘adaptive leadership’:

“Making progress on these [complex] problems demands not someone who provides answers from on high but changes in our attitudes, behaviour and values. To meet challenges such as these, we need a different idea of leadership and a new social contract that promote our adaptive capacities, rather than inappropriate expectations of authority. We need to reconceive and revitalise our civic life and the meaning of citizenship.”

The creation of a Big Society – relying as it does on citizens stepping up to the plate – needs this kind of leadership. At his best David Cameron gives the sense that this is the leadership of which he is capable of and which he wants to offer. The problem is that our political culture (a toxic mixture of elitism, adversarialism and populism) constantly drives politicians towards more conventional, and superficially easier, models of hierarchical, bureaucratic and charismatic leadership.

The last few weeks have seen the Coalition emphasise its determination to drive radical and comprehensive change in areas as diverse as welfare and health care. There has even been talk of a ‘Maoist’ revolution being driven from Whitehall. At the same time there is the constant assertion that everything which went wrong under New Labour was the result of the failings of its leaders.  Indeed, the idea that the public was carrying on in sublime ignorance of the irresponsible, venal and incompetent behaviour of Labour’s leaders speak to the idea that ordinary citizens can – and perhaps should – wash their hands of any responsibility for what Government does and what it achieves.

The trouble for the Prime Minister is that a Big Society isn’t a cynical society but an active and open-minded one – and in his critique of the previous government, perhaps he has to be careful not to unleash a public mood that will corrode the very possibility of change he seeks.

Here is Heifetz again:

“In part, democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They have also to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation.”

There are now two fundamentally different ideas of leadership jostling at the heart of the Coalition’s self-perception and public projection. The first has the confidence to have a nuanced account of what Labour got right and wrong, it emphasises the importance of people being engaged and taking responsibility in policy and social change and it promotes an open and experimental political culture.  The second says citizens were the passive victims of Labour’s leadership but can now sit back and be saved by the reforming zeal of a new more dynamic cadre of leaders. The credibility of the Big Society relies on the first model, but just recently the second seems to be prevailing.


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