Three kinds of leader in the age of the insurgent

by Kevin Meagher

Like bad luck, musketeers and Neopolitan ice cream, our political leaders come in threes. Consolidators, new brooms and insurgents; a trio of broad headings that sums up the different approaches to party leadership -Tory, Labour and Liberal alike.

First, we have consolidators. They are elected to lead divided parties, offering a familiar, reassuring presence, often at a moment of peril and self-doubt. They provide a small “c” conservative choice for parties turning in from the world. Michael Foot, Iain Duncan-Smith and Ming Campbell fall into this category. Their election is often a mark of intellectual defensiveness for their party, sometimes at the fag end of a period in office. Douglas-Home, Callaghan, and Gordon Brown also fit this bill.

Consolidators are kept on a short leash by their party; sometimes only too willingly. Their guiding belief is “hold what we have”, which really means that the party believes it is right, regardless of what the electorate has decided. Although never leader, this is Tony Benn quipping that Labour’s disastrous 1983 election result was “eight and a half million votes for socialism”.

When parties think they need a new leader, rather than a new programme, they choose a new broom. These are leaders who often recognise the need to change to win, but cannot go far enough or fast enough to do so. Labour famously “won” the 1987 general election campaign but lost the actual contest. The party was slick and professional but still clung to unsellable positions; with the leadership unable to press the accelerator on change hard enough and keep the rank and file with it.

Neil Kinnock was the archetypal new broom. A brave reformer who could not change Labour enough to win in 1992 either. His nemesis, John Major, was cut from the same cloth. He started off banishing Thatcherism with his pledge to create “a nation at ease with itself” and to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”. Two years later his back to basics drive demanded that we “understand a little less and condemn a little more”, while he left office mired in the fiasco of the EU “beef war”.

New brooms are often reluctant modernisers – hesitant iconoclasts – happy to go with the grain of party thinking; both John Smith and Harold Wilson fit this mould. Outside the Labour party, Ted Heath and William Hague are also classic new brooms – spraypaint politicians. The bodywork gleams, but the engine of reform lacks bite.

Finally, we have insurgents. They come to power as divisive figures, often against the run of play. Sizeable portions of their own parties do not embrace them. Their aim is to drag their party’s centre of gravity towards them. They lead on their terms, gaining definition from goading, challenging and cajoling. Fights are picked and victories won. They have one foot outside their own party. Churchill (1940-45, not 1951-55), Gaitskell, Thatcher and Blair all fit this mould. Gaitskell on unilateralism. Thatcher and Blair on most things. But insurgents come with a hefty price tag. They revel in the cult of personality and leave their parties bereft when, eventually – and inevitably – they are shown to have feet of clay.

So why does any of this matter? Because in modern British politics only insurgents will win elections. The need to capture the centre-ground means having to build appeal and develop a clear message to those outside the tribe. Consolidators never do that – they are core vote purists. They fall foul of the cardinal rule of electoral politics: winning is not about the number of people who love you; it is about stacking up the greatest number of voters who do not despise you.

New brooms fare better. They often soar, but their wings become unstuck the closer they get to an election. Doubts creep in about the sincerity of their reforms. Opposition attacks begin to resonate. This was Labour in the early 90s. It was also, to a degree, Cameron last year. New brooms struggle to “seal the deal” with the electorate.

One nation Tories, like Eden, MacMillan and Heath were new brooms. So was Harold Wilson (the charismatic Labour version), unwilling, as he was, to challenge the labour movement’s inherent conservatism, especially on trade union reform. As a result, the huge potential of the 1960s gave way to Ted Heath’s victory in 1970.

In the age of post-war “Butskellite” consensus politics, new brooms were common. With big, static blocs of support on left and right, it was enough back then to simply spruce up the party’s appeal with a new leader. Voter dealignment in the 80s put paid to that, forcing leaders to create a more broadly-based political project; reaching across the aisle to do so.

Only insurgents are willing to do this. They ally their cause to modernity in a genuine way; thinking harder and deeper and riding out to capture the zeitgeist. New brooms give the impression of reform, but it is often illusory. They are conflicted between the need for action and the desire not to rock the boat. Their strategy unravels the closer they get to an election. Many new brooms would like to be insurgents, but realise their party will not tolerate faster-paced reform, and so settle for an easier life.

So what of our current crop of leaders? Ed Miliband has assumed the Labour leadership as a classic new broom. Ditto Cameron. He may model himself as a “child of Thatcher” or an “heir to Blair”, but he is in keeping with a long line of pragmatic Conservative leaders who do little to fundamentally challenge their own parties. His was a rebrand, not a revolution. There was no “Clause four moment” for Cameron before the last election, and neither did he ever seek one. In office however, Cameron is showing signs of an insurgent’s instincts with his speedy formation of the coalition and junking of the Conservative manifesto.

Perversely, it is Nick Clegg who best fits the insurgent template. Although he plainly lacks the manic energy of a Thatcher or Blair, he nevertheless personifies the insurgency within the Liberal Democrats which has ruthlessly and decisively supplanted the party’s social democratic tradition with the economic neo-liberalism of the Orange Bookers.

What now binds together all three of our leaders is the enormous expectations they each have to meet as they find themselves detached from a sizeable section of their own parties with entrenched internal critics and a weak bodyguard of true believers.

The stakes have seldom been higher. The 2010-15 parliament is the most divisive in a generation and will test all three men’s leadership to destruction. At some stage, someone’s strategy will founder.

Both Cameron and especially Clegg may oscillate towards their respective parties as the political ground underneath them begins to erode. Ed Miliband may go the other way as his position strengthens. But one thing is clear:  when the music stops and the next election approaches, the political leader who can best lay claim to the insurgents’ mantle will win.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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5 Responses to “Three kinds of leader in the age of the insurgent”

  1. AmberStar says:

    “when the music stops and the next election approaches, the political leader who can best lay claim to the insurgents’ mantle will win.”

    By your reckoning, Nick Clegg will be the winner. I hope you haven’t bet your house on him. 😉

  2. paul barker says:

    An interesting analysis but you didnt follow it to the logical conclusion. If Parties led by New-brooms dont win Elections then Labour cant win in 2015.
    Further, since Labour chose both Brown & Milliband it suggests The Party didnt want to win in either 2010 or 2015. Perhaps Labour is a “Natural Party of opposition” ?

  3. Henrik says:

    Labour as currently organised and funded is actually considerably more effective as an opposition than a government – its competencies and enthusiasms are well suited to holding an incumbent government to account, less so to the actual business of government. Labour politicians are just no good at running things – most have even less real-world experience of anything other than politics or academia than even the Tories.

  4. Kevin Meagher says:

    AmberStar – happy to cavil to conventional wisdom about Nick Clegg’s future prospects, but the intellectual coup d’état of the Orange Bookers should have told us that he would see no problem in backing the Tories. I had confidently predicted that he would never sell a coalition with the Tories to his grassroots, but, looking back, the writing was on the wall. If the membership could swallow junking their entire philosophical heritage then a pact with the Tories is not as much of a stretch as it at first appeared.

    Longwinded way of saying yes, he was definitely an insurgent, but his only option is to row back before his party collapses. Personally I’ll be amazed if Mr Clegg makes it to the end of 2012…

  5. AmberStar says:

    @ Kevin Meagher

    Thanks for replying to my banter with a detailed & well-constructed response.

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