What Corbyn needs to do to be an effective leader

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign kicked off yesterday, and in some ways it came off more positive than I expected. In other ways though he failed to articulate successfully why he can lead effectively. In some parts he looked almost bilgerent and authoritarian.

There’s already been some interesting analysis of Corbyn’s chances of leading Labour to victory. For the record, it doesn’t look good

So what does he need to do to be an effective leader?

Firstly, he has to be able to build a effective team and manage resources he has. Like most leaders, Corbyn has limited choice over the team he puts together. He can establish a shadow cabinet, and his advisors, but he has no control over who are the MP’s and employees of the Party. 

For this reason he has to be able to show flexibility to engage with the strengths of those around him. Since all team dynamics involve political dimensions, he needs to be sensitive to differing perspectives and opinions. Of course, he’s got to a point where MP’s are no longer disgruntled but are out rightly in opposition to him. This didn’t happen in isolation – Corbyn has been leader for 9 months. If his MP’s are in open revolt he needs to take responsibility and resolve this.

Simply saying ‘I am the leader’ is not enough. There has to be negotiation. Luckily for Corbyn he has some advantage here. Labour is a broad church of left wing, centre and occasionally soft right opinion, but married by common principle. On a lot of issues he needs to negotiate common cause, work out what everyone can agree on and then negotiate on the rest. He needs to apply sensible application of leadership in cases where opinion is intractable (like Trident), or sometimes just make the hard call and say ‘this is what we’re doing’. Note that he can only do this if he has demonstrated a genuine attempt to listen to all sides.

He needs to be responsive. This means being able to make decisions in timely manner. A LOT of MP’s have complained about his inability to do this, with a running theme of non-communicative. I suspect this may be the biggest underlying problem. Ed Milliband had marginally  better but still poor electoral results. A big difference was his engagement with the PLP.

In some regards he has shown adaptability, but in others he seemed woefully dense. It was not sensible to mention selection issues and boundary changes. There was no other way for his critics to see that as anything other than an outright threat.

Another aspect of responsiveness is understanding cause and effect, and a little bit of systems theory. That is, the wider implications of a decision, and knock on effects. It’s important in politics because it’s the difference between a slogan and a policy.

A good example of what not to do lies in Corbyn’s comments about pharmaceuticals. While he was undoubtedly aiming for the leadership race his comments have wider implications. He’s raised the question of whether he wants to nationalise pharmaceuticals in the UK. Maybe he does, but he needs a policy ready to do this effectively – I suspect he hasn’t got one. Also, a large number of employees are union members – the same ones he is relying on for support. I’m not sure he considered all the ins and outs of his comment – it was a cheap hit against his opponent, but in the longer term might have greater drawbacks.

He needs greater innovation. Some ideas, like questions from actual people for PMQ’s, were genuinely intriging. Unfortunately they have limited benefit if applied in a scattergun approach (Corbyn rarely sticks to one or two subjects in PMQ’s so his impact is lost).

He also lacks nuance. When asked about deterrence, Corbyn said he wouldn’t use it. What he could have said is ‘hopefully we’ll never have to find out’. That way he leaves enough doubt about which way he would go, without compromising in his beliefs. Being honest doesn’t mean you have to be openly honest all the time.

This is also an electoral issue. Labour has lost a huge number of voters to UKIP and the Tories. The former probably on immigration, the latter on the economy. It’s not likely that Corbyn is going to sacrifice his principles to appease these voters. Tony Blair would probably have sought some policies to appease theses voters (contributing both to his success and also source of criticism from the left).

So, if Corbyn won’t sacrifice his principles on these issues, he needs to find clever ways to engage on those subjects. He can’t simply ignore the problem (because it won’t go away AND people will think he’s out of touch), and he can’t simply reject the assertion outright (because people generally don’t respond well to being told they are wrong). Unfortunately, this is an area he has struggled with. Without finding a way to deliver effective policy and messaging, he and Labour will go no where.

Corbyn needs to have perseverance on issues. In some respects he’s demonstrated this already – he certainly hasn’t backed out of a bruising fight with his MP’s. In other regards though, he still struggles. For example, he is attempting to bring a different style to the House of Commons arena. That’s fine, but he seems to have gone no where once it became apparent that the Tories weren’t going to go along with this. Now his approach seems weak and ineffectual. He needs to find other ways to put pressure on the Tories about this matter if he wants to make change.

For Corbyn to establish himself as a leader he needs to display qualities well beyond those he has demonstrated. He might have integrity in some regards, but while good leaders need integrity, not everyone with integrity will make a good leader.

I honestly think Corbyn’s biggest problem is his inability to compromise and negotiate with his PLP. Ultimately, party membership doesn’t win elections – only seats in the Commons do. It is the natural focal point of public opinion on political effectiveness, not flash mob rallies of Socialist Worker Party supporters.

He and other MP’s would see eye to eye on many, if not most, issues. The difference is that his approach is leaving something to be desired, and he seems thus far unable to bring the two sides together. Threatening them is not going to resolve his problem – if they think they will be deselected automatically they may take a collective plunge and resign on mass. Extreme behaviour pushes people to extremes. 

Corbyn doesn’t need to compromise on every principle – indeed, if he’s sensible he doesn’t need to compromise on any principle. But he does need to show that he can listen, take on board opinion and respond effectively. Thus far he has failed to do, and his leadership credentials lie in tatters.

Only by making a massive fundamental change to his approach – some kind of epiphany – can he begin to rebuild his party image and establish himself as a genuine alternative to Teresa May, and credible option as PM.

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