Peter Bye

Leadership in a democracy

In my last piece, I said that Jeremy Corbyn was the unexpected favourite in the race to become Ed Milliband’s successor as leader of the Labour Party in the UK. He more than maintained his position: he won on the first ballot, with 59% of the vote. Shortly after, on the 29th September, he gave his first speech as leader at the Labour Party conference.

I do not propose to discuss his policy directions but rather to give my thoughts on what he had to say about leadership. During the speech, he made a number of interesting comments on the subject; the following are some of them. (For the full text of the speech, see

I don’t believe anyone of us has a monopoly on wisdom and ideas – we all have ideas and a vision of how things can be better. I want open debate in our party and our movement. I will listen to everyone. I firmly believe leadership is about listening. We will reach out to our new members and supporters. Involve people in our debates on policy and then our Party as a whole will decide.

One firm commitment I make to people who join our Labour Party is that you have a real say, the final say in deciding on the policies of our party. No-one – not me as Leader, not the Shadow Cabinet, not the Parliamentary Labour Party – is going to impose policy or have a veto (my emphasis).’

How does this approach square with what is required of leadership in a democracy such as the UK? I believe that leadership is relatively easy when things are going well – I say ‘relatively easy’ because the job is never that simple! But it becomes much harder when things are not going so well, which is the case for much of the time.

For example, at present in Europe, many countries have internal structural problems to solve in adapting their economies to be more productive, and reducing unemployment. Then there are shared difficulties in the Eurozone, such as the need to resolve the difference in performance between North and South. External events can happen quickly; the refugee crisis is the most obvious and pressing current example. And longer-term disruptions such as the effect of globalisation on Europe won’t go away anytime soon.

Dealing with these problems requires effective leadership. In a democracy, leaders cannot simply impose their will. A coherent set of policies has to be developed and explained to the public to get the necessary support. This involves developing a clear view of the objectives – what the policy is trying to achieve – and how to get there. Both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ have to be evidence-based, using the best facts and numbers available.

In some cases, what has to be done may be unpalatable, so explaining it to the public will not be easy; bad news is never popular. However, telling people what you think they want to hear is not going to solve the problems; it will probably compound them. A failure to be straight with the public is one of the causes of the current distrust of politics in many democracies.

It’s hard to see how an approach to policy development such as Mr Corbyn’s is going to lead to sets of coherent policies. The party members and activists who are going to define the policies are not representative of the public at large. This is I believe true in most political parties, left, right and centre. And radical factions develop, with more extreme views than the majority of members. They tend to be successful in aggressively pursuing their ideas to the exclusion of others.

Perhaps more seriously, there is a risk of incompatible policies being developed. An obvious example, which has occurred in some parts of the world, is to vote for more public services at the same time as lower taxes. Eventually, someone has to cost policies before any legislation. Those responsible are likely to be faced with insurmountable difficulties in squaring this circle.

Without the final say in policy direction, the leadership faces a near-impossible task in explaining and defending the policies to the wider public, never mind convincing them. This is not to say a wide-ranging discussion is not valuable. Understanding different opinions and ideas is a major factor in better policy formation. But eventually the discussion has to stop: the leadership has to take responsibility. If they get it wrong, they can be thrown out at an election. However imperfect, that is the virtue of democracy: we can change the leaders. Trying to extend democracy by pushing the responsibility for policy-making down within a political party or other grouping is not likely to work.

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