Blurred vision, toxic values – what the election tells us about leadership

Successful leadership in politics is to have a vision that can stretch across traditional voting patterns and a set of values that resonate with a wide cross-section of voters.  Like him or not, Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign is probably the best UK example in recent times and it delivered him a 179 seat majority.

In this election, the more we heard, the more we knew what we didn’t want. Looking past the hype, many of us voted against May, Corbyn, Farron and Sturgeon for one, if not both of two reasons: their vision and values.  There are two exceptions in this assessment. One partial: Corbyn generated a very positive enthusiasm in many of those aged 18-24; and one full:  Ruth Davidson was probably the only leader who generated positive support from a wide cross-section of the Scottish electorate.

Mrs May’s vision was undermined by a ‘nanny knows best’ superiority and unravelled as the weeks went on, from a strong Brexit position that crossed many divides (but not the generational one and nor did it work for many of the 48% who voted remain) to one that became dystopian and exposed a value set that at times seemed more like 1950 than 2017.

She didn’t speak to the young and better educated, alienated business and frightened Labour voters uncomfortable with Jeremy Corbyn’s metropolitan socialism back into voting Labour.  The Tories need to find someone far more effective and in my view it won’t be long before they do so.  They have a ruthless survival instinct.

Mr Corbyn’s vision was positive, and whilst engaging younger voters in a manner similar to Mr Blair[1], failed to engage many of their parents and grandparents who remembered Labour governments of the 1970s[2]. To them it seemed dystopian in its willingness to tax and spend recklessly, return to ownership assets that had been very badly run by the state before and perhaps more worryingly restore syndicalist rights whose abuse had taken the UK to the brink of bankruptcy.

He frightened older Conservative-leaning voters who were uncomfortable with austerity back into voting Conservative. Whilst they warmed to his view of a kinder society that worked for the many, his personal values seemed suspect to them.  Labour has a problem on its hands: their gains were only significant against a backdrop of vastly underwhelming expectations.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is further away from government than Gordon Brown’s.  He achieved this on a share of the vote that has only been bettered twice since 1970. The seats he needs to win suggest that his challenge is whether he will be prepared to shift his manifesto closer to that of the 1997 Labour Party.

Mr Farron launched a platform that had high praise from commentators on both left and right.  It was a vision of a society for the future and for the young in particular.  His vision never had a chance to be considered as it got lost in the debate over his personal values.

In a liberal party strong positions based on faith are rightly tolerated.  They sit far less well when they are held by the leader.  Primarily as they can undermine the tolerance offered by the party to those who disagree with them, especially when those who disagree are in the majority.[3]  Even in his own faith tradition, there are many who welcome the move to equal marriage[4] and in society as a whole there is majority support for an abortion framework more liberal than the rest of the EU[5].

My hypothesis based on campaigning in the South West is that younger voters, many of whom had returned to supporting his party as a result of their Pro EU stance, deserted him over his historical ‘on the record’ attitudes to gay marriage and abortion.  His values seemed significantly adrift from the mainstream and the substantial increase in his ‘disapproval’ ratings (up by around 40% in one poll[6]) suggest that these and a failure to engage voters with an alternative vision had an impact.

Ms Sturgeon’s vision of a second referendum was her undoing.  She succeeded in creating a coalition of unionists and those just sick of the debate and suffered a significant reverse. But don’t write her off just yet.  She’s been smart enough to put her finger publicly on the problem and she’s gone away to think about how she can reverse out of the cul-de-sac in which she has put her party.

She has a vision and rather like New Labour her overriding value is staying in power:  that may yet just save her for the longer term, though as a result she may continue to be a UK politician.

So, if the four main leaders didn’t convince, then, did anyone?  My assessment is that there was one:  Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative Party leader.

Ms Davidson had vision and values that appealed far further than her core voters.  In leadership, vision is the easy part.  It’s values that take you furthest. Ms Davidson’s are the clearest and in my view, most attractive of all the leaders we saw in the campaign.  Of all of them, Ms Davidson stood for an open, tolerant and united UK.  She didn’t just say that – she believed it.  Just look at her actions after the vote over the DUP role in propping up her own party in government:  country before party; core values before party.  That’s a leadership proposition that I suspect many people would vote positively for.

Vision gets you the right to be heard, values that resonate with the majority get you the right to be supported.  Just look at the rise of Justin Trudeau and Emanuel Macron. Whilst some leaders got traction, in the end all bar one failed the values test.  That’s why we got the result we did.

Professor Chris Bones is professor of Creativity & Leadership, Alliance Manchester Business School

[1] .  The FT reports the LSE’s latest analysis of voting outcomes shows that the liberal, graduate middle class voter aged 25-44 shifted significantly towards Labour and this made a significant difference in seats where they live and work. (FT 14 June 2017 Special report)

[2] The same report shows a significant advantage to the Conservatives in both older voters and white working class voters, but that they were particularly reliant on pensioners (despite the dementia tax/triple lock row)

[3] Even in the latest survey over 80% of those who expressed an opinion were in favour of abortion and of those, the majority (58%) wanted the UK’s abortion limit to remain higher than that across the EU as a whole

[4] A YouGov poll in 2016 suggested that a more Anglicans (nearly half questioned) support gay marriage in church than oppose it.

[5] In 2010 the LD share of 18-24 yr old voters was 30% (Lab 31, Cons 30). In 2015, this dropped to 10% with the Labour and Tory share about the same. You Gov’s end April polling analysis suggested that the Lib Dems had recouped some of this loss and were around 16-18% with Labour well ahead of this at 40-42%. There is no published research on 18-24 turnout or voting but given the drop in the LD vote share compared to last time there is nothing that suggests at this stage my hypothesis of a fall over the campaign is wrong and they went for Labour.  I will, of course, revisit it when more empirical data is available.

[6] His net approval ratings dropped throughout the course of the campaign. Those that saw him as performing well started at 16% before the campaign started and ended at 20%. Those who disagreed stood at 34% and ended at 46% (YouGov). This meant that he started on -18% and ended at -26%. Possibly as a result of the media concentration on the two main parties a third of people had no opinion on him at all.

Rate this post!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

Leave a Reply

The Author
Latest Related Work
Follow Us