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Leadership Means Understanding Your Part in Building a Social Movement, Not Believing You Are the Personification of One

24/07/2016 12:30 | Updated 25 July 2016
Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Traitors, backstabbers, Red Tories, Blairite plotters... all of us who have called for a change in Labour Leadership have had these kinds of labels thrown at us in recent weeks. Often they come from keyboard warriors for whom the field of battle is Twitter and Facebook. A battle where victory is measured in numbers of likes and retweets; where everyone can assure themselves that they - and not those with whom they disagree - are at one with the views of "the people;" And where always, always you must insist on having the last word to prove the other person has no answer.

Real life though, is a bit more complicated than that. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership has had his detractors from day one - including some whose sniping from the start has been as self-indulgent as it has been destructive. But take a look at what people like Lilian Greenwood, Lou Haigh, Paul Blomfield and Liz McInnes have been writing. These kinds of people are as far away from right-wing plots and conspiracies as you could get. And as for me being some kind of Blairite lackey, try telling that to Tony Blair himself. With my record on Iraq and a range of other things, I think he would be pinching himself to make sure he is not dreaming.

Anyone is entitled to disagree with what any of us is saying and, in the forthcoming Labour Leadership election, if you are an eligible member or supporter, your vote will be worth no more and no less than any of ours. But if you are also someone who threatens deselection or worse for any Labour MP who has spoken up over Jeremy Corbyn's Leadership, please remember this. We have spoken out not because we are part of some sinister conspiracy from which we can only be detached by dire warnings of the personal consequences we may face should we not do so. We have spoken out because we mean what we are saying.

Nevertheless these demands of total loyalty to the Leader have got me thinking about the nature of leadership. I am not alone in observing some ironic parallels between the demands we face today and those that sometimes came from the more extreme end of those who would tolerate no criticism of Tony Blair in the 1990s and 2000s. In both cases, the fact that the Leader had been elected by Party members meant that their supporters could legitimately claim a "democratic mandate" for the general political direction in which that leader wished to take the Party. But in both cases it has gone beyond that. In the Blair years the "mandate" was invoked to accuse MPs and others of disloyalty if we warned that policies like invading Iraq were not part of the New Labour vision that underpinned his mandate. Today, "the mandate" is invoked not so much to silence criticism of the political ideas in which Jeremy Corbyn and Labour members believe.

Rather, it is invoked against warnings that the ideas have not been fashioned into policies capable of winning a General Election, and that the teamwork essential to forming an effective Parliamentary opposition is being squandered. More than that, the mandate is invoked to delegitimise anyone who dares to raise these kinds of issues. It's a culture in which we are told that the only way back to legitimacy is to drop the warnings and to rally around the Leader. It becomes a cult of personality with dissenters treated to the logic of the medieval ducking stool. If we float we are guilty and must suffer the consequences. If we sink without trace we are innocent. Not much of a choice really. Either way, Labour should be better than that.

And yet the allegations of conspiratorial elitist MPs are all too easy to believe outside. After all, the way Parliament operates is often remote and elitist. And too often we MPs do pay up to that caricature - forgetting that, to many people outside, our loudly proclaiming how plain speaking we are, can sometimes seem as if the only opinions we value are our own. So when many Party members instinctively believe the myth of the beleaguered principled leader bravely standing up against the plotters, we need to look at ourselves too.

But that does not make the myth true.

Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants Labour to get its strength from becoming less of a political party and more a social movement. I think he is right that big political change comes from big social movements. Where I think he is wrong is in the claim that the Labour Party is that social movement. The social movements that create change come from the interplay between political parties and the thoughts, fears, desires and actions of those we seek to represent. That interplay in turn spans work within political institutions - like councils and Parliament - and what happens outside; in communities, in workplaces, in the arts and popular culture, and in so many other places locally, nationally and - in a technologically interconnected world - internationally too. And guess what, the movement that all of those forces ends up producing to create change probably won't be quite the model those of us involved in organised politics had in mind in the first place.

The real danger for us in political parties is that we don't see ourselves as one of several agents of change in that process but that we start to see ourselves as the change itself. And it's only a few steps on from that to see the person we elect as our leader as its personification. We stop thinking about how we connect with "the people" and start to think of ourselves as the same as "the people". And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo-chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear. We should celebrate that we now have a quarter of a million members and Jeremy Corbyn's great contribution to that achievement. But in a country of over 60million we must also understand that nailing our colours ever more firmly to our own mast is not a substitute for listening to people whose support we need but who we have not reached.

The irony is that, if we end up thinking of ourselves as the embodiment of that social movement rather than part of creating one much bigger than ourselves, we may even not notice when we stop being much good as agents of change in the arenas in which our contribution really should be pivotal; in our case being an effective opposition and credible alternative Government in Parliament. Sadly, though, that is the position into which we have let ourselves slip. Unless we are prepared to face that and change, the consequence could be emboldened and even more right-wing Conservative governments for a generation or more. So it is time to make that change.
If Labour continues to allow ourselves to substitute a populist leadership echo chamber for the politics of change it will not be the first left of centre Party to do so.

But it is not inevitable and we can turn it around. That is not simply down to leadership. It follows from what I have said that it has to go much, much deeper than the identity of the leader. But in a leadership election, I won't be simply looking for a check list of policy positions I can tick. After all, Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn agree on key issues like tackling inequality and boosting public investment. I'll be seeking a candidate who understands what leadership requires - in all its complexities. That includes thinking through how to get to a position where you can deliver your policies in practice. And, for me, Owen Smith seems to understand it far better than Jeremy has shown he understands it.

Richard Burden is the Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield

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