When you choose a degree programme at aged 18, young, naive and slightly over-ambitious, you don’t really know what you want to do with your life. You pick modules that mildly spike your interest, or more often, you get given modules. Generic ones, many of which you drop and only recall with contempt for your lecturer or the time you arrived deeply hungover and unstudied. But then by second year, you suddenly develop an interest in a niche, a nook in the handbook. For me, it was Class and British Politics. From thereon in I became an obsessive analyst of class politics and its implications, and generally grew less inclined to, for instance, international relations. That’s not to say I don’t have other interests, rather that I specialised almost instinctively. Decided my priorities, and pursued my interest to, I hope, become a useful researcher in that field.
In a convoluted way, and I’m sure you saw this coming, I think this process does and should apply to politics and political leadership.
A boring meme to add to a growing list of boring memes is the ‘lead and not be led’. The idea that you must shape public opinion rather than follow it. “A wise man makes his own decisions” so the ancient proverb goes, “an ignorant man follows public opinion.”. I’ve been very conflicted for a while (well, since the election) on this philosophical approach to politics. I don’t want to be accused of being a ‘weathercock’. I like my politics and political leaders visionary. I think we can change opinion in some ways, and I believe it is our duty to put forward a programme we believe in and convince voters it is the right one. We haven’t got that right for a while now. But in the way this is applied to politics, it has begun to sound pretentious. Public opinion is the way it is and not the way many of us want it to be, but electoral politics is a representative business, and ‘sticking to your principles’, your stubborn, black and white principles, whatever that means and however broad your brush, is starting to feel selfish. Selfish because we are choosing a dichotomy that leads to powerlessness and another Tory win.
The meme all at once feels dismissive, morally righteous, as part of a superiority complex, not all particularly socialist, and, yes, classist.
To listen and not to lead, is what I have written on middle class people who wish to make a difference to the lives of the poor. I am not a revisionist; Labour and many working class and radical movements have had middle class origins. But accounts of their histories have become mired in romanticism about the ability to shape and change opinion. Take 1945; Attlee adopted flag and country, imperialism, militarism, Trident, social conservatism, but also the Beveridge Report. And from following these valence issues, he created his own: the NHS, the burgeoning welfare state. In short, he transformed by listening first and leading after.
Valence issues. Issues with consensus in this country. Right now, valence issues may not be what we want them to be. They’re also hard to define. Trident, for instance. It has its critics. The extent to which it can be classified as a valence issue is contestable. But a clear, discernible majority support its existence. Other contestable valence issues us on the Left may squirm about: the welfare cap, immigration, tax, some tenets of foreign policy.
That’s a lot of public opinion to shape in our favour and in the name of our principles. It’s also a lot to risk patronizing people, and their own principles, over. And a lot to be selfish and self-indulgent about, to lose an election for. I go back to my contrived metaphor. Is it not the duty of a leader, a visionary, who wants to change the country, to decide, now, what modules to drop and what modules to pursue? Is it not principled now to become, and I’m so sorry for how obscene and drawn out this is, a matured third year?
Labour is at a crossroads; we want to change everything and we, as a consequence, may change nothing at all. That isn’t principled, that’s stubborn to the point of abandoning the duties of being transformative leaders. My feeling being that we should change something, we should shape our own valence issues, but we should acknowledge our limitations. We should narrow our (very) broad brush. And we should prioritise and specialize. To choose battles on how the economy is run and who it is run for, on cuts, and defending the welfare state, of arguing for its future and helping those immediately devastated by its demise. There are battles here that are hard and tumultuous but they are also very, very urgent. And for those issues we ourselves hold dear but are not immediate to the people we choose to fight for? They’re not worth losing the battle over the bedroom tax for. They’re not worth failing a degr-, sorry, an election for.
This isn’t being a weathercock. It’s being responsible. Unselfish. Principled in our desire for protecting the most hard-hit. Listening and then leading elsewhere. Winning on an anti-austerity ticket that, maybe, acknowledges the consensus behind, say, Trident is more socialist, more revolutionary, than losing on a ticket because it tells the public all its valence issues are wrong.
“What would Clem do?” so the T-Shirt goes. Well, he’d choose his battles and win, and then build the NHS. He’d be a true leader. We can do the same, if we drop a few modules.