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GE2017: Lessons On Leadership

As the dust begins to settle on the political earthquake that was GE2017 – whilst simultaneously, the ground begins to rumble for what could be GE2017 #2 – there are so many fascinating conclusions to reflect on. From the re-energised youth vote, to the hugely important changes in Scottish seats – and that’s before we even get to what it means for Brexit – the lessons will take long to digest and understand.

However, perhaps the one overarching lesson here about politics in the UK – and how we understand it – lies in what the election may tell us about leadership, particularly, about leadership in a representative democracy.

Far too often, it is taken for granted in politics that it is the politicians who lead, that it is they who make the political weather. But the truth is actually the reverse. There is a reason we call this representative democracy: elected politicians can only ever reflect and represent the overall views and desires of the voting public, and as Theresa May showed throughout this campaign, these views and desires cannot be forged by slogans and special advisers.

As such, big shifts in political direction like the one we saw on Thursday night are great indications that something else is happening here. Despite the undoubted strengths of the Corbyn campaign, the leader of the Labour Party has not dragged the electorate, kicking and screaming, to his vision of the world. Rather, he has tapped into a groundswell of demand for a different way of doing things. Corbyn’s Labour Party, written off by the vast majority of commentators and the press, produced a manifesto and a set of policies that the country was waiting for.

All changes of this magnitude follow the same pattern. We can compare GE2017 to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. No one would argue the emergence of Thatcherism was anything short of a revolution. It was the wholesale dismantling of the post-war social democratic consensus, the move away from large scale state intervention and Keynesian economics to a focus on the centrality of the free market and the sanctity and self-sufficiency of the individual in that market.

Every one of Thatcher’s key policies reflected this: from the privatization of state industries and utilities, the sale of council houses, the deregulation of financial markets, and ironically, the further steps toward the single market and currency that happened on her watch.

However, like Corbyn in 2017, Thatcher did not emerge out of nowhere with a vision to sell. Rather, she spoke to a large part of the electorate who were desperate for change: after a decade of industrial unrest, after the breakdown of the social model that had held in the 1950s and 1960s, large parts of the electorate wanted a change of approach and she emerged and suggested one. True, large parts of the working class never wanted this, and resisted Thatcher throughout her time in government. But still, there were enough people out there who supported her policies, despite the pain they brought to certain sectors of society.

None of this is to deny the leadership skills of either Thatcher or Corbyn; quite the contrary. It is, in fact, a claim that their leadership skills are far more developed than we imagined. There is, first, a skill in identifying large scale social trends. And second, there is a bravery that cuts through in politicians, who dare to stand up and say the things that many advisers tell them would be electoral suicide.

In both the cases of Corbyn and Thatcher this is exactly what they did. Thatcher dared to say the unimaginable in the early 1970s: that unemployment could rise, that council houses could be sold, that, the welfare state could be scaled back. Corbyn in 2017 the same: that tax and spend was back on the agenda, that the state could re-nationalize industries, that student fees could be abolished.

It is hard to overstate just how much that, in both of these cases, these politicians were cutting against decades of political convention. And this is where real leadership lies. Agree with either leader or not, in both cases, they stood up and correctly identified a system that was struggling; they dared to think outside the box in suggesting a potentially better model, and as such, gave voice to the millions of voters who were thinking along similar lines.

The question now is who will carry on with this brave leadership? More than anything, we need this on Brexit. Is there any politician brave enough, on the Left or Right, who will tap into the groundswell of feeling out there, clearly bolstered by the hung parliament, that a Brexit might be a bad idea? There is undoubtedly a large section of the population waiting for someone to do exactly that.

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