We are constantly told that the elusive quality of “leadership” is missing from contemporary politics; but what exactly is meant by “leadership” is a more difficult matter! Too often in practical politics, it is confused with the more problematic notion of “the leader”. There is always a tension when considering leadership, between following public opinion and setting the public agenda. Naturally, as in most areas of human activity, there is a balance to be struck. Go too far one way, and you have an ignorant and nasty nationalism; go the other, and you can end up with a vanguardist democratic centralism. Both are to be deplored.
The issue today is more focussed upon the notion of “the leader” rather than “leadership” per se. What do you do about an egomaniac as leader, especially if s/he heads up a supine and craven group of fellow travellers? How do you deal with a leader who blatantly lies and abuses with carefree abandon? What is to be said of a leader who is surrounded by businessmen cronies and has a cavalier disregard for right and wrong? How can one support a charlatan who believes that a gullible public can be conned indefinitely?
For many, these questions never arise. They are those with principles and values which transcend the venial and the venal, and look with contempt on those crude tactical manoeuvrings which too often are passed off as “realistic” politics. Such people of integrity – and there remain many – would never consider selling their political souls for either personal advancement or profit. Such is the core of the real Labour Party which was once summed up admirably by Harold Wilson in the aphorism that “The Labour Party is nothing if not a moral crusade”.
That “moral crusade” assumes that members hold the right motives to achieve the right ends. It believes in social justice, with equal opportunity for all; and is further predicated on the view that Labour representatives are accountable to the party and to the public, and are transparent in all of their dealings.
It is also the case that there are occasions, whether in a parliament or a council, there are matters of such gravity, that Labour representatives ought to vote according to their consciences rather than tamely to follow an arbitrary whip. On those occasions, the issue in question must be of profound significance concerning a matter of principle, rather than one merely of political convenience.
Brexit is just such an issue. The matter is of such fundamental importance to the nation that the usual presentational preoccupation of those at the top of the party tree is irrelevant. We know how the media will react regardless of what Labour does – the party will never be given balanced, much less good, coverage in the present climate. What matters is the national interest, and there can be no compromise over that. Over time, Labour will be recognised for exercising its collective conscience, rather than trying to dragoon Members one way or another for expedient tactical reasons. After all, elected Labour representatives at all levels are not delegates, but free-thinkers on behalf of their constituents.
The latter are the key to the success or failure of any political party. Parties are, in the final analysis, a means to an end on behalf of their members and electoral supporters. Voters are the most essential component of any democracy. We have seen this most recently locally with people power persuading the Liverpool Alder Hey Trust to recall its plans to build 400 houses on promised park-land. Once non-party people DO organise themselves on an issue of importance to them, it is amazing what they can achieve, as the pro-parks protesters have repeatedly shown in Liverpool. The moral is straightforward – in the modern age, people will not tolerate political diktats from any party. They aspire to a form of leadership which listens attentively and sincerely to them, and then seeks to do things with communities, rather than to them.