If the summer of 2015 has a motif, it is apparently leadership, or the lack thereof.
Labour’s leadership campaign tediously malingers. It’s already clear that the candidates don’t yet inspire any great enthusiasm from the British public. Andy Burnham presents himself as being a world apart from the elite, but his career has been solely in politics: there’s no dash of real world experience (a la Alan Johnson) to add an earthiness to the mixture. Yvette Cooper suffers from a similar problem; also, she has a tendency to retreat into a shell of rehearsed phrases when hit with questions by the likes of Andrew Marr. Liz Kendall apparently believes that Labour should become a pale pink imitation of the Tories; she acts like cuts are less painful if done with blunt scissors. Jeremy Corbyn is by all accounts a very nice man and scrupulously honest (he claimed only £8.70 worth of expenses in 2010), however his appointment as Labour leader would probably be as electorally disastrous as the selection of Michael Foot (who was also nice and honest) for the same post in 1980. Mary Creagh may not get enough nominations; if that happens, it may very well be justified: her unique selling point is that she represents Wakefield. In all cases, there’s a lot of acknowledgement that Labour has a problem (Creagh is right in saying Labour is “analog in a digital age”), but not a great deal in terms of solutions being offered. The present field makes me nostalgic, neuroses and all, for Gordon Brown. Brown had a coherence, force and appeal that none of current contenders seem to possess. Whenever I’m asked who has my vote, I feel like unfurling a giant beige flag indicating my fervent neutrality.
“Who leads?” is not just a question with which Labour is grappling. In the United States, there are currently 14 “major” presidential contenders with more likely to pile in. Rather like cable television stations in that country, there’s a great many choices but nothing one would want. Hillary Clinton can’t rail against the Establishment: she has long been part of it. Bernie Sanders is the American equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, someone who reliably speaks his mind but has difficulty getting the wider public to swallow his ideas: to borrow an old show business phrase, he doesn’t play in Peoria. Martin O’Malley is nearly unknown outside the state of Maryland and lacks the back story and charm of Jimmy Carter, the last governor to surge from obscurity to the White House. Lincoln Chaffee’s main claim to fame is having been a Republican who realised after 8 years that the GOP didn’t want a moderate from Rhode Island in their ranks.
On the Republican side, you can have any flavour you want, so long as it’s Tutti Frutti. There is everything from aspiring dynasts like Jeb Bush to union-busting headbangers like Scott Walker to a son of immigrants fearful to talk up immigration like Marco Rubio, to a surgeon, Ben Carson, who obviously wandered into the wrong room, to Dubya’s Attack of the Clones-esque sequel Rick Perry. If these choices were items on the nation’s computer desktop, it would be click, hold, drag and drop right into the Recycle Bin. Again, if asked to choose between any of the contenders, I’d unfurl an even larger beige banner. Perhaps this is more disturbing, as unlike the Labour leader, the next President will have the power to blow up the world.
It’s not all gloom and doom. The choices for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party are genuinely interesting: there’s Rupert Murdoch’s nemesis Tom Watson, the digitally savvy Stella Creasy, and Ben Bradshaw, who somehow managed to turn Exeter into a Helm’s Deep of red marooned in a vast sea of blue. All three are interesting; all three have something to say and possess an appeal that reaches beyond fringe meetings at Labour Party conferences or Fabian Society shindigs. But it’s a very strange situation in which the bottom half of a leadership combination is actually more fascinating than the top, rather as if an American Vice Presidential nominee was more qualified, intriguing and well spoken than his potential supervisor. That happened when Dick Cheney ran alongside George W. Bush: the results were catastrophic. The last time the Democrats experienced the same situation was in 1988. Then, the venerable Lloyd Bentsen was ostensibly going to report to Michael Dukakis. They didn’t win, sparing the Free World from bursting out laughing at the spectacle of Lloyd calling Mike his boss.
Why do we have such a dearth of leadership or find it in the wrong places? Perhaps the blip that was Chuka Umunna’s leadership campaign tells us something: shock, horror, he actually has a private life and dates women. Somehow this was worthy of media scrutiny to the point that he felt the only way he could maintain a modicum of dignity was to withdraw. This stems partially from media bias, but also from the laziness that plagues much of modern journalism: if they can exaggerate, obfuscate and imply sexual or financial impropriety from something that’s facile to uncover, that is much easier than investigating what is really going on.
Perhaps people have become jaded about the potential of politics to effect change. There was widespread astonishment at the levels of turnout for the Scottish referendum in 2014: 84.5% of those who could vote, did so. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised: it was a clear political crossroads in which a vote determined the fate of the country. Few elections just as obviously offer the prospect of momentous change, even if they will result in such a shift. It’s much easier to think all politicians are the same, the system is rigged, you fought the law and the law won. With such a prevailing attitude, it seems like too much trouble to attend meetings, knock on doors, stuff leaflets through mail slots, i.e., all the things that will get you selected as a candidate. After all, even if you do all that and sacrifice free time and shoe leather, what chance do you have of making a difference? Those who remain regardless of these perceived obstacles are the few political enthusiasts who are decidedly not part of the mainstream; this grants a certain level of expertise, but may also curse many candidates with a distance from a discourse that would connect with the wider public. Perhaps the biggest danger of Liz Kendall’s candidacy is that if the main political menu only offers different flavours of Tory, then the talent pool could very well narrow further.
Perhaps I am to blame. Or rather, people like me. I have never stood for anything apart from one post within a trade union, I generally dislike meetings, I have chucked rhetorical water balloons at the Establishment for years without taking on any particular responsibility myself. At best, my targets were briefly doused or made a touch uncomfortable, but undeterred. I and others like me should remember: if we don’t like things, we should become part of the process and not be disheartened by setbacks along that road. We don’t have to hoist the beige flag of neutrality forever, we can run up colours of our own. I fully intend to do so…as soon as I figure out how that’s even possible.