It is only a few hours to go before we Liberal Democrats find out who we are to get as our new leader. I had hoped to have posted a series of articles setting out my views on some of the challenges he will face. I found it harder than I expected to get my thoughts in order, mainly through having more ideas for things to say than was helpful, and time has beaten me. My intention to catch up at the weekend also came to nothing as I decided to have too much fun on Friday and Saturday nights than is conducive to insightful political commentary
However, there is still time for some general thoughts on leadership as I look forward to what I hope will be a more fruitful period for the party.
Leading the Liberal Democrats is often described as being like herding cats. This is meant either as a backhanded compliment or as a complimentary insult and is intended to convey the stubbornness and contrariness of the Lib Dem membership. It suggests a party that is sceptical of leadership itself and unwilling to easily conform with the directions of its leaders. The lack of the herding instinct in your average feline is to be compared with the bloody-mindedness of the typical Lib Dem activist. There is a great deal of truth in this, something I am extremely glad for, but it isn’t the whole picture.
I think the lesson to be taken from the cat herding analogy is not so much a picture of the temperament of Lib Dem activists, but an understanding that the culture of the party is such that it clashes with the traditional ‘command and control’ model of leadership within British politics. The way the Liberal Democrats operate, both in style and structure, is different from that of the other two main parties. A Liberal Democrat leader just can’t do some of the things that Brown would take for granted in the Labour Party or Cameron has been able to do with the Conservatives. We just don’t work like that. Something else I am also extremely glad for.
However, it is also true that in some situations it can be surprisingly easy to lead a group of Liberal Democrats. Our general reasonableness and wish to consider all sides of an argument, combined with a general desire to avoid conflict, and the lack of strong groups of organised vested interests provides our leaders with enormous scope to set an agenda. We can give our leaders tremendous leeway at times. I well remember the rows over party strategy in the last few years of Paddy Ashdown’s leadership, but I also remember from that time just how compliant an awful lot of the party’s membership were. The lesson for our new leader is that if you stroke our fur the right way and provide us with the right sort of bowls of cream we have a tendency to let you get away with murder.
This tendency can be seen positively as giving our leaders room to get on and lead. Having chosen a leader we do have to place our trust in them and let them do the job. However, I think at times this tendency has become a detrimental tolerance of poor performance.
As a member of the party I feel I have been loyal to both Kennedy and Campbell and have at times defended them against internal critics. I may too have fallen into the trap of finding excuses for poor performance, but most of the time I have felt justified in defending them for two main reasons. The first is our failure of collective leadership. The second is that I have seen too many examples of poor followership.
The leadership of an organisation is a collective process. Only in very unhealthy organisations is the burden of leadership placed solely on one individual. In a ‘liberal’ organisation especially, the process of leadership needs to be shared and devolved throughout the organisation’s structures.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals who have held the title of ‘Leader’ within the Liberal Democrats, any failures in leadership can’t be put down to those individuals alone. There has been both structural flaws within the party and a failure by other individuals to step up to the mark which has led to a failure in leadership. I would particularly point to the role of the Party President and the Federal Executive in this, but it goes wider.
I do see some positive signs that our failings in collective leadership can be addressed. The more prominent role that our leaders in local government are taking within the party is one example. But I believe that it is important for us to understand that the party’s under performance of the past few years cannot just be laid at the door of Kennedy and Campbell, nor will our problems be solved just by replacing them with Clegg or Huhne.
If the leadership of an organisation is a collective process, then that process involves an ongoing interaction between leaders and the led. Leaders require followers, and just like leadership is a skill that needs to be nurtured and developed, so is followership.
What I mean by this is that all party members have a responsibility to make the leadership of the party work. I don’t mean by this that we should all be good little boys and girls and do what we are told. I mean that we need to develop a mature and properly liberal relationship with our leaders. This requires both scrutiny and challenge of what they are doing, and a constructive engagement with the issues that they have to wrestle with. A good example of how we currently get this wrong is just how little challenge there often is of the decisions of important party bodies, the failure to ask questions of reports at Federal Conference for instance.
I have often felt obliged to more strongly defend both Kennedy and Campbell in discussion than I otherwise would have done because those criticising so often failed to offer any positive suggestions or alternative ways forward.
No matter how brilliant our new leader turns out to be, he will not be able to fix our problems and take us forward to the next stage of the party’s growth unless the party as a whole develops a willingness to look at and address the difficult issues we are faced with. This is a job for all of us.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.