Over the years, many critically-acclaimed books have been written on what constitutes effective political leadership: The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Doris Kearns Goodwin on Theodore Roosevelt, and The Prince by Machiavelli, to name but three.

Indeed, the challenges faced by political leaders are constantly evolving, but many of the principles of great political leadership have remained the same throughout history.

Last week, PLMR’s Antonio Dorileo, Aurora Horwood and I joined an audience of current and former high-profile politicians, public servants, journalists and political theorists to hear an esteemed panel discuss and debate this; the past, the present and to the future of leadership.

With a combined 200 years of experience, the panel was made up of former of Liberal Democrats Leader Lord Ashdown, former Labour Leader Lord Kinnock, and former Conservative Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd.  The panel also included King’s College Visiting Professor Lord Kenneth Morgan, Associate Editor of The Observer Andrew Rawnsley, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI Ben Page, and Head of the Politics Department at Queen Mary, University of London Dr Elizabeth Vallance as chair.

What the voter thinks: competence and paradoxes
Ben Page began proceedings by taking the audience through the latest analysis from Ipsos MORI on what the public thinks most matters in political leadership.  Research shows the public believe the most important qualities to include understanding Britain’s problems; being ‘capable’; having sound judgement; being good in a crisis; and being in touch with ordinary people.

Interestingly, competence appears to matter more than empathy, personality or ‘honesty’ – but ‘character’ helps as well.  The data suggests that the public seem to yearn for political leadership, which contrasts with how little they seem to respect or trust politicians.

This seems to be an incredibly complicated view of leadership, described by Page as “a sort of generalissimo command and control leadership, which is very rarely appropriate in the complex landscape of British politics”. Andrew Rawnsley picked up on this, with the paradox not lost that leaders face the difficult task of managing the public’s inconsistent demands for a strong leader, but also someone willing to listen to the views and needs of the public.

Perhaps if more time could be given to communicating to the public the challenge of securing this ‘middle ground’ of appeasement to as many as people as possible, they may change their understanding and respect for political leaders – particularly during these stormy times, when austerity makes things tougher for any leader.

Rawnsley identified how Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have cleverly fed into a consequent yearning for ‘authentic’ political leaders.  But if they were to be given genuine public responsibilities, the public attitudes to them would probably change, he added.

What the politician and academic thinks: Principles, imagination and communication
The panel largely agreed on the importance of qualities in resilience, courage, integrity, imagination, command of detail, the capacity to build trust, grow and develop your ideas, and effective communication as key to success for a political leader.

Lord Kinnock recalled how his father once told him: “MP stands not only for Member of Parliament but Man of Principle”. But in reflecting on Ipsos MORI’s findings, Kinnock stated that the greatest modern-day puzzle for political leadership is how understanding it has become more scientific then it used to be – and often misleading to politicians.

As a leader of an often fractured Labour Party of the 1980s, he felt the skills of internal party management are often overlooked in judging the success or failure of a political leader. “I don’t think it’s possible to lead a political party unless you stand up to strong elements within your party. [David] Cameron’s weakness is he has not stood up to those elements within his party”, he said.

Looking back at political leaders of yesteryear, Lord Hurd used the examples of Disraeli and Thatcher as “great” political leaders.  In his view, both were different but both succeeded “in capturing the imagination of the population”. Thatcher succeeded due to her clear convictions, which were deemed to be “honourable”, he said. On the other hand, Disraeli had no real convictions, but realised that courage and imagination were necessary traits to carry you through a successful career. Importantly, both showed they were good in a crisis, which bore fruit with continued electoral support.

But despite leaders like Thatcher and Blair enduring an ‘iconic’ legacy, their ‘Presidentialisation’ of UK government had mixed results during their tenures. Professor Morgan argued that although their positioning left them with huge credibility when things were going well, it also provoked huge scrutiny and criticism from the fallout of the poll tax and war in Iraq, for example. On the flipside, Morgan observed how history has often spoken kindly of Clement Atlee, widely regarded as an effective ‘team leader’ of big political characters like Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin and Stafford Cripps.

Does gender matter?
So with a history dominated by male personalities, is politics overwhelmingly biased against women? With Margaret Thatcher not only the single female Prime Minister to date, but also having presided over just one appointment of a female cabinet minister in eleven years, evidence that she heralded a tide of feminism in politics is a hard to justify.

Professor Lord Morgan agreed: “The traditions of the House of Commons are not susceptible to the role of women.  Thatcher was unusual and will remain so”, he said.  Lord Hurd also agreed, saying that her elevation to leader of the Conservatives had nothing to do with her gender: “She was impatient, not interested in the ‘you’re the first female PM’ clamour, and just thought she was best person for the job at the time”.

So the qualities of effective political leadership seem to encompass a range of attributes, which must challenge the paradoxes of what voters demand. Whether a female leader will be appointed in the near future and can become Prime Minister appears unlikely. However, an individual who can offer trust and engaging communication skills that capture the nation’s inspiration may be a good start. But do the leaders of today have what it takes to be effective campaigners and leaders?

The second part of ‘Political Leadership: What Matters?’ will follow next week.

Insights from the Northern Transport Summit 2024

PLMR’s CEO, Kevin Craig, discusses Post Office scandal, conversion therapy and the elderly’s status of wealth on LBC

Add PLMR to your contacts

PLMR’s crisis communications experience is second to none, and includes pre-emptive and reactive work across traditional and social media channels. We work with a range of organisations to offer critical communication support when they are faced with difficult and challenging scenarios.