PLMR's Antonio Dorileo, Aurora Horwood and I recently joined an audience of current and former high-profile politicians, public servants, leading journalists and political theorists to hear an esteemed panel discuss and debate what constitutes effective political leadership.

Drawing upon their combined 200 years of knowledge, experience and insight that pointed to the past, the present and to the future of leadership, this is the second part of a two-part blog on ‘Political Leadership: What Matters?’ (the first part can be read here)

Today’s political leaders: unconvincing, navel-gazing and overpromising? 

In the modern world of 24 hour news, social media and an insatiable public appetite for soundbites and sensationalism, the response of many politicians is to work in the short-term, and allow the political timetable to be set by tomorrow’s headlines. This is summed up by speculation on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.

Lord Ashdown said: “We’ve got to fight like hell, due to this growing problem of short-term political appeasement”, the Europhile Lord Kinnock said. “But no politician has the courage to make the case for the EU – it’s a political vacuum, as the absence of strong leadership in favour of the EU has ceded the argument to the other side, which will leave us in a bad position for this country.”

The make-up of the current coalition government suggests a deeper trend of rethinking on our political leaders. In 1951, 95% voted either Labour or Conservative. But in 2010, only two-thirds of voters opted for either of the big two parties. Whilst Lord Ashdown argued that the coalition was a product of both “an out-of-touch, unconvincing leader and manifesto”, Lord Hurd astutely explained that a real problem with modern political leadership is the prevalence of “over-promising”: to do more and make things better, and then being unable to work within realistic expectations. Therefore, perhaps leaders should always under-promise and over-deliver; rather than over-promise and under-deliver.

Alex Salmond: the modern example of effective leadership?

As a leader who has delivered on his promise to deliver a major policy commitment through a referendum on Scottish independence Alex Salmond, Scottish First Minister is perhaps, a political phenomenon of recent times.  Andrew Rawnsley admitted that Salmond had wrong-footed every political opponent in Scotland, because he had resilience: “an under-rated quality in the best leaders”, in returning from the wilderness for a second stint as leader of the SNP.

Kinnock had an altogether different view of Salmond, describing him as “one lucky politician, in both the timing and circumstances he’s leading his party and country”. He argued that Salmond had not pronounced a clear idea of Scottish independence, but that whenever David Cameron speaks out on the debate, it provokes a nationalistic reaction in Scotland, playing into Salmond’s hands.

Lord Ashdown observed how you could divide politicians into two areas: position-takers (‘I know where I stand – so here I am’) and positioners (taking advantage of a situation). In Ashdown’s view, Salmond is currently the most effective ‘positioner’ in British politics, and that his resilience, strategic patience and political manoeuvring have been his greatest political assets. However, perhaps we should pass judgement on Salmond for a few months yet. His real test begins now, as we approach the vote on Scottish independence, and wait expectantly to see whether he has secured enough broad based public appeal to secure the landmark changes to Scotland he craves.

The effective political leader: a poet or a plumber?
Looking back, Lord Kinnock dubbed his leadership style as “more plumbing than poetry, having had to manage Labour’s left-wing activists and internal party divisions during the 1980s”.

But in 2014, what is required of the modern, effective political leader? Using the example of Nye Bevan as “an artist in the use of power and articulating a vision”, Professor Lord Morgan argued that they must combine a grasp of detail with the capacity to convince and convert the opinion of voters.

Lord Ashdown stated that without moral courage and character, all the other gifts a political leader can offer will vanish in the crucial moment of crisis. But for those exceptional leaders, having a metaphysical quality to jump from where you are to where you should be is a quality of genius.

Finally, Andrew Rawnsley observed that fashions in political leadership change. Barack Obama was very fashionable a few years ago, as he sold a vision through ‘poetry’. But times have changed, and he believed that the most popular political leader now may well by Angela Merkel – more of a ‘plumber’ as we battle the difficult times of a 21st century economic downturn.

So there are a lot of aspects that go into the make-up of a modern, effective political leader, and perhaps the best leaders are both poets and plumbers. The attributes that ultimately stand out are the valuable power to communicate a vision effectively, building trust, having principles, and combining the management of both the domestic and international political arena, in a modern globalised world. You must be able to talk through the medium that the electorate are accustomed to, because without that you won’t be able to get through. Whether anyone can match up to these attributes and the majority of the others remains to be seen, but this certainly acts as a good barometer to run potential candidates by, as we identify and assess the effectiveness of potential leaders of the future.

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