Political parties, like businesses, must wake up and recognise that while having one lone figurehead may be good for brand recognition, it’s not so good for long-term success, says Ab Banerjee.
The Conservatives won the general election. They gained the most seats. And despite the majority of polls, the Labour Party did make some spectacular gains.
Both parties put their leaders front and centre. May and Corbyn carried their respective campaigns almost singlehandedly. But for the Tories, it was a disaster, and next time it could be Corbyn that fails.
The cult of the political leader has gone too far. It’s time for all parties to recognise that their leader can’t carry them successfully on their own; to accept that politics is a team sport and that broadening the profile of their top team not only benefits the country, but their parties too.
Politics must overcome its infatuation with strong singlehanded leaders
One thing is for sure, if you push the great leader angle for long enough, you set yourself up for eventual disappointment and failure. If you buy into the idea that the success of a political party is all down to the leader, your chances of long-term success diminish rapidly.
Why? For a number of very good reasons. First, the cult of the all-powerful political leader leaves the Prime Minister, whoever that might be, struggling with the collective weight of stress and pressure that comes with running the country.
Under normal circumstances, this pressure can become exhausting and debilitating. But we’re living in very unusual times right now. The country is battling unpredictable events that are largely outside of the government’s direct control, like the Brexit negotiations, the Manchester and London Bridge attacks, and the Grenfell Tower tragedy. No single person can successfully carry all these competing demands.
Similarly, for Jeremy Corbyn, the bar has been raised very high. He delivered a remarkable result. But for him there is no time to rest or regroup, and to fall back on others now may harm his credibility. Labour voters have got used to seeing Corbyn and him alone. They will expect the same levels of exposure and energy from him for ever.
The reputation of a political party should not rest on the shoulders of one person
Secondly, the cult of the leader puts the political party at tremendous reputational risk. When you place a leader out front, the political party, and indeed the country, become hostage to the reputation of that single individual. One false move by the leader and everyone suffers.
The Conservatives ran a presidential-style campaign. They put Theresa May on a pedestal and then lifted that platform to ridiculous and dangerous heights. They staked their credibility on her. And when their Manifesto failed to delight, the only person the voters could see above the crowd was Theresa May – and she, naturally, took all the blame.
When things came unstuck, the Tories left themselves with no room to pivot. Labour on the other hand, did have room to pivot – towards Jeremy Corbyn. When things became tricky after a string of unfortunate interviews by Shadow Cabinet members, the Party turned to Corbyn. They hoisted him up onto the same pedestal; putting him above all others. And it worked. But for how long?
None of this is new in UK politics. Tony Blair and David Cameron both committed the same mistake; taking over leadership of their parties by force of personality, leading energetically from the front, brokering little or no dissent, and filling their ranks with ‘yes’ men and women who felt like they couldn’t disagree.
And there’s the rub. When a leader starts to believe his or her own publicity, they are on the road to creating a situation every bit as dangerous as the cult of the CEO.
We must stop believing in the cult of the political leader before it’s too late
The business community is already starting to learn that the cult of the CEO is not good for business. It puts all of the company’s eggs in one basket and there’s nowhere to turn if things go wrong. The CEO is held personally accountable for poor company performance caused by things completely outside their control, such as market volatility, and if they leave, the company share price can crash.
Businesses are starting to recognise that while having one lone figurehead may be good for brand recognition, it’s not so good for long-term profits and success. They are starting to accept that more balance is required and that by increasing the visibility and public proactivity of their management teams they are doing the company – and the CEO – a favour.
Now is time for political parties to learn that same lesson too.
The good news is that the solution is easy: there is a wealth of talent in politics in all parties, but the communications teams and leadership needs to take more proactive steps to elevate the profile of these individuals. They need to reinforce at every opportunity that there is a team at the top – and not just an individual.
Political parties can start by actively promoting other members of their team; spreading the public engagements, putting them up for interview slots, giving them the support they require to become highly effective ambassadors of their policies.
But perhaps even more than this, senior political teams need to work harder to become comfortable with each other, with different ideas and with internal dissent. They should seek out feedback at every level, and formalise methods of collecting and gathering this feedback.
They need to start thinking and acting like a company team. If they can do this, it will benefit us all in the long run.