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It’s time to talk about leadership

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a woman and a man dancing wearing bright blue in a brightly lit studio
Photo: BBC

It’s time we started facing up to the fact that leadership now is too big a job for politicians on their own

We’re all in charge but we don’t know what we’re doing

When I was very young I told a teacher at my school that I could tap dance. Either my teacher was taken in by my fantasy or could spot a liar – because very quickly I found myself in front of the class awkwardly shuffling on the spot, pretending to tap dance when I very obviously couldn’t.

This early brush with dance-floor humiliation might explain why I’m a terrible dancer and a newly converted fan of Ed Balls. The former Labour politician is becoming a ‘national treasure’ – as each week he survives the Strictly Come Dancing judges’ opprobrium to stay in the show. With gusto and self-deprecation, he is styling out his hopelessness for the millions of us who can’t dance. As a consequence, thousands of people are voting for him, like they’ve never voted for a Brownite politician before.

Things aren’t going so well, though, for Ed Balls’ former colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons – who themselves appear to be attempting to style out their difficulties, sadly with less aplomb.

Both the government and the opposition have struggled to come up with coherent plans for Britain’s departure from the European Union. Frequent pronouncements are only adding to the sense that Brexit might be the greatest challenge they’ve faced. Which, of course, it is.

This air of uncertain competence is not as endearing in serving politicians as it is when embodied by former ones. Boris Johnson, once seen himself as a national treasure, is now being treated as a global embarrassment.

Leadership and uncertainty

It would be easy to indulge in truisms, call politics a cruel mistress – even point out that governing in difficult times should be the greatest honour to which a politician can aspire. But these are not just difficult times.

Politics – as the old saying goes – is the art of the possible. But right now our politicians are facing the impossible. And not just in the shape of Brexit – where a majority of Brits favour unchanged access to the European Union’s single market, but with immigration controls that have already been ruled out by remaining EU members.

From climate change, to a growing chasm of inequality, to the sense that the West – after generations of global dominance – is on the wane, we are seeing challenges that our politicians can’t just style out on their own. That means we will have to change our expectations of how politicians and governments solve these challenges – and, indeed, our own role in the solutions.

If we were to imagine that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition had both spelled out how difficult a Brexit would likely be it is not hard to fathom the reaction their honesty would receive. The markets would tumble, and the tabloid newspapers would wail. Ultimately, we would be no closer to a solution – only watching a different set of politicians trying desperately to style it out.

Instead, we have the unedifying prospect of uncertainty that politicians have to pretend doesn’t exist, choosing either stony silence or speculative busking to keep us calm. A constant analogy has been a game of poker. ‘We won’t reveal our hand in negotiations with our European partners, because to do so would weaken our position,’ we are told. That unwittingly betrays a sense of random chance that none of us can be comfortable with, particularly given that the cards in the government’s hand are our own futures.

Leadership needs to change

So how do we grow up? Brexit and the even greater challenges that lie ahead won’t be solved by our politicians pretending they can simply sort them out, or by us expecting them to. Calling for a ‘new kind of politics’, meanwhile, is just as facile as the poker analogy. Instead, we have to start asking questions about the concept of leadership in the 21st century – recognising that it really isn’t one person’s job any more.

By the end of the 20th century we had largely adopted a system of parliamentary democracy in the West and elsewhere that offered a degree of popular involvement restricted to elections. This made sense, given the constraints of the industrial age. It invested power in a relatively small group of people for entirely practical reasons.

Around that system grew a culture of political scrutiny that responded to our political leaders as the sole arbiters of the future, albeit for limited periods. Newspapers, TV and radio journalists each did their jobs to pick at, understand and challenge the political class, but it remained a politician’s job to lead.

Today we are unburdened by the restraints of the industrial age but have made few attempts to explore how our democracies need to change. An age of information has helped to distribute power in new ways. In some cases this has turned the notion of leadership on its head completely. Is Theresa May more or less of a leader than someone who commands millions of followers on Twitter? The obvious answer starts to look more and more shaky when Donald Trump is elected US President.

Nonetheless, our political systems have not responded. They are largely the same top-down institutions that they were when they succeeded monarchies in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps, given the challenges they now face, it is not surprising that we are seeing more and more referendums, unhelpfully lobbing tricky questions to the voting public and then scrambling when the answers that come back don’t suit.

Similarly, the media – so vital in calling to account our politicians – is caught in its own interregnum. As newspapers go to the wall, new media businesses emerge that command huge power but are less constrained by the standards we expected from their predecessors.

The only way of addressing this is to start to be honest, both about the scale of the challenges, and to face the fact that we are moving to a new kind of democratic and political system, one in which control is much less fixed than it was. The response to this will need to be more than just a switch in voting systems – like moving to proportional representation. It will require a full-scale change in our thinking that starts with questions about who leads, how do they lead and when? More pertinently, it needs to address what involvement we all have in leadership. We each face profound issues about how we manage this, but those challenges are upon us now.

This will have to start with a conversation about our democratic institutions at the very least. They are woefully out of date. If politicians can’t yet be honest about their own readiness for the scale of the challenges we face, we must at least make sure they are made to confront this.

Brighton

Networked Councillor: connecting with your councillor (or council) online

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Rows of chairs in front of a line of tables
City Council Chamber, Seattle , 1962 from Seattle Municipal Archives (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This morning I came into work with the intention of writing a blog post about Networked Councillor. The idea was to try to say something meaningful about the project for myself. You can learn more about what that’s all about here.

Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything particularly meaningful that hadn’t been said by someone better qualified, so I figured it might be a good idea to investigate, for just a minute, how easy it might be to contact a councillor for myself.

Problem was – and this is a terrible confession to make – I wasn’t even sure what the name of my ward was, let alone my councillors’ names, so I needed to take a look on the Brighton and Hove City Council website to find out. Unfortunately – and while it really is a very nice looking website – when I found the ‘find your councillor’ page within the Council and Democracy section, it didn’t help.

I’d expected to find a postcode look-up service, which I remember the council having before. So I asked the council on Twitter. Within a few minutes, not only did I have a response, but a commitment to resolve the problem, as you can see from this Storify of the tweets…

Brilliant. A few years ago, a (very minor) problem like this could have gone unnoticed for weeks because, while people would have spotted it, they may have considered it too trifling to bother with given the time it would take to tell someone. Now social media permit people to quickly say something that can lead to real action with minimal fuss.

That is as important for councillors as it is for councils. If I’m being brutally honest, the time I’ve got to share stuff with politicians is limited. Just as if I’d been faced with filling out a form or writing a letter I might have not told the council about the problem with the website, if I’m faced with attending a surgery in person or writing a letter, I probably wouldn’t talk to my councillor. Frankly, if councillors don’t make it easy for me to talk to them, I won’t and I’m guessing I’m not alone in holding this sentiment. In that light, it’s natural that many of us don’t think councillors are people who can solve problems for us – when , in fact, they often are.

That’s a problem for us all, because it can have a corrosive effect on the power of local democracy to solve local problems, which obviously is a bad thing. But cases like the one I’ve highlighted offer a little light at the end of the tunnel, as does the Networked Councillor report, because it sheds light on how we can be better connected to local democracy.

This blog post was supposed to add to the debate around the report – on what we should expect from councillors and how they should navigate this world. I’m afraid it’s done absolutely nothing to help that. But at least, maybe, it’s illustrated why getting online makes sense – and how  it will help councillors connect with people like me, who are online, time poor, short of attention but nonetheless have something to say. There are more than a few of us, I’m guessing.