Ballsing it up: Leadership is now everyone’s problem

Our current crisis in political leadership requires radical solutions

Credit: BBC

When I was four years old I told my class I could tap dance. Either my teacher was taken in or could spot a fibber — because I soon found myself in front of the class shuffling awkwardly, trying to pretend I could tap dance.

This early brush with dance-floor humiliation might explain why I’m now a fan of Ed Balls. The former Labour politician appears set for ‘national treasure’ status — each week surviving the Strictly Come Dancing judges’ opprobrium to stay in the show. With gusto and self-deprecation, he is styling out his own ineptitude brilliantly. Thousands are voting for him as no one has voted for a Labour politician since, oh, 2005.

Things aren’t going so well for Ed Balls’ old pals in the House of Commons — who are trying to style it out rather less successfully. Both the government and the opposition seem unable to arrive at coherent plans for Britain’s departure from the European Union. Rows, like that between Keir Starmer and John McDonnell, are only adding to the sense Brexit might be the greatest challenge they’ve faced. Which it is.

An air of ineptitude is not endearing in politicians when it isn’t dressed in spandex and sequins. Boris Johnson, once a pretender for national treasure himself, is now closer to a global embarrassment.

Leadership in impossible times

It’s tempting to argue that these difficult times call for some half-decent political leaders — to hope Ed Balls can paso-doble his way back into the Commons and sort things out.

But these are not just difficult times. Politics — as the old saying goes — is the art of the possible. 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 in tandem with immigration controls already ruled out by EU members.

From climate change, to rising inequality, to the sense that the West’s dominance is on the wane, we face problems that are too big for politicians to solve on their own. But right now that’s what we’re expecting. And it isn’t working.

If we were to imagine that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition had both spelled out how difficult a Brexit would be it is not hard to fathom how their honesty would be received. The markets would tumble, tabloids would wail and we would be no closer to a solution. But that is exactly what should have happened.

Instead, we have the unedifying prospect of our politicians pretending everything’s fine when it isn’t. 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. It betrays a sense of chance, even bluff, in the government’s position. None of us can be comfortable with that, given the cards in the government’s hand are our own futures.

Leadership needs to change

So how do we grow up enough to be honest about the challenge? We have to start asking questions about how we expect political leadership to work in the 21st century, recognising that it isn’t one person’s job any more.

By the end of the 20th century we had adopted a system of parliamentary democracy in the West and elsewhere that offered a degree of popular involvement, restricted to elections. It invested power in a small group 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. Newspapers, TV and radio journalists did their jobs to challenge the political class, but it remained a politician’s job to lead.

Today everything except our democratic system has changed. A new age of information is distributing power in new, strange ways, turning the notion of leadership on its head. Is Theresa May more or less of a leader than someone who commands millions of followers on social media? The obvious answer looks shaky when Donald Trump is elected US President.

Our outmoded democratic systems are incapable of responding to this. Perhaps, given the challenges they now face, it is hardly surprising politicians are resorting to referendums, lobbing tricky questions at the voting public, and scrambling when they don’t like the answers.

Similarly, the media — vital in calling to account our politicians — has its own problems. As newspapers go to the wall, social media firms are taking over. These businesses command huge power but have little regard for the same standards we expected from their predecessors.

The only way of addressing this is to be honest about the scale of the challenges. We are moving to a new kind of democratic and political system, one in which power is much less fixed.

Our response will involve more than a switch in voting systems, such as moving to proportional representation. It requires a full-scale change in thinking. This will have to rethink political leadership to respond to capacity and innovation outside government; it must address the weaknesses of accountability and engagement that our current system suffers from.

That will have to start for now with a conversation about how we reform our democratic institutions. They are woefully out of date. If politicians can’t yet be honest about the challenges we face, we must make sure they are at least made to confront this immediate problem.

You’ll see another version of this post on my blog: It’s time to talk about leadership