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‘Crisis’ of Leadership

This is the second blogpost from the dissertation series.

The ‘crisis’ of leadership is not so much a crisis but more an observation of trends towards the leadership and how the leadership has operated.

This ‘crisis’ begins with Ramsay MacDonald, arguably the first dominant Labour leader, where previously it was a collective leadership. When the Great Depression hit Britain, MacDonald’s adherence to economic orthodoxy spun the Labour Party into crisis and the formation of the National Government under MacDonald in 1931.
This was brought about by a ten percent cut in the rate of unemployment benefit which split the cabinet with nine out of twenty dissenting on the issue. It resigned on 23 August 1931 and on the next day it had transpired that MacDonald had handed in the Labour cabinet’s commission and accepted a new one in collaboration with the Conservatives and Liberals.

As a consequence the political philosophy of gradualism, and anything associated with the ‘traitor’ MacDonald, was rejected, even by those who had been close to him and benefited from his patronage.

This rejection led to a change in leadership that was based on the collectivism of socialist principles. The leader of the Labour Party became a first among equals. The caretaker leadership of Henderson and Lansbury did not do a lot to redefine Labour apart from oversee the rejection of MacDonald and the associated political philosophy. By the time Attlee was elected in 1935 the party had shifted towards a planned economy, bolstered by the success of the Soviet model which gave an antidote to the gradualism of MacDonald and the ‘cult of impotence’ preached by the National Government.

In this period there were lots of big personalities, such as Bevan, Bevin, Dalton, and Cripps, but no one dominated. Attlee, himself, was a quiet man who got things done. However it was not rosy for Labour as they were criticised by Keynes.

“[There is] little divergence between the political implications of my ideas and the policy of the Labour Party… I should officially join that party if it did not seem to be divided between enthusiasts who turn against a thing if there seems a chance that it could possibly happen, and leaders so conservative that there is more hope from Mr. Baldwin.”

And it was through the public acceptance and enthusiasm fro Keynes and Beveridge that encouraged Labour to adopt them as official policy.

It was during the war that the Common Wealth Party was active, doing what Labour did only more so, whilst also calling for the immediate implementation of Beveridge. This tactic led to the belief the Common Wealth and Beveridge were synonymous. Towards the end of the war Common Wealth applied to Labour for affiliation but were unsuccessful, but could join as individuals. This could be a result of the step back from dominant personalities by the Labour leadership.

Common Wealth was created from an amalgamation of Priestley’s 1941 Committee and Acland’s Forward March movement in 1942. It soon became a personal project for Acland, who led the party, contesting the war time by-elections. Common Wealth did not offer the electorate anything new, yet it made large in roads in the by-elections, largely, due to Acland’s oratory skills. It was said of Acland, by Orwell, that he had the makings of a fascist with a personal cult following of ~15,000. It was this, coupled with the betrayal of MacDonald and Mosley, that forced the Labour leadership to reject the application for affiliation – it was too dangerous to have a big personality with a cult following in the party as it would have been easy for him to have asserted his dominance, challenge the leadership and become another MacDonald.

The theme of dominance was once again asserted in 1951 when there was a clash between two personalities, Bevan and Gaitskell, as both tried to assert his dominance over the other. The issue at hand being the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles in order to pay for the Korean War.

From the collapse of the Labour government in 1951 through to the election of Blair in 1994, the Labour leadership has been largely collective in its nature.

When Blair was elected in 1994 he was quick to assert his dominance over the party and the office of Labour leader. Clause IV was replaced and the Labour Party was once again committed to gradualism. When Blair resigned from office in 2007, the unpopular, former Prime Minister was quickly denounced. However, Brown did not assert his dominance or adopt the collective leadership and, thus, allowed factionalism to flourish.

The election of Ed Miliband in 2010 appears to have proved that the Labour Party has reverted to type – a collective, non-dominated style of leadership. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the collective style of leadership produced one of the most effective governments in 1945. But Labour does need to reassess and redefine what it stands for.

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