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A case for collective leadership

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The debate about who should be the next Labour leader begs the question: should there be a single leader at all rather than a leadership team? There’s much to be said for the latter*. For one thing, a good leader must do several jobs. They must develop policy; unite and inspire the PLP; win the votes of older Northerners without alienating metropolitan liberals; and motivate and recruit activists and organize an effective ground campaign. (The latter is important: Labour cannot win a top-down campaign and needs a strong mass membership to combat media lies.) There’s no reason to believe that the candidate best able to do one or two of these jobs an do them all. That’s a case for collective leadership. Nor is there any reason to suppose that Labour members are well-equipped to choose a

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The debate about who should be the next Labour leader begs the question: should there be a single leader at all rather than a leadership team?

There’s much to be said for the latter*. For one thing, a good leader must do several jobs. They must develop policy; unite and inspire the PLP; win the votes of older Northerners without alienating metropolitan liberals; and motivate and recruit activists and organize an effective ground campaign. (The latter is important: Labour cannot win a top-down campaign and needs a strong mass membership to combat media lies.) There’s no reason to believe that the candidate best able to do one or two of these jobs an do them all. That’s a case for collective leadership. Labour-leadership-comp-2

Nor is there any reason to suppose that Labour members are well-equipped to choose a single best leader, and not just because they prioritize perceived ideological homophily over evidence of competence. Leftists have a long history - from Napoleon to Chavez and perhaps Corbyn – of investing leaders with qualities they do not in fact have and of regarding leadership as some magic quality.  Collective leadership would put an end to these silly habits.

It would also help defuse the personal attacks which the next leader will face from the media. It will present (say) Keir Starmer as an out-of-touch privileged elitist but unleash a torrent of snobbery and sexism against (say) Rebecca Long-Bailey. But what if both were members of the leadership team? They could make one attack, but not the other. They’d be playing a futile game of whack-a-mole.

 And there’s much to be said for collective leadership. As Jeffrey Nielsen showed in The Myth of Leadership, rank-based organizations demotivate subordinates and ignore the tacit knowledge of the many. In the same spirit, Archie Brown argues in The Myth of the Strong Leader that “strength” is much less of a virtue in leaders than things like energy, wisdom, adaptability and ability to handle diversity – virtues more likely to be found in a group than a single person. When a leader dominates his party, says Brown, he is often in fact kowtowing to some other group or person: Corbynites who attack Blair for following Bush and Murdoch, and Blairites who attack Corbyn for being in thrall to Milne would both agree with this. Collective leadership avoids that problem.

Better still, for me, is that it would help change the agenda. In choosing a leadership team rather than a individual, Labour would be making an important and true point – that large complex organizations cannot be run by a single person from the top down, and the belief that they can is a big cause of both inequality and inefficiency. They would raise a key question about all organizations: does this need to be run by Stalinist top-down methods and of so why? That’s the start of a direct assault upon inequality and centralized power.

For this reason, choosing a leadership team would be very different from the “all must have prizes” indecision that led to the Booker and Turner prizes being jointly awarded. A single prize is justified for an outstanding candidate. But leadership is not a prize. It is a means to an end. And sometimes, the end is best achieved by collective leadership.

Of course, such leadership requires that the joint leaders subordinate their egos to the collective good. But anybody unwilling or unable to do this is, by definition, unfit to hold a senior position in a socialist party.

The counter-argument to all this is that it doesn’t answer the question voters and the media will ask: who’ll be Prime Minister if Labour win the next election? One answer to this is that the UK does not have a presidential system, and shouldn’t. Prime Ministers used to be regarded as primus inter pares, and the question of who chairs Cabinet meetings should be only one that voters ask, and not be the most important. Politics is not an episode of Love Island, where you vote for your favourite character.

Yes, offering a leadership team will be presented by the media as "weak." But so too will any individual Labour leader, and leaders of the opposition often look weak simply by virtue of not being in power. Labour could reply to such silly allegations that there is strength in numbers, and the party has enough talent to provide several leaders, not one.  

I say all this in the sure and certain expectation that Labour will do nothing like it. The party’s fixation with top-down (rent-seeking) leadership emulates the worst of capitalism. In this respect, it is not as radical as it should be.

* The Green party has, on and off, had co-leaders and principal speakers for years. I’m not sure whether their experience teaches us much, though. The challenge for a small party is how to raise its profile whereas the challenge for Labour is, in part, to avoid its leader being a liability.

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