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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Political leadership in an anti-political age

Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce ask how political leadership might be rehabilitated in? an anti-political climate, and argue that a widely held desire for popular self-government requires new kinds of leadership that can direct this sensibility towards, rather than against, democracy itself.

Introduction

What does it mean to be a political leader in an anti-political age? One of the paradoxes of contemporary politics is that the yearning for a strong, or transformational, leader figure – one who can sweep aside the compromises and constraints of politics – has become ever stronger in a period in which politicians themselves are viewed with increasing contempt. Just as electorates decry manufactured, 'out of touch' or even 'weird' politicians, they also demand decisive and authentic leaders who can rise above the petty and partisan political game and signal the return of 'real' forms of leadership.

The durability and deepening of disenchantment with politics suggests that anti-political sentiments are not solely the result of contingent events, or of the particular decisions made by leaders, such as the Iraq war, MPs' expenses or other scandals – though clearly they can be exacerbated by these events. Nor has the anti-politics swell been caused solely by the increasing proclivity of parts of the electorate – especially older, white, male voters – to vote for populist-nationalists like Ukip or the Tea Party, though that is also an important aspect of the wider mood. One of the most neglected yet important sites and sources of the loathing of politics is leader figures themselves.

Contemporary expectations and disappointments about leaders need to be placed in three wider contexts if they are to be properly understood. First, the emergence in the modern era of the concept of 'the people' as a sovereign body in possession of a unified will; second, the recurrent concerns of influential liberal thinkers about the dangers of the tyranny of mass opinion and the need for wise leaders, as well as countervailing institutional structures, to offset this tyranny; and, third, the development in modern democratic politics of an understanding of leadership – in both its executive and legislative functions – as characterised by the exercise of independent judgement on behalf of the public interest, rather than as a reflection of the will or preferences of particular groups of people.

The first of these developments means that appeals to 'the people' as opposed to the state, or to dominant economic groups, or indeed to the current crop of politicians, are endemic to democratic political discourse. The second and third concerns – about the dangers of a majoritarian democratic system that requires counterweights and protections for minorities in the face of mass opinion and populist, demagogic politicians, as well as the requirements of legislative judgment – have been a focus for some of the leading theorists of liberal democracy, including J S Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke. These ideas have sustained a widely shared understanding of democratic leaders as figures who are disposed and able to consider the public interest at some remove from the currents of opinion and popular prejudices, and who are inclined to take decisions and develop policies on the basis of high-minded reflection and elaborated principles.

There have always been contending visions of democratic leadership and what is taken to constitute its wise and effective practice. In the most mature democracies, the latter two of these understandings have tended to prevail – until now, at least. But the siren call of populism has become much stronger in recent times, and the political cultures and structures of representative democracy are starting to buckle. A major challenge for those keen to defend and renew these systems is not just to re-legitimise the ideal of the enlightened political representative but, more fundamentally still, to refashion leadership for our populist, anti-political times. While much political commentary and thought assumes that electorates need simply to be reminded of the virtue of an enlightened and independent-minded political elite, it seems more plausible that such ideas will only get a hearing if the challenges of populism and anti-politics are directly engaged with and addressed.

But 'anti-politics' is a complex phenomenon which reflects expectations that undercut democracy, but also signals the reappearance of an immanent desire for a renewal of the principle of popular self-government. It is by identifying the sources and potential of the latter ideal in today's political landscape, and considering what kinds of leadership are required to direct this sensibility towards, rather than against, democracy, that a new ethos of democratic statecraft can be identified and developed.

The new populism

Emerging currents of populism and anti-politics throw up different kinds of leader. Ukip leader Nigel Farage frames the popular will in nationalistic terms and harnesses growing disaffection with the stance taken by mainstream politicians towards such issues as migration, welfare and Europe. The current upsurge of right-wing populists trades upon an ingrained dichotomy between a socially conservative, patriotic people and a detached, metropolitan liberal elite. This perception has become widely influential in the last few years – percolating throughout the media and becoming the stock-in-trade of much political commentary (think of the ubiquity of the phrase 'the political class'). Populists are especially trenchant in their opposition to the various kinds of multi-national unions, international institutions and forms of multilateral cooperation and governance which have become increasingly prevalent in the last 30 years, and which tend to be supported by politicians from the mainstream parties. The populist leader speaks of a national interest that is defined as the antithesis to wider entanglements and connections, and frames the people within the terms of an older tradition of popular sovereignty.

But populist tunes are also becoming increasingly appealing to mainstream politicians in democratic societies. Some of the most charismatic leaders of the last 20 years, such as Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in the UK and most recently Matteo Renzi in Italy, have harnessed an emergent populist mood to their centrist political projects. Even President Obama laced his re-election campaign in 2012 with Rooseveltian populist themes, counterposing the claims of Main Street to those of Wall Street. Ed Miliband's 'One Nation' theme – pitting the people against corporate and political elites – is an attempt to reprise these progressive populist tunes.

Yet populist discourse has proved challenging for mainstream politicians to sustain, and is particularly difficult to reconcile with the imperative of securing credibility in government and explaining the compromises and deals associated with policymaking. Riding the populist tiger can prove fatal to the political standing of mainstream party leaders. The experience of Nick Clegg is especially salutary in this regard, demonstrating how difficult it is to campaign in populist poetry (albeit of an impeccably liberal kind) and then govern in centrist prose.

In the context of gathering discontent and frustration with leaders, we need to look beyond individual cases and grasp the underlying trends and dynamics that result in inflated and contradictory expectations of them. Leaders find themselves caught between the increasingly potent desire of electorates for them to reflect the public mood and channel deep-rooted anxieties on the one hand, and on the other to offer an executive and top-down form of leadership framed around swift decision-making, certainty of judgement and the desire to control and use as many political and executive powers as possible. This paradox arises from the weakening of the idea of the representative as an independently minded legislator that previously formed a bridge between these two contrasting images.

Politicians are now typically judged against the demanding benchmarks associated with these rival expectations. We want our politicians to feel our pain, to speak in the same vernacular language that we use, and to respond immediately to shifts in the public mood. However, we simultaneously expect them to show ruthless powers of decision-making, display complete authority over their party or government, and tower over their colleagues and cabinets.

The notion of responsiveness has now become the most prized attribute of a putative leader, eclipsing other virtues long heralded by the exponents and architects of liberal democracy, such as responsibility, independence of mind and soundness of character. Representation is therefore increasingly understood in relation to the logic of recognition rather than judgement, and electorates as being composed of competing groups who either clamour for the attention of institutions and legislators or simply continue to ignore or despise them. More generally, the rising demand for leaders who feel our pain and give voice to our own fears is an unnoticed consequence of the trend towards political cultures in which the values of recognition and authenticity are lionised, and the actions and judgements of leader-figures are subjected to unprecedented degrees of moralistic criticism – much of which is disproportionate or gives insufficient attention to the parameters in which decisions are made.

Political leadership and 'post-democracy'

What lies behind these shifts in public attitude and expectation? A number of interacting dynamics have, over the last 30 years, made electorates more desirous of leaders who are closer and more responsive to their own needs, fears and hopes. These include the weakening of those institutions – most obviously political parties, but also churches, trade unions, local government and community organisations – which afforded people a degree of familiarity with leader-figures, and engendered a basic but important level of appreciation of the contexts and constraints in which they work. In their absence, leaders are perceived in relation to the culturally dominant values associated with business and the corporate world – a trend that has also been embraced by some in the political world, but which has arguably made publics even more frustrated and disappointed with leaders and governments.

A further consequence of the decline of the intermediate organisations of civic life has been the emergence of an ungoverned space between citizen and national politicians, which is filled to a growing degree by the noise, opinion and clamour associated with media commentary, and within which digital and online technologies are increasingly prominent. In this context, the idea of a political system organised around political parties that are anchored in longstanding and evolving traditions of thought and commitment has itself become seriously attenuated. In its stead, a more volatile sea of opinion and instantaneous judgement is emerging, which supplies the lenses through which politics and politicians are viewed by large parts of the public.

Caught in the tightening vice of the leadership paradox, leaders are becoming ever more inclined to retreat to the domain of professionalism – using ancillary professionals to protect them from the vicissitudes of the public mood and the media. This response confirms a trend, evident across all Western democratic systems, in which the idea of politics as a vocation which attracts those who wish to serve the public interest has given way to the notion of the political career, available only to those with the contacts, social background and know-how to enable them to plan their ascension to the highest level. One of the most striking developments across all democratic societies in the West is the erosion of opportunities for the exercise of civic and political leadership, which were for so long supplied by intermediate organisations, trade unions and locally vibrant political parties. Equally, the considerable narrowing of access routes into the elite has not only deepened the sense that the working classes are locked out of the political system, but has also resulted in the accession of leaders with relatively narrow forms of professional or organisational experience.

We are now teetering on the edge of an era that some have labelled 'post-democracy'. As the late political scientist Peter Mair put it, whereas the political parties were once vehicles that represented the people to the state, they have now become bureaucratically dominated organisations that represent the state to the people, and which have only the thinnest of roots in the lives of local communities. With parties waning in importance and losing their anchorage in the cultures associated with cities, regions and rural areas, politics is increasingly refracted through the lenses of personality, celebrity and conflict. This in turn means that the faults and failings of leaders become the mainstays of political discourse. Importantly, in an era in which party alignments are weakening and political disenchantment is rife, leaders have come to matter more and more: judgements about the capabilities and characters of individuals have increasingly come to determine the decisions that voters make at the ballot box, and the judgements that citizens form over time about democratic politics itself.

So, while the institutional forms of politics remain those that were developed several centuries ago, their legitimacy is increasingly undermined by the corrosive effects of populism, anti-politics, the politics of scandal, and the decline of social class as the primary organisational axis of political life. The steady dissolution of the social blocs that were associated with the main contending classes in modern industrial society has had a hugely destabilising impact upon how citizens view politics and identify with its prevailing institutions and actors, and has led to the attenuation of the cultural foundations that underpinned mass party politics in the industrial era.

Increasingly, these trends are inhibiting the formulation of policies designed to address those policy issues that do not fit easily into the political cycle, but which represent some of the most pressing societal problems facing democratic countries, such as climate change, stabilising the public finances, and meeting the care needs of an ageing population. The kinds of statecraft that democratic politics urgently needs to forge are increasingly out of sync with the models of leadership that democratic politics now favours.

Towards a new democratic statecraft

Instead of viewing today's leaders through the fallen idols of yesteryear, democrats need to break through the leadership paradox. This means developing a leadership ethos that is more suited to the post-mass-democracy era, and which is able to harness the yearning for popular self-rule and find new expressions and forms of sovereignty – the desire for which is lodged within the populist mood. Successful political leaders will need to understand and internalise four major challenges if a new model of leadership is to be realised.

  1. Finding a new balance between the responsive dimension of leadership (grasping and responding to shifts in public anxieties and preferences) and the exercise of responsibility in governance, through a rigorous understanding of the parameters of the possible, and, where the public mood is hostile, a commitment to developing a new public consensus on questions affecting the national interest. Immigration is emblematic here: public hostility to immigration and cultural anxiety are both high, but choking off migration flows is neither plausible nor desirable. Political leaders will need to navigate this terrain with a dexterity that enables them to switch between cultural and labour market concerns, while responding to often conflicting democratic and economic imperatives.
  2. Developing the resolve to forge policy solutions that are of long-term significance, but which may give little immediate payoff. This will involve learning how to recombine the visionary and the pragmatic, and finding a more resonant and less distant political language in which to talk to different publics. Care of the elderly offers a case in point. For many years, it has been obvious that a new system of funding social care is required, but political leaders have found it impossible to propose the tax or social insurance reforms necessary to make it happen – and all the while public discontent with the manifest failings of elderly care has continued to rise.
  3. Accepting that electorates are now much more fragmented in their identities and outlook, with many citizens not socialised into political processes, as class has declined as the bulwark of mass politics. Leadership after mass democracy requires a new understanding of the particular concerns and vernaculars of a range of groups and interests, and an abiding commitment to identifing and promoting the public interest and discovering those ties that still bind. Reaching outwards from the bubble of political life to engage a wider range of social forces, movements and cultural dynamics, and actively working to construct a broader set of publics for political discourse, are critical tasks. So too is building and sustaining institutions in which a common life is housed – from children's centres to the NHS.
  4. Embracing multinational forms of governance and action beyond the nation state that make possible broad democratic steerage of the market economy, particularly global finance, while recognising that political legitimacy and popular identification still resides primarily with national governments. Political leadership is now inescapably exercised in multi-national fora, even for globally dominant powers such as China and the US, while civil society is now organised and activated across the boundaries of territorial jurisdictions. A core attribute of successful political leaders in the 21st century will be an ability to operate at different levels of governance, and to vest substantial authority in colleagues at different local and international tiers.

No single political leader can take on all of these challenges. Nevertheless, they need to be more widely considered and framed as the sources of threats and opportunities that require bipartisan attention. There are also institutional reforms and new forms of democratic training that would make the development of a new leadership ethos and cadre more, rather than less, likely. These need to include a Madisonian commitment to re-establishing firewalls between politics and the worlds of finance and the media, through measures such as reform of party finance, democratising the House of Lords, and opening up lobbying to greater scrutiny.

There is also a good case for prioritising the development of meaningful opportunities for political leaders to acquire experience of governing, and to develop their skillsets through the exercise of leadership at community, city and regional levels. The decentralisation of power within England and the development of meaningful forms of city-wide leadership may well have the effect of rejuvenating the talent pool of state-level politics. In many advanced democracies, the leadership of cities provides the foundation for national leadership, and it is notable that the post-1997 devolution settlement in the UK has provided stages for the emergence of nationally recognised political leaders in the forms of London mayor Boris Johnson and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond. As David Runciman notes in his essay in this edition of Juncture, leaders can use a smaller political stage to make a bigger splash.

While the crisis of leadership affects political parties across the political spectrum, it is also the case that the traditions of left and right have long framed different ideas about, and expectations of, leaders. For conservative and centre-right parties, leaders are typically supposed to embody the national interest as well as the ethos of stability and order. Some exemplars have been particularly successful in adapting these expectations to the challenges of the current era – notably Angela Merkel, who has come to dominate politically not just in Germany but in Europe as a whole. She has governed in a consensual mode, co-opting her opponents and their policies while cultivating a down-to-earth pragmatism that has elevated her above the fray of partisan politics. Conversely, Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, has won three elections (two minority governments and one majority) from a core electoral base, practising what might be termed a 'wedge' conservative populism that involves 'governing out' from a narrow caucus rather than developing a vision and programme that aspires to some kind of political hegemony. These are very different paradigms of conservative leadership in the populist age.

For the left, leaders matter in different ways, embodying connections to the values of the labour movement and the traditions from which leftist parties emerged, while also increasingly feeling impelled to present themselves as national figures able to reach out beyond a dwindling core constituency. A new wave of centre-left leaders sought to present a more determinedly modern image of social democratic politics in the 1990s and beyond, and framed themselves as figures standing above older partisan divides. But as the appeal of 'third way' politics has receded – and as the impact of globalisation on the working and middle classes has become more politically salient – progressive leaders have sought to relocate the left's egalitarian principles, and present themselves once more as institutional reformers and architects of a new political and economic order.

This approach has so far had mixed results. In the case of UK opposition leader Ed Miliband, the attempt to harness growing popular discontent with financial elites and the incumbent governments' vigorous embrace of austerity has been offset by a relentless focus upon his perceived lack of leadership qualities, and his struggle to establish a measure of governing credibility. Fran??ois Hollande had barely begun his presidency before it was in turmoil, the victim of profound political and economic pressures rooted in the eurozone crisis from which he has found no escape. And, across most of the advanced democracies, the left is barely in political contention, let alone in the business of creating a new architecture for a post-crash polity.

Are political leaders the problem or the solution to our democratic woes?

Without addressing the profound challenges and contrary expectations that face political leaders, there is a very real danger of a further drift towards a ghost democracy: a system characterised by a significant hollowing out of civic life, the continuing decline of mass parties, and the further diminution of the prospect of politicians governing in pro-active and far-sighted – rather than short-termist, panicky and populist – ways. On this trajectory, British politics will revert to a simulacrum of the Georgian age, in which elites and factions circulate around sites of power, without roots in, or accountability to, wider society.

Opening up new routes into politics is therefore unlikely to be sufficient on its own. Unless the leadership paradox is understood and engaged with, the vicious circles of democratic political life will not be broken. How, then, to mitigate and defuse this paradox?

We propose a more nuanced focus on the relationship between leaders and followers than has, as yet, figured in debates about political disenchantment. The populist cry of anger is in part a distorted demand for a renewal of the idea and practice of popular sovereignty, and this needs to be separated out from the anti-democratic facets of the populist signal. This means giving particular priority to the challenge of reanimating a civic culture, through the spread of 'contact democracy' and a significant decentralisation of political power. It requires politicians to look and work outwards from their legislative duties, and seek out current expressions and manifestations of civic life. This also necessitates reforms to ensure that an abundance of third-sector and voluntary organisations can once again prosper, not least in relationships with the state, which currently allows public sector procurement to favour large corporate players over the 'little platoons'.

It also means thinking afresh about leadership in the populist age. Beyond the important skills of communication and competence, leaders need to bring their roots and traditions with them into the public realm, as they promote a more grounded and substantive set of visions, goals and national stories. But this will only make a difference if numerous other stakeholders – including the media, the third sector, trade unions and the corporate world – also sign up to the project of renewing, rather than denigrating, the ethos of democratic public service, and work to re-legitimise politics as its most vital expression.

However, it is ultimately to leaders themselves – and their relationships with electorates who simultaneously expect too much and too little of them – that we must turn if we are to ease today's leadership paradox. Parties need to figure out how best to widen and renew their talent pools, and strategists needs to think more bravely and less tactically about what good leadership now means. Continuing to play the political game by the rules of a previous era may make a certain kind of sense to its principal players, but is increasingly likely to hasten the transition to a new, dangerous phase in the life of representative government. While electorates are unlikely to shed their cynical and distrustful perceptions of politicians in the imaginable future, a surfeit of such sentiments, combined with inflated expectations of leaders, may well be creating conditions in which constructive, strategically successful political leadership becomes a thing of the past rather than an attribute of the political present.

Michael Kenny is a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and a visiting fellow at IPPR. His most recent book is The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford University Press, 2014). Nick Pearce is director of IPPR and an editor of Juncture.

This article appears in edition 21.2 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas.