Political commentator Steve Richards argued in the Independent yesterday that “political leadership is impossible in the age of social media”. He gave a gripping tweet-by-tweet account of how Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to impose his will on the Labour Party of Syrian airstrikes had been undone by dissent spread on Twitter.
Richards concluded that the leadership of political parties, as previously understood, can no longer be done then parties will change shape. This is quite the wrong lesson to draw.
The Labour Party is in a neurotic mess and it would be in one if Corbyn had been elected its leader in the age of the quill pen. The party’s membership is out of line with a significant segment of its MPs. Until one of these bodies brings the other into line, the mess, the rebellions and the tweets will not stop.
Communications media have changed often, switching the conditions and context in which politicians operate and requiring new skills in the armoury of anyone intending to lead. Come to that, political parties have changed across time as the gains to be made by bossing MPs have grown.
A modest political reflection prompted by the Labour Party conference which ended yesterday. I’m beginning to think that David Cameron, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, and Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats were in coalition with Cameron 2010-15, laid a trap which is only now closing. The effect of an obscure piece of legislation which fixes a five-year term for each elected parliament, passed by the Cameron-Clegg coalition in 2011, is poised to do terrible things to the Labour Party, which remains in opposition.
The Labour Party has elected, under new rules which give ordinary members much greater power, a bearded man of the left who has no experience of running anything. Jeremy Corbyn is going to spend the next few months at least fighting battles inside his own party over policies on everything from Saudi Arabia to nuclear power stations. Only yesterday his declaration that he would never, as Prime Minister, allow the use of nuclear weapons was contradicted from the party’s conference rostrum by his newly-appointed defence spokesman.
Labour is in this spectacular mess because its grassroots members rebelled against the party’s hierarchy and culture. But its members and their leaders are comforting themselves that they have time to sort all this out before it really begins to matter. Even if it takes a couple of years for the left and right of the party to agree, you can hear themselves saying to eachother, the election will still be three years away. Andy Burnham, one of the leadership candidates Corbyn defeated, can be heard saying just that in this convoluted and defensive interview.
I don’t think politics works like that. An extended interval of incoherence will register with voters, even if followed by a better-led approach in years or months just before an election. Labour’s rank and file, at a loss to know what to do with Corbyn at the helm, are taking refuge in an illusion.