Labour's leadership and the perils of over-promotion

20 May 2015


Accelerating the career of an up-and-coming star beyond their capabilities could set the party up for an instant setback, our political columnist warns

Jon Bennett

In the field of talent management, it doesn’t always follow that those best equipped to do a job are able to get it in the first place. We’ve all sat in interviews trying to second guess what the panel want to hear, and we’ve all started assignments in which the job description and the actual job are two quite different things. The Labour Party is gathering itself for those challenges right now as the last of the election posters are peeled from the windows and the contest for Labour’s leadership begins in earnest.

Bookies favourite Chuka Umunna was an early faller, surprised by the attention of the press to his personal affairs. The seemingly unstoppable Chukanaut had stood, and stood down, before more pedestrian campaigns were out of the blocks. But other candidates have now polished their shoes, swotted up on their hindsight and started to set out their stall.


What the party wants to avoid is a political running of the “Peter principle”, in which someone is promoted time and again until they reach a position beyond their capabilities. But the system as it stands is set up to encourage exactly that result.

First, a recognised face is thought to be an advantage with the electorate. Candidates are therefore nominated based on longstanding patronage and success in previous positions of authority, which inevitably means they carry some of the baggage of previous failure too.

Having overcome that hurdle, nominees have to win over the Labour party and its opaque leadership election system. Historically, that meant a swing to the Left to bring the Unions and membership on board, followed by a period of distancing oneself from that voting block in order to reassure the electorate at large. This time, there’s a new spanner in the works in the shape of the £3-a-vote registered-supporter scheme announced this week by Harriet Harman. Who knows what will drive their voting behaviour, or whether they’ll be interested – but the idea has merit if it means the selected candidate has already demonstrated appeal beyond the party.

The victor becomes leader of the Labour party. And they could be fabulous in that role – visionary, expertly clued up on management and leadership and politically astute with their own side of the house. But that isn’t necessarily enough to be a great leader of Her Majesty’s opposition. There’s no real training ground for that job, and when the new leader is thrown into the bear pit of Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time, there’s a real risk that everything could be won or lost within an hour. And even the best leaders of the opposition – challenging, critical, forensic, and inspiring people – can fail to win promotion to the job of PM. Or, having got there, are destined to go down in history as a space-filler between more feted premierships.

How many potentially great prime ministers have stayed on the backbenches because they weren’t the right fit for all the jobs in between? And how many prime ministers were promoted beyond their ability? Perhaps it’s time to parachute someone in from the House of Lords.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.

Image of Harriet Harman courtesy of her website.

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