What's new about Jeremy Corbyn's leadership style?
Jeremy Corbyn is changing the way the Labour party is managed by giving more power to backbenchers and the public. But how will this new approach fare in the unforgiving world of politics?Jermaine Haughton
In his first Party conference as leader, Corbyn promised to embark on a new form of politics aimed at creating a “kinder” country.
Vowing to break the established political class’ hold, Corbyn said he wants the views of regular people across the country to be recognised. The 66-year-old leader of the opposition exclaimed: “Kinder, more inclusive. Bottom up, not top down. In every community and workplace, not just at Westminster. Real debate, not message discipline. Straight talking. Honest.”
And perhaps this is the right time. With social media seemingly at its height, the relationship between voters, politics and media has significantly changed with the access and means of communicating with politicians becoming much more personal.
While the platform clearly has its limitations, such as demographic and reach, and problems including cyberbullying, authenticity and “troll campaigning,” political parties can use social media in collaboration with other data to get a feel for the thoughts of the public.
Arguably the first “social media” political leader, President Barack Obama extended the use of Twitter and Facebook from a promotional tool to support his successful election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 by sourcing opinions from the American public on policy issues.
In 2011, Obama tweeted a question about America’s debt: “In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep? BO.” In the same year, Iceland drafted its new Constitution using input from Twitter and Facebook users, while last year Finnish politicians began using a crowdsourcing platform called Open Ministry to draft new legislation.
At his first Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), Corbyn made two key moves; calling for an end to “Punch and Judy” politics and posing questions to Prime Minister David Cameron supplied by members of the public. In the first instance, the self-described democratic socialist called for an end to the theatrics between the Labour and Conservative leaders, instead opting for a less confrontational and more civilised debate.
The clever move will have won points from many voters (and even Tory MPs) disillusioned with the bickering and grandstanding in the House of Commons between the government and the opposition, rather than a more professional discourse on the issues at hand.
The questions tabled by Corbyn to Cameron were supplied by regular Britons; Marie on the lack of affordable housing; a housing association worker, Stephen, who warned about a reduction in staffing levels; and one from Paul on the cuts in tax credits.
The Labour leader explained: “I have taken part in many events around the country and had conversations with many people about what they thought about this place, our parliament, our democracy and our conduct within this place.
“Many told me they thought prime minister’s question time was too theatrical, that parliament was out of touch and too theatrical and they wanted things done differently, but above all they wanted their voice heard in parliament.”
However, politicians and commentators have raised concerns that some intense debate will be needed to scrutinise the Government effectively. The consensus after that first Corbyn PMQs was that he had given David Cameron an easy ride and rather let him off the hook, allowing him to publicise his policies uninterrupted.
Toby Perkins, who chaired Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign, believes Corbyn will need to develop the process with specific follow-up questions to pin down more answers from Cameron. “In the longer term, that (crowdsourcing questions) approach doesn’t actually put the PM under a great deal of pressure. And oppositions do actually need to expose problems with government policy.
“I suspect the approach will evolve. But putting down a marker for the first time, given that people were going to learn more about Jeremy Corbyn than David Cameron today, it’s a perfectly sensible approach.”
It is clear Corbyn will need to walk a fine line between involving the public more in parliamentary procedure to engage disaffected voters but also maintain a strong party line of argument in thoroughly evaluating the Conservative Government’s policies.
Corbyn’s plans to allow Labour MPs to vote on policies in the Commons based on their own beliefs and convictions have also earned him comparisons to former Prime Minister (1945-51) and Labour leader Clement Attlee.
Archie Brown, author of The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, diarised how Attlee let individual ministers make their own decisions, subject to getting cabinet agreement for the most important issues of principle. Brown argues that even the legacy Attlee is most credited for, creating the National Health Service, was collective achievement masterminded by ministers such as Aneurin Bevan.
Compared to the more presidential style of more recent predecessor Tony Blair, who dictated party policies and MP votes, Philip Cowley, a professor of parliamentary government at Nottingham University, said it is “a pretty fundamental change in politics in this country”.
The proposals are not without its critics. Labour MP and former leadership hopeful Chukka Umunna criticised the plans as confusing to voters. At a party conference fringe event organized by the think-tank Demos, the Streatham MP said: “It’s not plausible for us to have a position not to have a position on the defence of the realm.
“Ultimately we are going to have settled positions on things if people are to know what it is they are voting for. I just don’t think it’s sustainable for us to free vote everything and frankly it’s not sustainable for different people in our leadership to be saying different things.”
Although Corbyn doesn’t face the challenge of rebuilding a post-war Britain like Attlee, the 66-year-old faces the unenviable task of uniting a divided party, implementing more people-focussed leadership and making Labour electable by 2020, after a disastrous General Election in May.