As the UK Labour leadership election intensifies, Alastair Osborne looks back on political figures he has admired but who have turned out to be deeply flawed, and considers what attributes we should be seeking in those vying to lead our party.
Of all the public figures I have admired over the years, a disturbing number have turned out to have feet of clay. In some cases the fault was entirely mine due to poor judgement or shiny eyed idealism. Some are just examples of human frailty in even the greatest of men, for it is mostly men. A few were probably always phoneys.
Of course the election of both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson has shown that the human frailty label in itself is no barrier to securing public support.
The term ‘feet of clay’ is from Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the Old Testament, and has come to mean flaws in the character or behaviour of an otherwise admired person. As we face a Labour leadership election, we are bound to turn our thoughts to what really makes a good leader and how the candidates shape up.
In the 1960s, the public leaders I idealised were Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. I well remember Kennedy’s iconic declaration, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and Dr King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. It was many years before the media exposed their serial sexual promiscuity and infidelities. Kennedy is reported to have told PM Harold Macmillan, ‘If I go more than three days without getting laid I get a headache’.
Optimism was sky high when Robert Mugabe was elected as the first leader of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. We celebrated the triumph of an articulate intelligent African freedom fighter comprehensively defeating Britain’s favoured puppet candidate, Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Mugabe let us all down badly, turning against his erstwhile comrades, crushing dissidents, massacring opposition supporters and taking his country to the very edge of bankruptcy while he obsessed over internal politics and his succession plans.
On the domestic scene, Tony Benn inspired me to join the Labour Party. I followed him round all his conference fringe meetings like a groupie. His mantra was ‘We shall do it ourselves’ and ‘Policies not personalities’. With hindsight I now see how he was at the very heart of the bitter internal battle for the soul of the Labour Party that left it broken and unelectable for nearly two decades.
My heart was pounding as I stood on Glasgow Green at the May Day Rally in 1989. The motorcade drew up and out strode Daniel Ortega, darling of the left and President of Nicaragua. We were ecstatic that he had seen off the threat to his country from the US and the US-backed Contras. Good times surely lay ahead for Nicaraguans. He has stayed in power off and on ever since, turning from tackling poverty and promoting economic development to crushing opposition and championing the socially conservative agenda of the Catholic Church, including the persecution of LGBT people and a total ban on abortion.
When Labour won the 1997 general election with a record majority I was absolutely overjoyed, and I was so proud of all that Tony Blair’s government went on to achieve in office. Is all that to count for nothing because Blair made a disastrous mistake in taking us to war in Iraq?
It takes a very charismatic figure to command a standing ovation before he even opens his mouth. In 2006 that was what happened when former President, Bill Clinton addressed the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. I was one of those on their feet. He went on to deliver a masterclass in public speaking from the moment he began with the words, ‘Bill Clinton, Arkansas CLP’. He was a great statesman; a progressive, modernising politician who put his party in power and then saw his legacy damaged by his abuse of power with an intern called Monica Lewinsky. Yet he left office with the highest approval ratings of any modern day president.
Most recently Labour has been led by someone adored by his followers who inspired them with his vision of a socialist society. However, Jeremy Corbyn was always going to be a dreadful public leader who could never become Prime Minister.
So who will follow him? There is no shortage of material being written about all the candidates. We are being told who the continuity candidate is; who gives Jeremy 10 out of 10; who represents real change; who speaks truth to power; who offers the brave not the easy choice; who is the choice of the Labour right; who thinks another future is possible.
But perhaps this is the time to expand the conversation to reflect on what does and doesn’t matter when choosing a public leader. Do we have unrealistic expectations of our leaders or should we expect much more of them? How do we find leaders who have the confidence of the public to tackle the crises we face? On what should we base our choice when picking a leader – their charisma, oratory, personal integrity, trust, intellect, class, values, wisdom, toughness, efficiency, ethnicity, age, gender?
Would it be rude to ask to see their feet?