Why Labour's next leader should not be a prophet

By Graeme Smith
August 29, 2010

It is decision time for Labour Party members. Beginning this week ballot papers start dropping on comrades’ doormats across the country. It will bring to an end a protracted, some would say overly long, contest.

But, as someone who rushed headlong, unrestrainedly, into the arms of Tony Blair, I have been glad of the extended period to consider my options. It has been good that we have had a broad field to choose from (just), and a real contest. But the campaigning is drawing to a close, the prevarication must cease, and the cross has to go besides someone’s name. So who should it be?

One thing, more than personality, more than policies on education, or foreign affairs or deficit reduction, more than age or gender or ethnicity or even televisual beauty, has influenced my choice. However much it seems like the perfect antidote to the Blair years the next leader of the Labour Party must not be a prophet. Leadership and prophecy are not the same thing, in fact they are best kept well away from each other.

There are three key reasons why Labour can’t indulge its fantasy for a prophet as the next leader. First democratic politics is all about coalitions. It is about setting up big tents and encouraging people in. Good democratic leaders build alliances and make deals. They compromise and negotiate. Prophets are terrible at this sort of thing. Prophets are essentially religious. They must be pure and blameless, able to stand above the fray, casting judgements on the sins of the rulers and the peoples.

A good prophet knows how to spot a heresy. The problem is democratic political parties are not like religions. They cannot afford the privilege of having faultless orthodoxies unsullied by compromise. In politics prophets are either dictators or eccentrics, fanatics or fools. Good leaders are not prophets and they can rarely, if ever, afford the luxury of prophetic utterance.

Second good political leaders preach hope. They offer visions which seek to draw in as many as possible. They promise us a better society. This is why we are prepared to compromise, because we share the vision. By contrast prophets speak the truth. They speak the truth to power, be it governors or governed. This is not to say that good political leaders lie, they do not. Nor is it saying that democracy has no place for truth tellers, it does and they are a vital part of its life.

Prophets do invaluable service holding rulers to account. We need the Tony Benns and Keith Josephs. But prophets critique what is in front of them whilst democratic leaders direct our gaze beyond the immediate to something greater and better and more splendid. It is because of this hope, made real for us by good leaders, that social change is possible.

Third, leaders are agents of change whilst prophets are spectators of the present. Richard Rorty is helpful here. Rorty argues that the academic Left in the US has become too fixated with clever theory and cultural sophistication. It is busy observing and explaining, adding to knowledge, whilst changing nothing. They are spectators. This compares poorly with the academic Left of the first half of the twentieth century. They knew how to change things. They knew how to campaign to make laws fairer. They understood the mechanisms for improving democratic society and they made them work for the vulnerable. The contemporary Left knows how to call society rotten in a myriad number of ways, the old-fashioned Left stopped society from being so rotten.

Prophets are not good at making laws. They are too busy searching out injustice and oppression – thank God. Such folk are not leaders or governors.

Leaders are like the old-fashioned academic Left in the US, agents of change, law-makers. They are a bit dull. They seem a bit compromised, not quite as pure as we would like. They have a large number of friends who inhabit a number of different milieux. They can seem, well, slippery. But they make change possible and real. They are the leaders in a well-functioning democracy. David Miliband looks like one such figure and so this week he will have my vote.


© Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He is editor of the journal Political Theology (http://equinoxpub.com/journals/politicaltheology) and his most recent book is A Short History of Secularism (IB Tauris, 2008).

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