Labour's loves not quite lost

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
3 Sep 2010

During the last few weeks, I have been receiving emails from the Labour leadership candidates. Some of them have sent text messages urging me to text back my voting intentions. These communications have a tendency towards producing a quick, emotional response.

Time to think, not only about the five contenders, but about the very nature of leadership, is essential and Graeme Smith's article Why Labour's next leader should not be a prophet offers plenty of food for thought. So much, in fact, that I found myself subject to a certain amount of confusion, despite his elucidation of the undoubted dangers of certain prophetic qualities.

It is my belief that a good leader must have a vision, even if he or she is not a full-blown visionary - with all the possibilities of lonely obsession and unmoderated zeal which attend that condition. And the bounds of vision and prophecy are divided by very thin partitions. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech was able to do what no amount of managerial competence or pragmatism - necessary qualities though these are – could ever have achieved.

It is open to question as to whether King was a prophet or an extraordinarily courageous and effective leader. But it is certain that unless vision is subject to alert self-discipline, it may become overblown and grandiose (qualities which are particularly abhorrent to Anglo-Saxons who are suspicious of rhetoric) and is ever in danger of falling in love with its own music to the detriment of engaging those it seeks to inspire. Neil Kinnock, who was capable of passion and eloquence, was derided as "the Welsh Windbag" for that very reason. I suspect that both Lloyd George and Nye Bevan would have met with similar epithets had they lived into our own time.

Voters are weary of spin, contemptuous of the moral deformities of "being on-message" and above all, utterly disillusioned with the journey of Tony Blair from managerial "what works" politics to the messianic certainties of his stance on the Iraq war. Blair has utilised religious belief as both justification and self-exculpation: his proclamation that he would "answer to God" for his actions may well be true. But it is the business of a political leader, particularly a Prime Minister, to answer to the people who elect his party and in whose name he governs.

This is where an overtly confessional approach goes astray and alienates many people of faith and of good faith who rightly demand temporal accountability. "Think it possible that you may be mistaken" we are urged in the Advices and Queries of the Religious Society of Friends. Humility is not the enemy of either conviction or of passion and the conviction politician must retain that awareness if an unaudited sense of their own rightness - and righteousness - is not to lead them into isolation and unreality. Alliances and compromises are likely to be necessary and the man or woman who knows just how far to go in that direction without doing violence to conscience, is likely to be a leader worthy of respect.

Graeme Smith is right to remind us that it is the role of prophets to speak truth to power – to be the grit in the oyster, the gadfly to the conscience - while leaders, exercising power and enacting laws, must offer hope. If "the art of the possible" is to be combined with the moral clarity and vision which is necessary to offer the hope of transforming our profoundly unequal society, a singular integrity will be demanded of the man or woman who would lead the Labour Party from opposition to government.

To clear my mind as to the nature of that integrity, I turned to the Quaker Testimony of Truth. This reminds me that integrity is so much more than refraining from lying. It is to be whole and entire and to have no disjunction between belief and practice; its fruits are consistency and honesty towards self and others. It is to act at all times and in all places with the outer coherence which makes inner conviction clear, whatever the short-term cost may be.

This demands of me, as a Quaker member of the Labour Party, to put aside what may be instinctive inclinations and to seek for evidence of that integrity amongst all five contenders. The interventions of Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair are irrelevant here and the pro and anti arguments about New Labour are secondary, although I hope that the new leader will have the courage to acknowledge that the party of the past 13 years has been neither new enough nor Labour enough.

Unlock Democracy's online 'Vote Match' tool surprised me by revealing that my intended 5th choice was in fact the candidate whose policy views are closest to my own. It would seem that I still have some thinking to do about the relationship between policy stance, leadership qualities, personal inclination and integrity.

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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