Being a fearless leader: Why we need visionary leaders and why we’re not getting them

A couple of weeks ago the Economist printed an article about rates of absence from schools in the UK since the pandemic. It opened with a blizzard of depressing statistics: more than 20% of pupils are currently ‘persistently absent’ (not there more than 10% of the time); 140,000 kids enrolled in school are absent more than half the time; pupils who miss 15% of their lessons are half as likely to get five GCSEs; and almost 40% of the poorest pupils are absent more than 10% of the time.

This, then, is a huge problem that is storing up a sea of troubles for the future. It joins other difficulties that are known about but don’t dominate our national debates in the way they should, like the crisis in our courts, shortages of new recruits in the care system, our broken housing policy, and the fact that productivity in this country has stagnated for years. These are all difficult issues that defy quick fixes: they will require multi-year commitment for anything to change. And they join other complex challenges such as an ageing population, the impact of AI, and of course climate change in requiring deep thinking and a response that will only deliver outcomes over the course of decades.

Our politicians, though, seem utterly paralysed in the face of these developments. There is no credible response to any of these points. Lots of noise, posturing, criticism of the other side, yes, but no solutions. Parties seem determined to do the other side down, rather than showing the determination to develop a way forward and stick to it.

Some might say this is unfair. After all, the Government has published a multiplicity of papers on, say, climate change, and Labour has followed suit with its own Green Industrial Strategy. All of these express the right hopes and contain some good ideas, but they are simply not believable when they don’t address simple points: Where are we going to find the huge numbers of skilled people needed to do all the work? How will the grid cope with delivering all of the new connections needed to electrify the economy? When will we start to knock on the doors of homeowners and tell them they have to insulate better and stop using gas for heating?

How can we have confidence that the political classes have the stomach for the kind of long-term vision and leadership needed to deliver all this when we are still waiting for something that is relatively easy for the Government to deliver: a second big nuclear development and a plausible plan for rolling out SMRs? It is pure fantasy. We are kicking the can repeatedly down the road, and the same is happening in all of the other areas I’ve mentioned and many more besides.

Our politicians seem utterly incapable of making decisions unless they absolutely have to be made right this second. They seem to want to stagger through to the next election without rocking the boat. How else can you explain a Government with a huge majority that is doing little beyond dog-whistling to its base whilst repairing the damage done by the last two Prime Ministers? Or an Opposition that is 15 points ahead in the polls that refuses to say that they will deviate substantively from Conservative policies on tax and the economy, law and order, and almost every other area? Or a third party that won’t quite say that it wants us to rejoin the European Union? Where is the vision?

It wasn’t always like this. Whatever you might think of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair they entered office with ideas of things they wanted to do that might not be popular, and would certainly not lead to a political bonanza within five years. But they did them anyway. Transforming industrial relations (for better or worse), changing the shape of the state, devolution, Britain’s place in the world: there was a vision of where they wanted to go, and the leadership to go there even when the journey was rough. Even a casual observer of British politics can see that seems highly unlikely to happen now.

Some people would argue that Brexit was an example of vision and leadership. That might actually have been true with different leaders, people who could set out how the UK might flourish outside the EU and develop realistic policies to get us there. Instead we got chancers who could have jumped either way on the subject in the first place, primarily used the issue to secure a majority in 2019, and then proved unable to govern anyway. Above all, they failed ever to agree what they wanted post-Brexit Britain to be. So no. This was not visionary nor was there any leadership.

So why is it that we are more in thrall to short-termism than ever? There are a million answers to this, with academics and pundits churning out more and more analyses and theses every year. I want to cite what was said in 2013 by a professor at the LSE in a blog that said that contemporary politics was “trapped” in a “short term cage”. It blamed hollowed out parties, policy convergence, and more pluralised and differentiated public attitudes that have weakened ties to former occupation or class-based parties. This has in turn fuelled strategies based on “celebrity leadership, a relentless marketing orientation, focus-group driven policy and above all devotion to winning each twenty-four hour news cycle”.

The result? “Policy convergence and the demise of party organisations have destroyed the infrastructures that once provided a platform for longer term policy debates. Political leaders must sometimes confront their publics – but mostly they need to work with the grain of public opinion. The infrastructure and the platforms once that linked party elites and their publics around an emerging agenda has progressively dissolved”. This analysis might be 10 years old, but it seems to me to be spot on. It’s not just that the politicians of today are unable to address bigger, longer-term, issues; there is just no motivation for them to do so.

So we are locked in that short-term cage. Breaking out seems impossible. The thing that will break the sequence is if all of us, as voters, demand more from our politicians. Because unless they think longer-term, and make superficially unpopular decisions, those kids currently out of school – along with tens of thousands of victims of crime, older people in care homes, anyone trying to buy a house, and ultimately the whole of the natural world – are going to continue to suffer. It’s down to us: we need to start valuing and then rewarding visionary leadership.

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