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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Why Did They Resign? Political leaders and election fallout

Why did Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg believe they had to resign after their parties' election defeat?

What they each said in their own way was: 'I take responsibility as my party's leader for this outcome, and therefore I must resign'. Both men acted with dignity. We should respect that. As Malcolm says of the executed Cawdor in the Scottish Play, 'nothing in his life became him like the leaving it' (thanks to a Twitter follower for reminding me of that famous speech in Macbeth). I'm aware as retirement comes down the slipway that leaving an office well is just as important as arriving well and inhabiting it convincingly.

Someone tweeted that it's noble, and gospel-like, to lay down your life (and career) for your friends. That's far better than politicians who cynically lay down their friends for their lives, as Jeremy Thorpe said of Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives (thanks to a comment on this blog for that). I am sure that both men acted out of the best instincts in resigning. And doubtless the widespread British enjoyment of seeing leaders brought low has been satisfied. But my question is, did they have to take this drastic step? Might it not have been better if they had carried on for a while, picked up the pieces, help their party reflect and regroup and begin to find a way forward?  Isn't a crisis the real test of leadership?

I was discussing this with a friend who is a seasoned politician and well-versed in the relationships between political leaders and a mercurial public. She said that this is just how it is in British politics. Like football managers and CEOs in business, it's the results that count. If your club is relegated, or your business outturns take a hit, it's not easy to survive as a leader. There is a drive to purge out the old, begin afresh. It's a fact about most revolutions in history. There is a crisis. The leadership are blamed or blame themselves. They have to go, either at their own volition or the enforced will of others.

But the dynamic is more complicated than that. The 'blame' culture we know a lot about infects not just the collective behaviour of a group like a political party, but also its leaders' own sense of self. It isn't necessarily conscious. In such a culture, it's easy for leaders to say to themselves, 'this is my fault' - even if it isn't - because of the projections the group will put on them. I'm aware that when people accuse me of failing in some way, letting the side down, I default to assuming that they must be right about. Then I feel I should take responsibility and blame myself. I am intuitively aware that if I do this, own up and apologise, a kind of catharsis will take place. The situation will be righted again, cleansed of the malign influence that caused it to wobble. Even if I am not to blame!

This is the well-understood phenomenon of scapegoating. A victim is made to 'carry' the wrongdoing of a group and is banished to the wilderness, a far-off safe place where defilement can no longer damage the community. The Old Testament has a lot to say about this: the scapegoat is one of the ways in which the Hebrew people were to find reconciliation healing. It's among the images the New Testament uses to depict Jesus banished to die 'outside the camp' and take our sins with him. The French theologian Rene Girard has written extensively about this ritual 'mimetic' way of dealing with social wrong and disorder (for instance in his book Violence and the Sacred). By loading a victim with 'blame' and driving it out, stability is restored.

Political parties, like all organisations(including the church), can behave like this when under threat from real or imagined disorder in its midst. It's how the far right thinks of immigrants and asylum-seekers. It has to be 'their' fault. The principle is: the social group must recover stability if it is to survive. Find a victim who will take this burden off everybody else. As I say, these forces are often unconscious. They seem to have been at work in the Labour and LibDem parties in the aftermath of the election.

Paradoxically, when a leader says 'it's all my fault', he or she can collude with a kind of self-aggrandisement that a moment's thought will show is misplaced. These days, political parties, like churches, are organisations of consent. You can't be a leader and indulge in command-control and the fantasy of omnipotence, not if you want your party to flourish. Mainstream political parties, including Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are places of keen open debate. It's not, I'm sure, that mistakes weren't made in some policy areas. All I'm saying is the leaders can only go where the organisation is willing for them to. Of course good leadership means expanding horizons, offering new directions of travel. Managing change is difficult and painful. But ultimately, it's the organisation that takes responsibility for it. Especially when it prides itself in believing in democratic values.  

So I want to say to Ed and Nick, neither of whom I know personally: don't carry this responsibility on your own. Don't blame yourself. Don't buy into the scapegoat mentality and go out into the wilderness. Don't imagine that you were omnipotent enough to fail by yourself. You did your best for your party, and didn't act out of self-interest. You conducted decent campaigns and as leaders performed credibly. You largely held the trust of those you led. You could have stayed on and been part of the long hard process of reconstruction. You can still contribute to that journey in important ways. I hope you will, for the good of democracy and the political life in our nation.


  1. Wasn't that "cynical political wag" none other than Jeremy Thorpe who was leader of the Liberal Party when they had a similar number of MPs to the number of Liberal Democrat MPs who were elected in our first part the post system a week ago today?

  2. Thank you. Yes, I have now researched it. It was said by JT of MacMillan's Night of the Long Knives.

  3. Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives was more like a Vicarage Tea Party when compared to the slaughter that took place on May 7th MMXV. This time the carnage was inflicted upon the body politic by the electorate in a democratic exercise rather than by an incumbent Prime Minister in a panic reaction to the Profumo Affair.

  4. I suppose they imagine facing Prime Minister's Questions after such humiliating defeats and think - no thanks; or positively, that they are not the best placed to lead an effective opposition?

  5. Thinking more of the immediate aftermath, picking up of pieces etc. than longer-term which would, as you say, be difficult.

  6. There is something about failure that makes people believe that the 'right' thing to do is to resign. It's something about honour and integrity. And both Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband can stand commended for that - or can they. Surely that is the easy way out. Far better to stay in place and face the music head on. They still have something to offer, because they've experienced loss, hugely and personally. Nick Clegg was in danger of being unseated. That experience needs to be fed back into both parties and used, much as theological reflection and reflective practice is used in the church to see what might have been, rather than what was. Both are now in danger of slinking off to nurse there wounds in privacy. This will be a loss to their parties and to the whole democratic process.

  7. Thanks for this perceptive insight which feels entirely accurate to me.