Friday, 29 April 2011

The Leading Edge

He's the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, at the forefront of opposition to the SNP government for the past three years, yet remarkably few people seem to know who he is. Famous mostly for running away from elderly hecklers and hiding in a sandwich shop, Iain Gray has struggled more than most leaders to make the right impression – or, indeed, any impression at all. It's unfair, say the party faithful. Gray is an honest man who deserves better than to be sidelined in an age of spin. His personality is neither here nor there, and the forthcoming election should be decided on the issues.

They're quite wrong, of course.

The problem with approaching party promotion this way is that they're missing the fact that personality is one of the issues. Consider the perennial problem of parties that have been out of power for a while. We should be wary of them, their opponents always say, because they have very few people with top level political experience. What this really means, more often than not, is that we the voters have little experience of them. We're not familiar with their skillsets and can't be sure they're up to the job of government.

In order to establish themselves in this situation, parties have to demonstrate that they have capable individuals with specific areas of expertise – Nicola Sturgeon on health, for instance; or, at Westminster, Vince Cable on economics. The presence of a competent individual makes voters more confident that the party will be able to handle that area of government without disasters.

Then there is the job of leader.

Like it or not, a leader is not just there to coordinate activities (with the possible exception of the Green Party, who have a convener rather than a leader per se, but they have no prospect of forming a majority). A leader is there to lead. A leader may become a First Minister, at which point they will have to speak on behalf of the country and carry an air of authority; they will need to be able to stand up to the leaders of other nations, to do business with them on equal terms, and to inspire confidence in the Scottish people. We need to know, when we cast our votes, that we are electing a party whose leader can represent us all.

It is hardly inspiring if we struggle to remember who that leader is.

Iain Gray may very well be an honest, decent man, but he carries himself like an unpopular schoolteacher, hectoring when he should be persuading, forever on edge. At times he bears an unfortunate resemblance to The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Man With No Neck. It is difficult to imagine him commanding respect on the international stage. This is unfortunate for Scotland whichever way you look at it. Labour members are already whispering that he's cost them the election, and even those who support the SNP should appreciate that governments function at their best when they have a strong opposition.

What seems to have occurred is an oversight within Labour ranks, a failure to appreciate what politics is really about. It's all very well to be idealistic but policies alone are not enough. That's like trying to promote a band with great lyrics and a charisma-free singer, or serving a nutritious meal with no discernible flavour. There is more to government than white papers and number management. Charisma matters. Leadership matters, because this is a context in which style is part of the substance.

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