Monday 26 June 2017

Lessons for Leaders from the election

The UK’s general election and its fallout were certainly interesting. The outcome means that certainly about funding and policymaking is likely to be harder to come by in the coming years (or months, maybe?). This will have impacts on many areas of professional life.

The fates of the leaders of the two main parties – Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – are also instructive. I’m not seeking to make any political points, here, but it seems to me that leaders in any organisation can learn two important lessons from the campaign.

Firstly, let’s look at Theresa May.  Before calling the election her party had a commanding lead in the polls, and her standing as Prime Minister was high. She had attained her party leadership and the Prime-Ministership by acclaim, as all other candidates withdrew. Her confident messaging on Brexit, perhaps the defining issue for our political times, seemed to resonate with her party and with voters at large. And so she called an election, clearly believing that a larger majority was hers for the taking. And the campaign was for Theresa May’s Conservatives – the Prime Minister’s personal identify and appeal to the voters.

But as we all know, it was not to be. The campaign exposed the lack of depth in her manifesto - for instance, cabinet ministers not involved in drafting key policies, and only aware shortly before publication of key and controversial policy commitments. This led to the removal of a manifesto commitment about social care costs within a couple of days of its being announced. Another issue was the repetition of one key message – Strong and Stable Leadership – to levels approaching parody. When a question time audience openly laughs at the Prime Minister, it is clear that something isn’t right. And a theme emerged of a person who was unable to respond to real issues; who appeared to have taken the election for granted.

Even so, the election outcome was a shock for many. The opinion poll from the impressive Professor John Curtice – which turned out to be pretty damn accurate – was ignored and talked down by all pundits and all parties for the first two-to-three hours of results. But by the next morning it was clear that Theresa May had lost her overall majority, and had lost the ability to command without consensus in her party.

What had gone wrong? To my mind, she had committed the sin of believing her own propaganda. Her message of strength and stability had not been tested by an internal party challenge. She had had no feedback at that point. She ran a tight circle within Number 10: her policy staff were said to exclude many of her own MPs and minsters from effective discussion. And so no voice was there to say that that things may not have been as she saw them. Theresa May 0, Hubris 1.

And what of the other side? Jeremy Corbyn went into the election with many convinced that his party was going to be humiliated. His own allies were setting a low bar for success – anything above 200 seats, according to Len McCluskey of Unite, would be good. And note that this 200 seats mark would mean losing 30 current seats. His enemies within his own party had been seeking to have him removed as leader ever since his election. And opinion polls and spread betting companies were suggesting that the party might finish with as few as 130-150 seats, plumbing depths not seen since the 1930’s.

Although the Labour Party was uncharacteristically united during the election campaign, the mood amongst its candidates was not good. Few reportedly featured Jeremy Corbyn on their literature; the campaign was a defensive one, targeting marginal seats held by Labour. And the campaign had some poor performances, with a shadow cabinet member hidden from view to avoid media focus on her apparent inability to work with numbers; and Jeremy Corbyn himself in difficulty over the gap between his personal view of nuclear weapons and that of his party.

When the results were in, Labour had come a distant second; with fewer seats than Gordon Brown won in 2010. It was clear that there was no realistic prospect of a Labour Government: the parliamentary arithmetic just did not allow it. But the narrative was all about the fantastic performance of the Labour Party.

  • 40% of the vote! (Never mind that the Conservatives had got 42.4%). 
  • A +9.5% swing to the party. (Never mind that the Conservatives had a +5.5% swing). 
  • Thirty extra seats! (Never mind that the party wasn’t in power.)

What had Jeremy done right? He clearly had authenticity and communicated better than his adversary. That got the election result. And he managed expectations very, very well. Everyone expected humiliation; he ended up only defeated. This becomes a triumph in itself – defying the odds, the underdog emerges unbowed. And we do all love an underdog, don’t we?

So, leaders, take note.

Firstly, you’re probably not as brilliant as you may think. You need to listen to others. Don’t be like Theresa.

Secondly, manage expectations. Under promise and over deliver. Everybody loves a positive surprise; nobody likes to be disappointed.

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn live on to fight another day. Theresa is still PM, although clearly her tenure is time limited. And Jeremy will fight the next election as leader of the Labour Party, if that is what he chooses to do. But Theresa now needs to bring strength and stability where she cannot. And Jeremy can no longer be the underdog: his party expects him to deliver government. Tough times for them both.