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How about trying the politics of love?

15 May 2015

Relationships, not strong leadership, should be at the heart of political life, argues Justin Lewis-Anthony

THE unexpected Conservative majority after the General Election last week has clarified one thing: no one can win an election without a strong sense of leadership.

We could see this directly when three party leaders resigned on Friday afternoon: their leadership was found wanting, and so they had to go. For Philip Collins in The Times, it was Ed Miliband's poor leadership that cost the Labour Party the election. Mr Miliband campaigned with conviction: those convictions were not shared by the electorate.

With hindsight, we can see that Mr Miliband's failure was inevitable. As soon as the Labour Party selected him as leader in September 2010, the election was as good as lost. Since then, we have seen someone who is "decent, clever and possessed of superhuman resilience", as Mr Collins noted, but also "a notch or two shy of the standard required of a prime minister": "Economic competence counts, leadership matters and you cannot win from the Left."

Mr Miliband's incompetence as a leader seems decided. It is unclear whether David Cameron's leadership skills contributed to his victory. Some people argue that Mr Cameron's hands-off and disdainful style with his MPs will cause problems in managing a slim-majority "awkward squad". Others believe that his leadership has been vindicated by the electorate's response, giving him a mandate to continue his modernisation of the Conservative Party.

Verily, the sciences of psephology and astrology are alike: the reader can find what he or she wills in the post-election reading of the entrails.

THE British election results did not pass unnoticed here in the United States. Sixteen months before the next presidential election, 38 candidates are already declared, each one of them promising strong and appropriate leadership for the country to regain its rightful place in the world.

This leadership has very little to do with the exercise of politics. Most candidates, even the career politicians, are running against Washington. Such things as minority government, bipartisan negotiations, and manifesto horse-trading are disparagingly referred to as "inside the Beltway" (the "Westminster bubble" is the equivalent British insult).

Instead, what is required of politicians in the US is strong conviction leadership. And the US expects the same thing of the Government of the United Kingdom: strong leadership to preserve the Union, to reform Europe, and to maintain an effective military co- operation with the US. The American press is not confident that this is possible. One Sunday opinion piece here was headlined "The Suicide of Britain".

In all this talk of leadership, there was, however, precious little examination of what leadership might actually be. Mr Collins seems to believe that it is nothing more than finding out where the people are going, and then walking in front of them (an insight apocryphally attributed to a former Bishop of Norwich).

Mr Cameron needs to placate backbenchers and disaffected UKIP voters at the same time, a practice of leadership which Professor Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University has called "disappointing people at a rate they can absorb". Every other commentator has called for strong and clear leadership, and left it undefined. We do not know what leadership is, but we want more of it.

THERE is at least one politician whose thought belies this vagueness. Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, who was re-elected last week with an increased majority. When the House of Bishops issued its pastoral letter to British politicians this year (News, 20 February), Mr Cruddas responded in a most unusual way: thoughtfully.

He welcomed the involvement of religious leaders in political life, not least because the faith traditions "do not think that the free market created the world". Faith treats human society, Mr Cruddas was pleased to note, as something more than commodities and transactions, but rather as rooted in relationships, and expressed through the noble calling of work.

He hoped that the Bishops' letter would be the beginning of a "covenantal conversation" about how we as a nation work together for the common good. The letter was nothing less than a "true act of leadership".

Mr Cruddas has also thought about the basis of leadership. In January, he gave a speech to the Relationships Alliance (a coalition of Relate and other couple-based organisations), in which he called for a renewed honouring of the place of love in society.

Following William Morris, he said there were only two things that made life worth while: love and work.

Politicians talk a great deal about work, Mr Cruddas said - creating jobs, managing the economy, and so on - but they "don't talk enough about love". Many of the failures of our society - the abandoned eld-erly, the hopeless young, the oppressed adults - are failures of relationships. When relationships thrive, individuals, families, and societies thrive.

We recognise these relationships, Mr Cruddas said, quoting Morris, in the expression of love: "Love is the duty we have to others, and the sense of self we get by living with and for other people." If government, national and local, was able to put relationships at the heart of the services needed by and provided for society, only good would come of it, "a new settlement based on relationship, reciprocity and responsibility".

We could take hope from Mr Cruddas's electoral success. We could hold MPs and the Government accountable for encouraging deeper relationships in all levels of society. It is possible to ask our elected representatives about the place of love in their speeches and actions. If we did so, perhaps we could leave the fruitless quest for leadership behind, and instead find the power of the other L-word.


The Revd Dr Justin Lewis-Anthony is Associate Dean of Students at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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