The surge to Labour wasn't just down to Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: PA

Leaders don't win elections—the battle of ideas is what matters

Leadership has never decided the result of an election. It was policies, more than personalities, that drove the course of the 2017 campaign
September 12, 2017

Leaders alone cannot account for the outcome of all elections, and have never done so. Other factors are at least as decisive, such as the context in which an election is held and the state of the parties seeking to win. To take a precise example: if Tony Blair had become leader of his party in 1983 he’d have struggled—even with all the skills he applied as opposition leader 11 years later. Why? In 1983 the context for Labour was simply an impossible one for any leader to overcome.

The left was split, with the SDP still seemingly formidable. Margaret Thatcher had won by a landslide. Labour remained resistant to fundamental change. By 1994, Blair could thrive against a creaking Conservative government tearing itself apart over Europe. By then Labour had lost four elections and was ready to accept virtually any change to win.

Conversely, the John Major who was slaughtered in 1997 was the same leader who had won a historic victory in 1992. What had changed was the context—the knife-edge parliamentary arithmetic and the cracking of discipline on Europe. Likewise it is not enough—indeed, it is almost perverse—for Andrew Adonis to “explain” four different outcomes to four successive showdowns between the same two men—Harold Wilson and Ted Heath—as down to the changing attributes of the pair. Again, it was the evolving context that mattered.

Major’s 1992 victory points to another factor in determining elections: ideas. In 1991, Labour had been miles ahead in the polls, but the ex-Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, predicted confidently that the Conservatives would win again because they were still winning the battle of ideas. He turned out to be right. In 1992, the Tories still rode the ideological tide: for the small state and free markets. New Labour won five years later after learning to swim with that same tide. It was not reversed by an individual leader, but by the crash of 2008.

Talented leaders can play a part in securing ideological victories, but the battle is always bigger than any individual, so success is not guaranteed. David Cameron and George Osborne formed a leadership team of verve and guile, but in their outdated response to the crash, and narrow view of Tory modernisation, they never reset the ideological terms of trade. The sea change in thinking taking place was simply bigger than them. In 1979, Jim Callaghan, the outgoing PM, observed a very different sea change, and correctly noted he was doomed. Callaghan was a more popular leader than Thatcher, but she was riding the waves. She won because of that—not because of who she was.

"Even the rise of Donald Trump is part of a wider pattern across the western world"
The 2017 election turned just as many orthodoxies on their head as 1979. Labour may not have won, but it piled on votes in an entirely unexpected manner. It is weird to ignore such shifts, and pretend—as the Adonis analysis does—that the only thing that wants explaining is why Theresa May ultimately “won.” The Labour surge was not principally down to the personality of May or Jeremy Corbyn, but due to policies. Labour’s ratings began to rise in the polls after it launched a manifesto that renewed connections between the state and parts of the electorate that felt ignored. Conversely, May, hugely popular at the start of the campaign, lost support because of her manifesto. It was policies more than personalities that drove the campaign’s course.

In presidential elections individual candidates are inevitably pivotal, but even the rise of Donald Trump is part of a wider pattern across the western world, and not a reflection of his personality alone. Nor did Hillary Clinton’s defeat purely explain her failings—it was part of a far wider backlash against the perceived “political elite.”

Leaders matter hugely but they never operate as free agents. In the UK they are constrained or aided by their parties, the immediate political circumstances and the direction of the ideological tides over which they have limited or no control.