Leadership has never decided the result of an election. It was policies, more than personalities, that drove the course of the 2017 campaignby Steve Richards / September 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.