Forget ideas—do the maths, and it's clear political leadership always comes down to character

Every British and American election in 70 years has boiled down to character—who is the leader that’s got what it takes?
September 9, 2017

have a theory of national elections. The best leader wins and nothing else matters. It’s that simple.

This applies to all “two-horse” national elections in stable democracies where elections are free and fair, and covers all the pre-eminent constitutional states whether their national elections are presidential (as in the United States and France) or parliamentary (as in the UK, Germany, India, Japan, Canada and Australia).

Of course, there is hardly an election analyst who doesn’t attribute some importance—often a lot—to leadership. Personal ratings are part of the mix of things polled during campaigns. But my theory is different. It is that leaders are all that matter.

Surely ideas and policies matter too? After all, they are what politicians do: debate ideas and frame and implement policies. Not only elections but wars are fought over ideas and rival programmes. But herein enters the seminal insight of the British commentator Jonathan Freedland. In a Guardian article a decade ago—in the context of Gordon Brown’s then-leaderless critics in the Labour Party demanding a new debate on “the issues”—Freedland cautioned that “people do not believe in ideas: they believe in people who believe in ideas.”

The moment I read those words, a penny dropped, and my conviction has become stronger with each passing year I have spent in politics, that the battle of ideas in politics—indeed in life—cannot be comprehended separately from the people who hold and espouse those ideas. Freedland expressed an insight into the nature of politics and power that is, I believe, as profound as Hobbes on sovereignty, Machiavelli on fear and “fortuna,” Gramsci on hegemony, Burke on tradition or Weber on charisma and bureaucracy. As we enter the party conferences, it’s conventional to despair at the incessant fixation on the leadership question. But—on my argument—the parties are right to obsess. For they really do stand or fall by their leaders.

Hear Andrew Adonis discuss his theory of leadership on the latest episode of Headspace, the Prospect podcast

It is remarkable, and supportive of Freedland’s insight, that most of the world’s ideologies and indeed religions are named after a person, usually its founder, sometimes a champion or interpreter: Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, Leninism or Keynesianism. The most fundamental intellectual or religious doctrines do not stand alone in a “Platonic” realm of ideas, but are pinned to a particular person.

It is equally telling that where generic traditions are applied by a prominent leader who espouses them with an emphasis or flourish, this earns a personalised hybrid label. Taking Britain, think of “Disraelian one-nation conservatism,” “Gladstonian” and “Lloyd George” liberalism, and—on the Labour side—“Croslandite” social democracy. Sometimes the generic ideology is dropped entirely in favour of the leader’s name. We talk of “Thatcherism” not “Thatcherite conservatism,” “Blairism,” not “the Blairite mix of social and Christian democracy.”

Human beings have not evolved to think easily in abstractions, and it is human nature to view political plans and ideas through the prism of their advocates. Besides, the best leaders not only adopt ideas: they fashion them, combine them and tailor them to suit their needs and times. In the process, they also re-order, redefine and remake political parties in their own image—which is another huge reason why leadership is all-important.

The greatest French post-war leader, Charles de Gaulle, stood out a mile from the assorted mediocrities of the Fourth Republic and founded his own party named after himself in the wake of the constitutional revolution of 1958. So, in a distinct echo, did Emmanuel Macron, who saw off flawed leaders from the traditional parties in order to take the Élysée this May.

It is, however, extremely rare for leaders to snatch the crown—Macron-style—at the head of an entirely new party. It has, for example, never happened in modern America. Why not? Because, I suggest, the Democrat and Republican parties in the US are empty vessels which at presidential level simply “franchise” their name and organisation to the leader who wins a primary election. So little does ideology or affiliation matter that the successful leader—like Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Donald Trump in 2016—may not even be a member of the party that they go on to lead until they begin their campaign.

Winners of internal party leadership elections in modern parliamentary systems also secure, to an under-appreciated extent, the freedom to run their party in their own image. Parties can and do veer off in radically new directions simply because of a new leader. Britain’s Conservatives under Thatcher and its Labour Party under Tony Blair are prime examples. Once in their stride, they changed the image and policies of their parties to an extra-ordinary degree. The leader came first, the new ideas and policies followed on.

Conversely, when a flawed policy (think of the poll tax) is derailing a government, I’d suggest that the root cause can often be traced to the onset of a malfunction in the leader’s psychology (Thatcher developing hubris in that case). In such cases, the governing party can deal with its woes by changing the leader, as the Tories successfully did when the poll tax crashed.

Sometimes a new leader can effect a big change in fortunes in days. Australia is famous for frequently changing its leaders. Most audacious was Bob Hawke’s seizing of the Labour leadership on the very day the 1983 election was called, which he proceeded to win on a huge swing. Similarly, New Zealanders embarked on an election campaign in August and the opposition Labour Party suddenly replaced their leader. The new leader, the charismatic Jacinda Ardern, aged just 37, has captured a “time for a change” mood against the “heartless” Tory prime minister, a dry-as-dust former Finance Minister who took over last year between elections. The impact? Labour’s ratings have leaped 26 to 43 per cent ahead of the poll on 23rd September—and Ardern’s only problem is how to dissociate herself from her former boss—she worked for Tony Blair during a stint in London.

The two traits that matter

To test my thesis more systematically, we need to be specific about the leadership qualities which matter in electoral politics. They should, I suggest, be assessed on two dimensions. There are the quintessential abilities—charisma, confidence, acumen, empathy. Few would dispute that in their prime, Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and de Gaulle had an abundance of such talents.

But there is also the ability to embody and express the “spirit of the time,” which can sometimes propel men and women of more modest leadership attributes to the front because of their almost intrinsic ability in keeping with the zeitgeist. Attlee, Truman and Konrad Adenauer top this league, all being post-war “new deal” leaders, unassuming but confident, exuding executive experience and commitment to a highly active state in a post-war decade when there was a desperate yearning for governments to come to the rescue of ravaged societies.

Below, I have drawn up a large table, which summarises every US presidential and UK general election since 1944. There are no party labels or vote tallies here. Instead, “leadership points” are given to the two individual leaders contending for power on a 15-point scale. Up to 10 points are awarded for raw leadership talent, and up to another five for fitting with the times. The “winner” is the candidate with most points.

I can already hear the objections from that school of social scientist who are given to physics envy, and remain obsessed with crunching polls even though they keep turning out to be wrong. So let me be upfront. These leadership points are—inevitably—my subjective opinion. But I have endeavoured to be fair, and not let my political preferences colour things. Kennedy is a hero, whereas Nixon is a figure to send a shiver down the spine, but—on the basis of Nixon’s greater experience and authority—I have ranked the pair as tied. In the British context, I might feel more affinity to Gaitskell than Thatcher in her zealous prime, but that has not stopped me scoring her more highly. The points given reflect leadership attributes plain and simple, not preference. Although leadership ability is about more than popularity, there is some correspondence with public polling on “the best leader” in the period where that is available.

Furthermore, other people I have consulted about my rankings have not awarded points much differently. In only a tiny number of closely-matched cases have different “winners” resulted from any disagreements. I invite you to try and see how many, if any, of the 39 elections you would award differently using the same 15-point scale.

We shouldn’t be too surprised if there is a lot of agreement. It is, after all, nowadays accepted that all sorts of personal abilities can be meaningfully assessed; businesses are sufficiently persuaded of this to spend serious money on the psychometric tests that they use for recruitment. And the more senior the post, the more store they place on character tests. If one can reasonably confidently rate the leadership capacity of candidates to be the chief executive of a company, then why shouldn’t we be able to rate judgment, persuasiveness and other attributes of leadership in aspiring presidents and prime ministers?

The one charge I obviously cannot counter is the bias of hindsight. But I am confident enough in my theory to suggest it as a good guide to future election results, where one of the candidates is clearly the better leader. When the next election comes and we know who the leaders are, by assessing their intrinsic abilities and their rapport with “the spirit of the times” on the 15-point scale, we will have a very good chance of predicting the outcome. I would have little hesitation, for example, in predicting that Ruth Davidson would beat Jeremy Corbyn, or that Trump would once again beat Hillary Clinton.

The rankings

So how far does the theory fare against the historical record? On my scores, there is a clear leadership “winner” in 36 of the 39 elections, and in only one case—the US presidential election of 2000, which I award 10-9 to Al Gore over George W Bush—did that winner lose the real election. (And this is the exception to prove the rule, for Gore won the popular vote, and may have won the Electoral College too had the Supreme Court not sided with Bush in a partisan 5:4 ruling.)

Generally, the balance of points not only indicates the winner but also the scale of the victory. The largest leadership victories—Macmillan beating Gaitskell 14-9 in 1959, Blair defeating Major 14-6 in 1997 and Hague 13-7 in 2001; Roosevelt 15-9 over Dewey in 1944, Johnson 13-5 over Goldwater in 1964, Nixon 12-7 over McGovern in 1972 and Obama 14-9 over McCain in 2008—also include most of the landslides in terms of votes/seats.

“Leadership points” can change over time for the same individual, as their attributes and rapport with their time change. In some cases, experience perfects the capacity to inspire and decide; in others, it breeds hubris or simply exhausts. The fresh, dynamic Wilson who in 1964 personified his own “white heat of the technological revolution” (12 points) had become a jaded and compromised 8-point leader a decade later. Nonetheless, a successful leader like Wilson will generally retain enough of their innate ability to fight repeat elections—and very often they win. Indeed, in the two near dead-heats of 1974, the diminished but still skilful Wilson could still edge it over Heath both in leadership points, and the tally of seats.

In the US, sitting presidents almost invariably stand for re-election, and since they were the winning leader first time around (or, in the case of Truman in 1948 and Johnson in 1964, originally selected as vice president to a late successor on the basis of certain leadership qualities), it is no surprise that they generally get re-elected. Nine of the 12 presidential bids for re-election since 1944 have succeeded. It is a fair bet that many of these nine presidents would have won a third—maybe even a fourth—term had they been eligible: Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Obama would have been safe bets for a third term; Roosevelt might have won a fifth had he lived in good health. It was to prevent successful presidents becoming semi-permanent that, after FDR, the 22nd Amendment to the US constitution prohibited any repetition. In the UK, with no term limits, Wilson fought five and won four, and in my judgment drew in leadership points in the only one he lost (1970). Two other leaders (Attlee and Heath) led their party into four successive elections, while two others (Thatcher and Blair) fought three.

Of the combined 14 contests of these four British leaders, they won nine. Tellingly, three of these five losses were notched up by Heath alone, who lost three of his four elections. This brings me to my rule (which he half bucked) that “failed leaders resign, are sacked—or they go on to lose again.” The only UK leader besides Heath to lose a first election yet survive for a second—Labour’s Neil Kinnock—lost the second one too.

Just as winning once is a good predictor of winning again, so losing once is a good predictor of future defeat. In the US since 1944, only two losing first-time leaders have gone on to fight an immediate second election—Thomas Dewey who lost to FDR and Truman in succession and Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Eisenhower twice. A controversial choice for the Democratic nomination, Stevenson was dubbed “egghead” for his baldness and intellectual air. “Eggheads of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your yolks,” he joked, but it summed up why he was massacred by Eisenhower. Only one of the 14 first-time US losers since 1944 has gone on to win the presidency—the irrepressible Nixon, who tied with Kennedy in 1960 on leadership points.

Hillary Clinton belongs in the serial loser camp if you put her long and failed primary campaign against Obama alongside last November’s defeat. On the “losing leaders must go immediately” rule, it was foolhardy to select her to fight the 2016 election. The situation was very different from Reagan’s 1976 almost-unprecedented and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to dislodge a sitting president within his own party.

Clinton’s defeat by Obama in 2007-8 was in my view decisive in leadership points (13-10). She achieved a close result that year only thanks to the formidable Clinton machine. Eight years later, I give her a tiny leadership points lead over Bernie Sanders (9-8) in the primaries, but that close fight took its toll, and she ended up with an 8-7 leadership points defeat by Trump in the national election. Trump may be the most preposterous candidate ever to win the US presidency, but with his national profile from 14 series of The Apprentice, his Marmite-style appeal (strongly attracting his white, blue-collar base, while repelling many others) and his “spirit-of-the-time” appeal to the angrily dispossessed, he was a fairly strong leader.

Why Corbyn could beat Rees-Mogg

word about that leadership giant Churchill. I do not count Churchill as a second-time loser in 1950 because, had the quinquennial election due in 1940 not had to be cancelled—because of the supreme national emergency that had made him prime minister—he would surely have won a landslide (beating Attlee 14-7 in leadership points). A war in which Britain then faced the real possibility of defeat was then the only issue. But instead, Churchill and Attlee faced each other in the real election of 1945. Of all 20 British general elections in my table, this is the one where leadership points correlate least well with the result: the crushing defeat of the great wartime supremo.

However, this is not so hard to explain. Churchill was the leader of the past, Attlee of the future. Allowing for Attlee’s huge “spirit-of-the-times” advantage, I give him a one-point leadership edge over Churchill in 1945, and it is only when Churchill reconnects with the times and accepts the “Attlee settlement” that he again becomes a credible contender. Attlee then edges the 1950 election, while Churchill squeaks through in 1951. Rarely have there been more closely-run elections between leaders with contrasting skills as Churchill and Attlee. But maybe that reflects a decade of massive political and social rupture.

Among the last of the 20 British elections, only this year’s contest between May and Corbyn, ranks as equally abnormal as 1945. This pair jointly notch up the lowest combined leadership score of the post-war era. May’s seven points makes her the weakest sitting prime minister to fight an election apart from Callaghan in 1979 and Major in 1997. (Major had won an election five years previously with a respectable 10 leadership points, but his stock never recovered from his subsequent Black Wednesday and Maastricht humiliations). As one wit said of May’s disastrous election campaign, in which her leadership disintegrated by the day, “It was the first time in history there had been a personality cult around a non-personality.”

Corbyn achieved plaudits for improving Labour’s electoral tally against expectations, but on six leadership points he is worsted in post-war leadership points only by his fellow left-wing romantic Michael Foot in 1983. He was arguably at the helm in the first place only because of the grave difficulty of the moderate wing of the Labour Party has had in producing plausible leaders, after being burned out by 13 years in government. And the result in votes and seats—a clear defeat by the weak May—leads to only one conclusion for the next UK election: Corbyn will lose it decisively if he contests it—unless, improbably, a death-wish Tory Party were to re-run the same wounded leader, or someone even worse such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who Corbyn could beat. At least Corbyn is a member for the 1970s. Rees-Mogg is a member for the 18th century.

Some admirers of Corbyn might protest that the late Labour surge reflected his disdain for the usual rules of Westminster, including the old mode of top-down leadership. Some may even suggest that he has shown that a different set of leadership qualities—steadfast and unspun opinions, and a lack of personal grandeur—are a new set of keys to success. But the reality is that in no other election since 1945 have the leadership credentials of an untested frontrunner plummeted so far or so fast as May’s. The “strong and stable” prime minister who called the election in April had, after a series of catastrophes culminating in the virtual withdrawal of her highly personal manifesto only days after its launch, become an object of derision and almost pity by the campaign’s final week. However, May still ended one leadership point ahead of Corbyn, who did of course lose the election.

A supreme indifference

The Anglo-American historical record, then, speaks for itself. And my “the political is the personal” thesis has wider application too: to the France of de Gaulle and Mitterrand, the Germany of Adenauer, Kohl and Merkel, even the Italy of Andreotti and Berlusconi. Justin Trudeau is presently giving a leadership masterclass in Canada.

So consign to the dustbin class, income, age, geography, policy, ideology, demographics and all else that confuses pollsters, psephologists, journalists and historians in explaining national election outcomes. All are superfluous. Focus only on leaders and what makes for successful leadership at the time.

If you are a party member, and want to be in power, you need to hold on to your values but ignore all else, and simply find the best leader you can to put them into effect. If your leader loses an election, discard them immediately and recruit someone better—or at any rate, better than the opponent they will face next time.

A final comment about people believing “in people who believe in ideas.” It helps explain why in politics and government, ideas and policies can oscillate so rapidly, even under the same leader. Because it is all “leadership, stupid,” the successful leader—if he or she understands correctly the spirit of the time, and they wouldn’t be leader if they didn’t—can as easily sell idea A and policy B as idea C and policy D, while also finessing E and transitioning to F as the occasion requires.

To see the master at work, marvel at Philip Short’s magnificent flesh-and-blood biographical portrait of the mercurial French president Mitterrand. Initially a civil servant in Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime, Mitterrand became an essentially centre-right leader of the Fourth Republic in the 1950s. Then, after de Gaulle’s constitutional coup, he underwent a long reinvention—including an amazing faked assassination attempt—to become the firebrand socialist leader who won the presidency in 1981, only to end his second term 14 years later as a consensual centrist. He was a brilliant political impresario to the last, although at the end a virtual invalid from advanced cancer.

And what did Mitterrand say was the supreme political quality? “Indifference.” Indifference to everything, that is, apart from his own leadership and power.

Now read Steve Richards: "No, Andrew, it's not about leadership—it's about ideas"