Mayors Going Global: The Curious Case of Brexit

Max Stafford is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His doctoral research looks at the leadership of mayors in London, New York City and Amsterdam.

It is not new, these days, to talk of mayors and the irony of their playing a role in global issues, despite being local leaders. These issues include climate change, migration and security. However, within the context of the UK, mayors are also managing to play a vital role in the foreign policy issue of the day – Brexit. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, mayors’ increasing strategic involvement with issues previously assumed to be reserved to national or global-level policymaking raises the well-rehearsed concept of place-based leadership and its future in relation to local political leaders. But who are these mayors and what are they actually doing about Brexit?

  The most vocal mayor on this topic so far has been the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Though only early in his first term (having been elected in May 2016), Khan has put effort into casting his mayoralty in an internationalist perspective. Faced with an opponent (Conservative, Zac Goldsmith) whose campaign was the recipient of allegations of “dog-whistle” politics and racism, Khan spent much of his 2016 campaign talking about both the diversity of the city that he aimed to lead and also his own heritage as the child of immigrants. After the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, he sought to remind both London and the rest of the UK (as well as his European counterparts) that the city was a key player in the global economy.

London mayor Sadiq Khan in the European Parliament | image via europarl.europa.eu

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Mayors & Terrorist Attacks: The Quiet Advance of Place-Based Leadership

Max Stafford is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His doctoral research looks at the leadership of mayors in London, New York City and Amsterdam.

London mayor Sadiq Khan with a member of the London Metropolitan Police | photo via london.gov.uk

London. Manchester. New York. Boston. Nice. Each of these cities is world-famous for a variety of reasons – from their importance to the global economy to their exhibiting of richly-diverse cultures. They have also, as with many other cities around the world, experienced the horror of recent terror attacks perpetrated against their citizens, attracting global attention. These attacks are summarised in the table below. It is interesting to reflect, however, as we approach the first anniversary of the Nice attack on the 14th July, on what the responses to these incidents have revealed about the importance of place-based leadership.

Each of the cities selected for this post had a mayor at the time of the relevant incident (though Manchester’s mayoralty had only been in existence for 18 days) and each played a pivotal role in the civic and political reaction to them. From Giuliani’s appearance with the New York Fire Department at the site of the World Trade Centre in the days following the attack through to Sadiq Khan’s standing alongside the British Home Secretary in post-attack vigils in Trafalgar Square, each mayor quickly became the public face of their city’s response. In Giuliani’s case, it led to his being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2001. But what does the prominence of these figures in the response to these incidents, and the public and media’s reception of them, tell us about the state of political leadership?

We often think of terrorism as a national political issue in terms of where the policy initiatives and leadership to tackle it originate from, in line with other matters of security. Of course, in each case the relevant national leaders did provide immediate statements on the tragedies and played their roles in helping to co-ordinate the response, including through addressing the wider national mood. However, it was the leaders of these cities, these places, who became the “face” of their communities’ reactions. Given that each of these attacks garnered an array of international attention, due to a combination of their occurring in places of economic and cultural significance and also due to captivating the global 24-hour news cycles in the days that followed, their local leaders soon received a huge spike in their public profiles.

So, Andy Burnham, despite only having been elected earlier in the same month as the attack, became the face of the political and civic reaction in Manchester. Philippe Pradal was also a new mayor at the time of his city’s tragedy, but was soon well-known beyond either Nice or, indeed, France. Khan became further entrenched as the globally-identifiable leader of London (with a combination of the terror incidents and, earlier, his pro-Remain strategic corollary to Brexit).

Menino was, by contrast with Burnham, Pradal and Khan, a long-standing mayor (being into his fifth term at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing). Nevertheless, a combination of the fact that the incident’s fallout lasted for nearly a week and also that other major global cities (for instance, London) were soon to hold marathons meant that Menino’s reassuring persona and sense of a capable approach to crisis management received a focus heightened beyond that which they perhaps otherwise would have attracted. Giuliani and Livingstone were, similarly, established mayors (having served 7 and 5 years, respectively, at the time of the atrocities). Livingstone’s association with place had already been furthered just a day earlier by the announcement (in Singapore) that the 2012 Olympics were to be hosted by London.

Thus, leaders who were elected to hold office at the local level (albeit in major cities) often find themselves imbued with greater national and international significance due to their association with the place that they lead. This place-based leadership both enhances their profiles beyond their immediate constituencies and also adds new dimensions to their roles (through their assumption of influence in policy areas that were not originally envisaged as being within their competence). Additionally, the locations covered by their political mandate experience a similar level of growth in the wider recognition that they receive by virtue of their association with the leader.

This particular place-based leadership is, then, formed of a symbiotic relationship. Place enhances a leader’s immediate profile (and with it, potentially, their political capital) and the leader subsequently ensures that their city’s response to atrocities such as terrorism receives greater public attention than it might otherwise have done.

What remains consistent between all of these case studies (where so much else about them is varied and circumstantial) is the importance of understanding the centrality of place in determining the leadership response. With other examples of this important relationship to be discovered in place-based approaches to climate change, migration, international crime and many other interest areas, it seems that this under-estimated aspect of leadership seems set to remain intriguing for a long time to come.

Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Analysing the components of political leadership, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister review Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that, although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?


Image credit: Number 10, Jay Allen, Crown Copyright, BY-NC-NC 2.0

Theresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm.  May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued

Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

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This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on 1 June 2017.

Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of a new collection of case studies The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by Oxford University Press. See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog. You can also read more about the Leadership Capital Index here and read a more detailed analysis of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power. You can read chapter 1 here.

Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University.

 

How Can We Measure Political Leadership?

Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church University), Ben Worthy (Birkbeck, University of London) and Paul ‘t Hart (Universiteit Utrecht) have published a new book on leadership capital, applying their Leadership Capital Index to a series of country case studies.

Understanding and measuring political leadership is a complex business. Though we all have ideals of what a ‘good’ leader should be they are often complex, contradictory and more than a little partisan. Is it about their skills, their morality or just ‘getting things done’? And how can we know if they succeed or fail (and why?). From Machiavelli onwards we have wrestled with our idea of what a perfect leader should look like and what makes them succeed or fail.

One way to think about comparing and measuring is to consider leadership authority. Taking the idea of ‘political capital’ we can look at what sort of authority a leader is granted and how they choose to ‘spend’ their capital. We can think of political capital as a stock of ‘credit’ accumulated by and gifted to politicians, in this case leaders. Political capital is often used as a shorthand to describe if leaders are ‘up’ or ‘down’, how popular they are and how much ‘credit’ they have in the political sphere. Like with financial capital, commentators and politicians speak of it being ‘gained’ or, much more commonly, ‘lost’. Most importantly, it’s viewed as something finite; you only have so much and it quickly depreciates under pressure of the media, opposition or events. This presents us with alternative method of understanding why political leaders succeed or fail.

Politicians are acutely aware of their finite stock of authority. Having plenty of this ‘credit’ means a leader can lets of things done by spending or leveraging it- think Tony Blair in 1997 or Barack Obama in 2009 when their support, popularity and momentum temporarily made them politically unassailable. They believe they can pass laws, set agendas and dominate the ‘narrative’. Tony Blair, reflecting in his autobiography, spoke of how he was a capital ‘hoarder’, trying not to spend his authority in his early years as Prime Minister:

“At first, in those early months and perhaps in much of that initial term of office, I had political capital that I tended to hoard. I was risking it but within strict limits and looking to recoup it as swiftly as possible… in domestic terms, I tried to reform with the grain of opinion not against it.”

 

Understanding leadership capital

Academics have defined political capital in a variety of ways. It can be about trust, networks and ‘moral’ or ethical reputation. By incorporating many of these ideas, we are developing a notion of leadership capital as a measure of the extent to which political office-holders can effectively attain and wield authority.

We define leadership capital as an aggregate of three leadership components: skills, relations and reputation. We have worked this is into a Leadership Capital Index (LCI). The Index has 10 simple variables to enable leaders to be scored, using a mixed methods approach to capture both quantitative data and qualitative assessments. You can see our more detail index in our article or here.

The measure of a leader’s skills refers to the whole range of abilities a leader needs, from the communicative to the managerial and cognitive. We look at the power of a leader’s vision, their communication and their popularity. The difficulty for many leaders is that they have, of course, some of these but not all. Both Cameron and Blair for example have been accused of having the communication skills and (relative) popularity, but not the vision. Theresa May appears lacking in both, but has incumbency capital and gains in comparison to the alternative.

Leadership is also a relational activity. Leaders mobilise support through loyalty from their colleagues, their party and the public. Part of the challenge of leadership is to retain these ties for as long as possible or, at least, as one scholar put it, to disappoint followers at rate they can accept. But how they do this can depend on their leadership style (Fred Greenstein’s influential approach gave a psychological framework for assessing style in office). The most obvious and talked about way is through charisma, the Blair or Obama offer of what James Macgregor Burns famously termed ‘transformational’ leadership. But effective leadership can also be through quiet, technocratic competence and delivery, more in the style of Angela Merkel (as Ludger Helms and Femke van Esch show in the book). Leadership needs to suit the cultural norms of the country and the situation, see this discussion of ex (and possible future) Italian PM Matteo Renzi.

Third, leadership is continually judged and ‘sold’ by reputation. Leaders create their own performance measurements – have they done what they promised? Each type of leadership claim sets up its own performance test. We look at whether a leader is trusted by the public, subject to challenge or not and to what extent they control party policy or their legislature (see this article by Michael Rush on the UK).

Looking across these three areas in combination allows us to understand how they influence each other in ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ cycles. Successful leaders communicate, achieve aims and strengthen relations and reputation. Failed leaders poorly communicate or never map out a vison, then often lose confidence, control and credit.

David Cameron’s EU strategy 2013-2016 provides a neat mini-example of capital loss, where he gambled his capital on a series of high stakes policies with diminishing returns. His failure to communicate his European vision, and tendency for a series of ‘Hail Mary Passes’ with a promised 2017 referendum and EU reform, eroded already ambivalent relations with parts of the Conservative party. This in turn has left him with less control over EU policy or parliament as party rebels exerted more and more influence. So attempts to regain the high ground on the EU debt or by making ever more promises on immigration weakened his capital (you can read a more detailed assessment of Cameron here). This led directly to Cameron losing the referendum and resigning in June 2016.

Where next for leadership?

The idea of leadership capital offers one possible way of understanding how leaders succeed and fail. We hope our LCI can provide one way to measure and identify the ebb and flow of the leadership trajectory over time. In analysing cases within countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States but also Spain, Sweden the Netherlands and Hungary we can track the trajectory draw some general observations across the cases. We also hope it can be used comparatively beyond our cases to evaluate leadership capital at sub national level as well as cross national.

However, while the framework provides a neat lens, we recognise that all leaders can be helped or hindered by structural advantages or disadvantages, from different levels of trust to powers of the office. Different political systems give leaders less or more control and greater or lesser power, most US Presidents would probably happily swap for the power of a UK Prime Minister or French President. The wider environment also offers opportunities or limitations-war, peace or crisis all shape a leader’s influence.

There is also the fascinating issue of comeback. If all leaders only have a limited ‘stock’ what of those who bounce back? Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (to an extent) or John Howard all managed to turn around their political fortunes and reinvigorate their leadership. Winston Churchill may be the prime example of leader who squandered skills, reputation and relations over and over until late in his life-his career up until 1939 was famously described as a study in failure.

Churchill himself spoke of how politicians ‘rise by toil and struggle’ and remain caught in a paradox whereby ‘they expect to fall: they hope to rise’. Perhaps leadership capital can help us to understand why and how this happens.

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Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of a new collection of case studies The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by Oxford University Press. You can read the introduction here and find out more on leadership capital on their blog.

 

A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders

Image: Plaid Cymru CC BY-NC-ND

The recent Northern Irish Assembly Elections were significant in all sorts of ways, as this great piece explains. Northern Ireland may be to moving to a very different place politically. Unionism no longer has a majority, the Unionists may no longer hold a veto in the Assembly (via the petition of concern) and there is, on paper at least, an anti-Brexit majority in the new Assembly, that could govern the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU. The elections also led to the resignation of Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, and severely destabilised ex-First Minister and leader of the DUP Arlene Foster who is hanging on but may not last the course of any negotiations.

What is equally fascinating is that Nesbitt, who became leader of the UUP on 31th March 2012, was until 2nd March the second longest current serving party leader in Britain. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood pipped him to the post by a mere 16 days.

Looking across current UK party leaders in the table, there’s one rather surprising fact: more than 50% are women (and this may be related due to the glass cliff). Another surprise is that they are all either quite or very new. Five leaders have been in charge of their party less than a year (including the Prime Minister). Four have been in charge for less than 2 years. Nicola Sturgeon is now the second longest serving party leader in the UK, at a mere 2 years and 3 months.

Current UK Party Leaders and their time in power

Note: This table only covers parties that have representatives in devolved assemblies and Westminster and doesn’t include separate or semi-autonomous leaders of parties in other parts of the UK e.g. Scotland or Wales and so excludes all sorts of capable leaders like Ruth Davidson.

The combination of a General Election in 2015, other elections and Brexit seems to have taken a heavy toll on party leaders across the UK. What the table doesn’t tell us how many of them who are still there have rather shaky positions: Paul Nuttall of UKIP and Arlene Foster of the DUP have both recently lost elections they probably needed to win, and both currently have the ‘full confidence’ of their party- a sure sign of trouble. This brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, winner of two huge leadership mandates in 2015 and 2016 but who is behaving as if he is under siege and hanging on by a thread. Whether this is because of a crypto Tory plot between Blair, Mandelson and Ivanka Trump or because of a toxic combination of Brexit, Copeland and those polls rather depends on your viewpoint.

The sobering thought is that we are now embarking on the huge and complex task of Brexit with inexperienced party leaders, some of whom are unsafe or wobbly. These will be testing times for political parties as new divisions and politics de or re-align in a bewildering way.

Just to make things even less certain, the two most secure leaders, the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland, are on a collision course. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s strengths can be seen in the fact that Scotland is a virtual one party state, though the SNP may have reached its high point in the Scottish Parliament. Theresa May’s strong position is less easily explained. Despite tension with number 11, she is far ahead of where we would expect as a takeover Prime Minister with no mandate and dealing with an issue that has split her party since the 1980s. Both Sturgeon and May came to power because ‘their’ side lost a referendum. Both seem to have now manoeuvred themselves into a corner to have another.

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck University of London. He tweets @BenWorthy1.
Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He tweets @MarkBennister.

This post first appeared on 10 March 2017 on Political Insight Plus, the digital arm of the members’ magazine of the Political Studies Association (PSA).