It’s not over till the Queen’s speech (and maybe not even then)

Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University and a specialist in political leadership, appeared on the latest edition of the podcast “Discussions in Tunbridge Wells” which is produced by the university’s Applied Psychology programme. This time, the panel talked about the 2017 General Election: called by the Prime Minister in the hope of winning a large majority, but offering a far less clear result. Mark Bennister talks about the campaign, analyses the leaders’ performances and assesses the current situation with a hung Parliament. Furthermore, the podcasts covers how psychological theories may shed some light on how people voted. Last, it discusses populism, rationality, the strong feelings raised on all sides and whether any politician can get elected if they tell us we’ll lose out.

The best way follow the podcast is to subscribe to their feed. You can do this by looking up Discussions in Tunbridge Wells in iTunes, SoundCloud or wherever else you get your podcasts from.

You can also follow the Applied Psychology programme on Twitter @CCCUApppsy and on Facebook facebook.com/cccuappsy

You can follow Angela on Twitter @cyberwhispers, Rachel @rterrypsy and Mark @MarkBennister.

 

Links to things talked about on this show:

Mark is the co-editor of The Leadership Capital Index: A New Approach to Political Leadership

Here is Mark’s piece on Theresa May ‘leaking’ leadership capital.

Links to more material on the CCCU Applied Psychology blog: Discursive of Tunbridge Wells

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.

 

Women, Gender and Political Leadership

By Bronwen Edwards (Third Year Politics Student)

On the 15th of May I attended the ‘Women, Gender and Political Leadership’ workshop in Birbeck university. Due to my interest in the role of women in politics, I was extremely excited to hear the papers and presentations on the day. I didn’t realise the huge range of topics that would be discussed; from business strategies to ensuring women receive promotions to the increase of female representation in Zambian politics. The opportunity to ask questions and further investigate academics ideas was an incredible opportunity and I attempted to ask as many questions as possible, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

Continue reading “Women, Gender and Political Leadership”

Women, Gender and Political Leadership Workshop 15 May 2015

On Friday 15 May, the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group and the Political Leadership Specialist Group – supported by Birkbeck and Canterbury Christ Church University – co-hosted a workshop on ‘Women, Gender and Political Leadership’. The increasing prominence of female leadership and recruitment, ranging from the UK General Election debates to the US Presidential race, has given the study of gender and political leadership a new urgency and importance. This one-day event – organised by Dr. Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church), Dr. Meryl Kenny (Leicester), and Dr. Ben Worthy (Birkbeck) – brought together 40 participants to explore this under-researched area, examining in detail the challenges for women in office and the means by which they can attain it.

Women Gender Political Leadership Workshop
Women Gender Political Leadership Workshop

Academic research exploring gender and political leadership both within and beyond the UK was presented at the workshop, beginning with an opening panel focused on comparative selection and leadership performance. Papers in this session explored the relationship between political leadership and performance feedback; differing logics of access to legislative and executive office; and the question of whether women leaders were more like to promote women ministers. The second panel of the day focused on the UK context, with papers on women and political leadership in Scotland; gender and PMQs; the impact of Margaret Thatcher; and gendered conceptions of the ‘good’ prime minister. The final session of the day moved beyond Europe to look at the gendered tensions of ‘First Ladyship’; women’s political leadership in Zambia; and the political oratory of Hillary Clinton.

The event also featured a plenary roundtable with Professor Tim Bale (QMUL), Dr. Rainbow Murray (QMUL) and Dr. Rosie Campbell (Birkbeck), reflecting on the 2015 General Election. This roundtable is available as a podcast: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/05/women-gender-and-political-leadership/ Plans are underway to follow up the workshop with further events and panels, as well as academic outputs.