The leadership dilemma: On being right and appearing weak

September 2, 2013

One repeated theme in the desperate series of events taking place in Syria is the dilemma facing leaders embroiled in them. Politically, so often doing what a leader believes to be right risks public perceptions of being a week leader

The struggles are clear if we look at the behaviours in the UK last week [August 24-30th] of Prime Minister Cameron and the leader of the Opposition, David Miliband as well as the impact on those of President Obama.

Early in the week, the bloodshed in Syria escalated in the deaths of hundreds of civilians apparently from a chemical weapons attack. President Obama had indicated earlier that use of chemical weapons would pass a ‘red line’ resulting in intervention by the USA. After the attack, the White House indicated that some military response would occur.

The House is recalled

Mr Cameron returns from holiday early and recalls MPs to the House for a motion backing direct action against the perpetrators of the chemical attack, and implicitly supporting the imminent US actions. Mr Cameron was at one with many Western commentators that the Syrian regime was responsible and that action to respond to ‘discourage and degrade’ future use of chemical weapons in Syria. Initially Mr Miliband supported the principle of military involvement. Both leaders also took pains to recognize the intervention in Iraq by Tony Blair was increasingly seen as ill-judged, and the public would need reassuring of the possibility of a limited strike without unintended longer-term consequences. As I write those words it seems inconceivable that Cameron and Miliband believed the military case that such a ‘hygienic’ strike was possible.

In a few days, the recalled members of Parliament had made it clear to their respective leaders that many of them would not support military action. Both back-pedalled. Miliband found a form of retreat that called for time, which Cameron did not seem to have if the American action were to be supported. Cameron proposes a watered-down motion seeking agreement in principle on military action, and promising further debate before actual action.

Defending the indefensible

Cameron skilfully almost defended the indefensible. Miliband had a bad attack of first night nerves. The subsequent debate was at times muddled. Some speakers seem to have stuck to their original drafts ignoring how the motion had changed. The mood of the house however was of individuals with honourable intentions to support or oppose according to conscience or argument, regardless of leadership intentions. Enough conservatives opposed the motion for it to defeated. Immediately, Cameron said he ‘got it’. There would be no UK support for US military action.

The American response

A few days later President Obama indicated that the intended action would be delayed, following a proposal put to his own legislators. It was widely interpreted as a response to the UK political debate

Doing right and appearing weak

What do I mean by ‘doing right and appearing weak’? The three leaders changed their positions during the period of a week. Obama had made the commitment to act in Syria if the regime crossed the red line of using chemical weapons. He believed he had the moral right to do so, and the support of the American public. He was risking appearing week by delaying. Now pollsters suggest the public considers him even weaker, although several commentators have recognized that his search for consensus in and outside The US is attempting to avoiding unintended consequences of action. [One defense was made by an earlier politician, ‘when events change, I change my mind, what do you do?’. The issue is more how often the leader changes]

Mr Cameron is judged weak when he tried to seek cross-party support for military action by offering a second vote so that in principle he could support any American action.

Mr Miliband quickly learned that he could not deliver opposition support to a military venture. It may have been a cunning plan on his part, but if so he looked thoroughly miserable as he spoke in the house to his new position.

It is rather easy to see how seeking consensus, and changing one’s position are seen as signs of a weak leader. Seeing what is the right course of action is altogether trickier.


Ed Miliband’s three leadership dilemmas, and how he dealt with them

September 29, 2010



Political pundits have poured over Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech at the Labour Party Conference of 2010.  We examine the three dilemmas facing the new leader, and the way in which he addressed them

First, some background:  A defeat of Labour in the General Election of May 2010 was followed by the formation of the coalition government of David Cameron’s conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.  It also led to the resignation of the leader and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  The Labour Party initiated a lengthy selection process for a new leader.

There were five candidates, and a tortuous voting procedure with transferable votes.  The original front runner was David Miliband.  He was widely regarded as Blair’s preferred candidate, or ‘heir to Blair’.  He had risen through the political ranks to become one of the youngest Foreign Secretaries ever.  David was a committed member of the Blairite faction of the party, which still subscribed to the concept of New Labour which had kept them in power since 1997.  Despite the unpopularity of Tony Blair, particularly for his supportive role to George Bush in the Iraq War, David Miliband appeared as the likely winner of the contest.  The anti-Blairites had been badly damaged by the defeat of their leader Gordon Brown, and there was no obvious emerging leader from their ranks.

Enter Ed, Stage Left

The campaign was enlivened by the emergence of David’s younger brother Ed as a serious in the campaign.  Ed, a relative inexperienced politician, started as a 33 to 1 outsider.   But as the weeks of the campaign passed, it became clear that the two brothers were running neck and neck. There was much psychological talk of sibling rivalry.  He became labelled ‘Red Ed’ by the Red Tops (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.  I meant labelled by the right-leaning popular tabloid newspapers).  Ed indicated his willingness to support the Unions who were talking up the possibility  of widespread protest strikes against the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government.  

The bookies know something

A week before the voting figures were announced, David was believed to have held off the surprisingly feisty campaign from his younger brother (based on straw polls).  Curiously, there was then a swing in the betting to Ed (must have been a leak somewhere).  Because of the complex transferable vote system, the pundits still considered the contest too close to call.

The drama of the vote

The day of the announcement of the secret ballot arrived. This was a taster before the Labour Party conference.  Much tension.  The candidates, informed only shortly before, arrived at packed conference hall.  David was smiling (rather unconvincingly, I thought).  Ed looked spaced out, face drained of emotion.  There was a painful period of suspence as candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed.  David retained a slim lead, with far more support among MPs and Direct party members.  Ed had secured much of the ‘block’ Union votes.

Ed squeaks past David

At the dramatic final announcement, Ed had squeaked past the long-time favourite.  He had become leader against the wishes of the great majority of his fellow MPs and party membership. The two brothers embraced in a ‘well-down you deserved it/I’m sorry it had to be you I beat’ sort of way.

Agony and ecstasy

In the following days, the anguish of the defeated Miliband became clear. Slated to make a speech on the first day of the conference, he gallantly conceded his aspirations to the leadership.  He received a rapturous reception as did Gordon Brown, who had come to make his farewells to conference.  But David did not go so far as to say he would put himself forward for an appointment in Ed’s new shadow cabinet.   He remained another day, long enough to witness Ed’s acceptance speech.  By then the scribblers had decided David’s defeat career in politics was ended.  They were quickly proved right, and David Miliband announced a day later that he would not put himself forward to serve in his brother’s shadow administration.

Dilemmas of leadership No 1: Dealing with the Blairites

This how the drama was seen by the BBC’s Nick Robinson:

When Labour’s new leader declared that the Iraq War was wrong, he and other former ministers who voted for the war ­- Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Andy Burnham – sat stony faced. Not so Harriet Harman. Seeing her clap David turns to her and angrily demands to know “you voted for it, why are you clapping?”

If ever evidence were needed of why David will, almost certainly, leave front line politics tomorrow this is it. He, and many others, deeply resent the way in which Ed – who wasn’t an MP at the time – used his rather less than public opposition to the war to win the party leadership.

This episode addressed Ed’s first leadership dilemma or ‘what should I do first about the potentially troublesome Blair faction of the party?’.  The cold logic was to take out its acknowledged leader.  Who just happened to be the brother he loved. And that’s about it. Dilemma No 1 addressed if not sorted.

Dilemma No 2: Dealing with the Unions

The second dilemma was equally clear:  ‘what should I do to show I am not a puppet of the Unions?’ The logic was to signal in his first speech that his support for the Unions was far from unequivocal.  He could not, would not, support ‘reckless’ strikes.  Despite mutterings, the assembled Union leaders rather sullenly acknowledged that Red Ed was not as full-blooded a supporter as they might have imagined.

Dilemma No 3: Dealing with the Red Ed tag

The third dilemma was how to defuse the potential weakness of being labelled dangerously left-wing and therefore unelectable. The immediate step was to reduce the sting of the Red Ed label.  His rather effectively mocked the epithet with a humorous call for more grown-up political discussion.

Explaining what Ed did and why

The analysis of Ed’s speech for dilemmas offers a plausible explanation of the issues the new leader considered most urgently in need of addressing.  Such an examination looks beyond the rational towards the symbolic significance to find some sense in what has been said.

Miliband the victor had to remove all threat from the still hugely-popular Miliband the loser.  As they say in the mafia movies, this is business.  Nothing personal.  Except of course it was deeply personal.   He further judged that two other developing stories had to be confronted that otherwise might have weakened the invention of himself as leader. In the one case he had to scotch the claims that he was in the pocket of the Unions, and in the other the related claim that he was too left-wing to be a credible figure as a future Prime Minister.

Dilemmas are not problems to be solved.  They do not permit correct solutions, nor decisions which seem likely to have no painful consequences.  There were many ways in which Miliband minor could have avoided antagonizing important groups in the party.  He chose to act the way he did.  His speech has the merits of offering a coherent and courageous strategy.  Will it succeed? That is beyond the scope of this analysis.


Miliband, Brown and the Heseltine Moment

September 23, 2008

An overheard remark by David Miliband is interpreted as evidence of his covert campaign to dislodge Gordon Brown. The treatment of his reference to a Heseltine moment is the journalistic equivalent of trading in junk bonds

One week on, and the city’s traders are widely criticised for self-centred avarice. Much the same terms could be used in the journalistic trading in a remark by David Milband overheard and turned into a headlined story.

The BBC report was no more reluctant than any other filed, as a story was eeked out of an overheard remark. This has, anyway, become accepted as legitimate journalistic practice. Bush and his remark to Tony Blair, and Cherie’s muttering at last year’s conference were recent examples. The practice is as unreflective of its dubious ethicality as were those behaviours of gamblers in the short-trading game over the least few months.

David Miliband has been overheard telling aides that he toned down his speech to Labour’s conference to avoid it being seen as “a Heseltine moment”

[He was] discussing his speech with staff who told him that it was being given six marks out of 10, and was heard to reply
“I couldn’t have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment.”
His aide replied
“No, you are right. You went as far as you could. That was what the party needed to hear.”

His comments [were] an apparent reference to one of the occasions Michael Heseltine challenged the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Journalistic Junk Bonds

This is no more than trading in journalistic junk bonds. I would uncomfortably accept the right, duty even, of a journalist who had overheard clear evidence of the duplicity of a potential Prime Minister. Suppose Milband had said to his aide

‘Yeah. I almost blew our cunning plan. It’s not easy hiding my superior talents, just in case people think the truth, and I’m seen as being disloyal to Gordon’.

I might have (reluctantly) accepted that it was worth reporting, provided the words were substantiated.

But this does not have to be an overheard Cassius moment with Brutus musing over the time in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on the fortune.

Michael Heseltine was hardly duplicitous. His ambition was never concealed in public. Maybe Miliband was using shorthand to say

‘Yeah. It’s getting a pain to stay in second gear because if I go any faster I’ll overtake Gordon and get a twenty five second penalty, and dish my chances when Gordon finally runs out of fuel’.

There’s just not enough to justify the conclusions being drawn. For me, there’s not even enough to justify creating a news story out of a private remark overheard. Leave it to the junk bond traders operating in the gossip market.


There are no winners in Zimbabwe

May 5, 2008

After its elections of April 2008, the people of Zimbabwe continued to lose battles against inflation, AIDS, and for many of the basic minimum requirements for physical survival. Zanu PF party conceded they lost the elections, but Mr Mugabe continued to cling to the Presidency. There are no winners in Zimbabwe

[These notes were compiled over the month of April 2008, and updated May 2008, Feb 2009, Dec 2009, March 2012 and on 21st February 2014, the 90th birthday of President Mugabe]

Some years ago on a visit to that beautiful country, I found that inflation in Zimbabwe was already taking off. I still have a twenty (Zim) dollar bill from that time. It is now worth roughly one millionth of a US dollar. The inflation is more than a match for that experienced in Weimar Germany in the 1920s- 1930s.

Lucie Powell in The Guardian drew on her direct experience to sketch the scale of the human disaster in Zimbabwe. She arrived at an estimate of two million people who have fled Mugabe’s regime.

David Miliband was to offer an estimate of twice that, in the commons debate (see below).

A Week in Politics

One week after the elections, external reports have widely reported that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had won by a small but decisive margin over President Robert Mugabe. But the six days limit to announcing the result came and went [on Friday, April 4th 2008].

In the UK a Parliamentary debate was the first for a while that seemed genuinely focussed on this issues, and was remarkably free of point-scoring. It was a good and dignified performance from David Miliband .

In essence, the debate accepted that this was no time for political gestures, but one in which behind-the-scenes efforts were going on from the key areas around the world, but particularly within Africa itself.

No one in the House would want me to hand ZANU-PF a propaganda coup by endorsing one candidate or another, or by taking it on myself to announce the result. In truth, in spite of what President Mugabe would want the world to believe, the crisis in Zimbabwe has never been about personalities. … It is, and has always been, about the policies that Robert Mugabe and his Government have chosen to follow and the terrible destruction that has been wreaked on the Zimbabwean people. …The situation preceding these elections was shocking. The conditions for free and fair elections were certainly not in place. The playing field was tilted heavily in favour of ZANU-PF. Up to 4 million people who had fled Zimbabwe’s crisis could not vote. In some areas, [many] who tried to vote were frustrated by an inaccurate electoral roll. We will probably never know how many dead people on that roll cast ‘ghost’ votes. … if a second round of voting is deemed necessary, it must be held in a way that gives far greater respect not just to our standards but to the Southern African Development Community electoral standards. We remain in contact with our SADC partners on the issue

The theme of the discredited leader made quite an impact on me. In my scribbled notes at the time:

‘ In the UK, [David] Miliband argued that the weakened leader in Zimbabwe should now step down. Maybe as they listened, some members of his party were reflecting on whether pressure could also be applied in the UK for replacing another weakened leader …’

The BBC offered a clear summary of why Mugabe’s claims of vote rigging appeared no more than delaying tactics:

In the parliamentary race, the MDC count is almost exactly the same as the official results, suggesting that there was little or no ballot-box stuffing after ballots were cast. Furthermore, in some seats the MDC won by a handful of votes – again suggesting that the count was fair.

A week after the election the delaying tactics that many commentators feared became even more obvious.

The Huffington Post explored two rumours emerging from the country:

[The first rumor is that] President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has agreed to a run-off election. The date that I have heard bantered about is April 19th. There are text messages flying across the continent and various groups ramping up to ensure Zimbabweans get out and vote the tyrant out of the office..

The other rumor …is that [Mugabe] is busy filling bags of currency as he raids the treasury. The suggestion is that he will leave the country. This would be great for Zimbabweans in many ways. Yet if he does this, there are major concerns that he will not leave a single Zimbabwe dollar for the country’s recovery.

I was reaching a similar conclusion, although I’m not sure about the details. Why should the President leave with trainloads of worthless Zim dollars, when the general exit strategy for deposed political figures is to have squirreled away most of what is needed well in advance, in traditionally safer modes of exchange such as gems?

Let’s not assume it was Utopian before Mugabe
According to a 1995 Word Health Organization report on Zimbabwe

“smallholder agriculture expanded rapidly during the first half of the 1980s and social indicators improved quickly.” From 1980 to 1990 infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, under five mortality was reduced [by approximately 50%] and immunisation increased from 25% to 80% of the population …child malnutrition fell from 22% to 12%, and life expectancy increased from 56 to 64. By 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrollment rate than average for developing countries”.

The figures also stand as indicator of the plight of the majority of Zimbabweans under the Ian Smith’s regime, and the gains that were initially made after its overthrow. This point is worth making. A common Western view seems to be that the earlier regime presided over a halcyon era for all, and that everything was immediately worse under Mugabe. At the time he was seen as the most promising leader for an eventual transition to a more democratic country with a more equitable distribution of resources.

Prospects

Nevertheless, the tragic state of the country today [2008] is far worse than when Mr Mugabe came to power. The possibility of a re-birth akin to what happened in neighbouring South Africa seems as remote as the possibility of Robert Mugabe taking a place in history alongside Nelson Mandela, as a wise and successful leader of his people.

Update [Feb 1st 2009]

After many painful and tortuous twists in negotiations, a new unified administration was announced [Jan 31st 2009]. Commentators hope for the best, but remain cautious about its viability.

Update [Dec 2nd 2009]

Foreign journalists are allowed in to the country. They marvel at Harare’s beautiful centre, with its wide roads and buildings, heritage of its imperial past. The US dollar has become the de facto currency. It may be more accurate now to say that there are some winners emerging in Zimbabwe

Update [March 9th 2012] The toothpaste assassins

This curious tale of two visitors from Australia accused of being would-be assassins of Mr Mugabe

Acknowledgement: Image from episcopal website.