[I held onto a draft of this post for some time, as I felt it was never the right time to publish it. But today, although the details seem to be from ancient history, perhaps it is worth looking back, and to consider the role of people taking responsibility amid a period of uncertainty.]
Just after the December 2019 UK general election I was quite struck by a BBC interview with Jeremy Corbyn. Quizzed about the result—“his party’s worst election performance since the 1930s”—he noted that:
- “…since I became leader the membership has more than doubled” (Mr Corbyn’s own words);
- “his party’s policies were individually ‘very popular'” (BBC’s commentary, with words from Mr Corbyn);
- “The issue that dominated this election, ultimately, was Brexit” (his own words);
- “I’ve done everything I could to lead this party” (his words).
It is true that the result of any election is unpredictable to some degree, and there were no polls from reputable polling companies that predicted such a huge win for the Conservatives.
But it would be wrong to suggest that the Labour Party was merely a victim of circumstances, and even more wrong to say its leader bore little responsibility for the result. I’ve written before that it’s entirely possible to tilt the odds of success towards you, even when you don’t control the situation. In this case:
- Brexit had been the defining political issue of the previous three years in the UK.
- The leader of the Labour Party chose and evolved the party’s stance on Brexit throughout that period, including how that was communicated.
- The leader of the party chose what messages it conveyed and how it responded to events since the previous election—and therefore influenced the general perception of him and his party.
- The leader of the party chose how to run its election campaign, including what messages it conveyed and how it responded to events—and therefore influenced how its opponents and the media might react.
In short, the party, steered by its leader, was a full and active participant in the UK political scene before and during the election, significantly influencing events and their consequences.
The specific details within individual events are almost always unpredictable. But all of us influence these things to some degree; leaders much more than others. We all have responsibility; some more than others. This was true in 2019, as much as in today’s world of an invisible virus that can be spread by anyone. Whether we accept that is another matter.