The phrase ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’ was uttered by Margaret Thatcher, apparently without realising the double entendre it contained. It was a reference to her sometime deputy as Conservative Prime Minister, William Whitelaw. Whitelaw’s significance to Thatcher lay in the fact that he provided a point of connection between her and the wider Conservative Party, especially during the early years of her leadership in the late 1970s and early 80s. For it is easy to forget that during those years Thatcher was engaged in remaking her party, in a process that was by no means unopposed from within, away from its traditional, pragmatist and patrician form and into a much more ideologically-motivated neo-liberal entity.
This did not happen all at once, by any means, and the presence in her first cabinet in particular of ‘Tory wets’ (the more traditional, centrist, one nation Conservatives) are a testament to this fact. Not only was there an ideological battle here but also Thatcher, both in her class background and her gender, did not fit the established image of a Tory leader. Willie Whitelaw’s significance lay in being both doggedly loyal to his boss but also being trusted by the wider party, since he was very much from its traditional mould (public school, Cambridge, ex-army). He was thus able to be a conduit between traditional and new Tory parties.
In the 1990s, a very similar role was undertaken within Tony Blair’s New Labour party by John Prescott, who also became Deputy Prime Minister. Here again a party was being re-made towards a more neo-liberal posture, but this time against a traditional backdrop defined in terms of socialism, or at least social democracy, and trade unionism. That constituency was alien to Blair’s ideology and his personal background (public school, Oxford, ex-lawyer) but one that Prescott, a working-class former trade union official, was steeped in. Like Whitelaw he formed a key conduit between traditional and new Labour parties.
I have been recalling these two because of the current situation within the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn is seeking to re-shape Labour away from Blairism and also, like Thatcher and Blair, has a persona that only appeals to some sections of his party. In some ways his situation is more complicated than Thatcher’s or Blair’s in that he differs from both the new right of his party (too left-wing) and from the old left (too liberal and metropolitan). At all events he faces opposition and mistrust from, at least, its MPs, very few of whom wanted him to become their leader (his support base being, rather, amongst party members). One reason that task is proving so hard, I would suggest, is that there appears to be no one willing and able to act in the kind of conduit role that Whitelaw and Prescott fulfilled; someone trusted by the parliamentary rank-and-file and willing to use that trust in support of the new leadership.
If anything, Corbyn seems more inclined to seek to surround himself with those who agree with him, with this week’s sackings of shadow cabinet members for ‘disloyalty’. That is always a temptation for any leader but it carries with it enormous dangers. In the long run it leads to isolation from dissenting opinions (something that played a part in the downfall of both Thatcher and Blair, and probably of many business leaders) and hence the well-worn problem of ‘group think’, and that of cultism*. But in the short-run it hamstrings the necessary process in any form of politics, including organizational politics, to build what are inevitably forms of coalition. It seems related in some way to the well-known – within critical organization theory, at least - limitations of seeing leadership in terms of individuals: precisely because leadership involves coalition building it also requires a broader set of appeals than are likely to be provided by a single person. Corbyn needs urgently to find his Whitelaw or Prescott or even, given his particular situation of being neither Old nor New Labour, a couple of them.
* For an excellent analysis of cultism in leadership, and indeed of the dangers and difficulties of leadership including the over-focus on the individual, see Dennis Tourish’s The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective (London: Routledge, 2013).