Leadership from the fringes

Michael Hawes looks away from the main contenders to examine leadership for smaller political parties

It’s a fact of modern political life that the quality of leadership and the personality of individual leaders are critical to success. It is why the competence and character of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband will be under intense scrutiny between now and the next election.

Opinion polls will constantly gauge their popularity against their party’s ratings to see whether they are a boost or drag on hopes of eventual victory. The election campaign itself seems certain again to be dominated, as last time, by the run-up and inquest into their performance during the televised debates although whether it changes the choice of real life voters is less certain.

But it is not just the three main parties which will be seeking the support of the public. At the last election eleven parties were returned to Parliament. Despite this success, these smaller parties continue to struggle to get media attention. Ensuring maximum exposure and impact whenever media opportunities arise is essential. It makes the ability and personality of the leader, if anything, even more important.

For evidence, we need to look no further than the way the SNP has been transformed from a single issue campaign group to a competent governing machine. Helped, of course, by devolution, they are now the dominant political force in Scotland.

But as Portland Breakfast guest Tim Montgomerie puts it, “People haven’t voted for the SNP because they are nationalists. They’ve voted SNP because Alex Salmond is one of the most charismatic politicians on the UK political scene.”

Certainly Salmond’s time away from the leadership between 2000 and 2004 in favour of John Swinney coincided with a drop in popularity. The 2003 Scottish elections saw them fall from 35 to 27 seats. Now they are in such a strong position that the Scots are to be asked to back full independence in a referendum.

In contrast to the SNP’s rise under Salmond, their Welsh counterparts have not fared so well. Former Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones stepped down as Plaid Cymru’s leader following the party’s weak third place finish in the 2011 Welsh Assembly elections.

To succeed him, the party which has been branded ‘for males as much as for Wales’ has elected Leanne Wood, its first ever female leader and one of very few on the national scene. Perhaps equally significantly, given the party’s history, the new leader is not a fluent Welsh speaker. Her challenge to broaden the party’s appeal is matched by the need to carry the hardcore membership with her.

The Green Party under Caroline Lucas is another party which shows the benefit of having an impressive leader. The party’s fortunes have improved remarkably since it ditched its two Principal Speakers model and elected her as its first leader in 2007. Membership has doubled, Lucas has won the Green’s first Westminster seat, the party has its first council in Brighton, and Jenny Jones beat Lib Dem Brian Paddick into third place in the London Mayoral elections.

It is why Lucas’s decision to step aside to “help build momentum and electoral presence” by raising the profile of other Green candidates comes as a surprise. Her successor has big shoes to fill.

The UK Independence Party is another party enjoying a surge in support.  UKIP’s support has doubled, according to the Yougov poll in June 2012, since the 2010 election. At 7%, they are now only a point behind the Lib Dems.

There are many reasons for this increase, not least a growing disillusionment with the main parties who have been damaged by the perilous state of the economy. But the return to the leadership of Nigel Farage has certainly helped.  Under Lord Pearson, UKIP suffered embarrassment when during the 2010 campaign he struggled to recall parts of the party’s manifesto  while Farrage, familiar to the public from his entertaining media appearances, moved uncomfortably to the side.

And as UKIP eats into Conservative votes from the right, Labour has shown its vulnerability from the left with the return of George Galloway to Westminster as a Respect MP in the Bradford West by-election in March. Galloway always generates publicity and is by far the party’s most recognisable figure. However, he is often wrongly portrayed as the party’s leader, in place of the little-known Salma Yaqoob.

Yaqoob, as summarised by the Guardian’s John Harris, is known to be calm, open and measured with a string of distinguished media appearances.  As shown in Bradford West, Respect’s best chance still lies with Galloway mobilising a localised protest vote. His success in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, for example, was reversed five years later with candidate Abjol Miah losing 20% of the previous vote and coming third. If Respect has ambitions to become a significant force nationally, its real leader will have to gain greater recognition.

Each of these parties and leaders are in a very different place. But they face a common challenge which underlines how the role of a party leader on the fringes can differ from the demands placed on those who head the main parties.

On the fringes, grabbing the spotlight is sometimes all leaders can do. Possessing a charismatic – possibly even eccentric – leader pushes up the party’s profile. But this can only take them so far.  Soon the transition has to be made from simply representation to management.

As the SNP’s journey under Alex Salmond has shown, building on initial success requires the leader to add competence to their personality.  As the party evolves, the base broadens, and the interests become less niche, the job description has to change as well. Leaders who are not up to the challenge risk leaving their party on the sidelines.

Michael is a Senior Account Executive in Portland’s Public Affairs team.  He provides support and advice to clients including Tesco, Google and the Association of British Bookmakers.