A poll published this week made me wonder why anyone would want to be a political leader. This may be a peculiarly British phenomenon but it is difficult to recall any Prime Minister since Winston Churchill whose popularity rating remained positive.
This week’s poll concerned Ed Miliband who was seen to be less trustworthy, decisive or competent than Gordon Brown. A similar poll last year found David Cameron disliked by 54% of those questioned and a poll today would probably show his popularity has fallen even further even though he remains more popular than Messrs Miliband and Clegg. 60% say they don’t like Mr Clegg.
Whilst Margaret Thatcher was seen by many as the strongest leader since 1954 her death was publicly celebrated by some. “Ding Dong the witch is dead” sold sufficient copies to reach No2 in the hit parade in the week of her funeral. Leaders sometimes have to make unpopular decisions.
The current austerity policies were initially recognised as necessary but slow growth and delayed recovery have increased voter dissatisfaction. The same is true for some in relation to our EU membership and immigration but there is no evidence that the PM’s promise of a referendum or the 33% reduction in immigration have revived his popularity. It will be interesting to see whether the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders’ opposition to these policies will further reduce their popularity. Leadership style may be a factor. Trust is obviously important. Nick Clegg was damaged in the eyes of some Liberal Democrats for breaking his pledge to oppose increases in student fees despite the fact that this was a price of being in the Coalition Government. Communication is another style factor. Mr Cameron’s unpopularity with some of his backbenchers is caused by his failure to meet them informally in the Commons tea rooms. They perceive him to be surrounded by his buddies and taking backbencher support for granted.
Tony Blair had a similar style and mention of his name in debate still sometimes produces boos from some Labour MPs. Popular leaders make people feel they matter, not shut out on the periphery. The unpopularity of leaders may not be solely the consequences of their actions and leadership styles. The role of Government has grown and affects us all in many areas of life. British culture has become more individualistic and relativist so that people increasingly decide for themselves what is right and wrong. The internet and social media have given us greater access to information and increased our capacity and freedom to express our opinions.
Have these changes made us less servile and more ready to complain and criticise? That may be healthy for democracy provided we seek to understand the issues and seek the common good, not just our own points of view and interests. A biblical perspective would remind us of St Peter’s call to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” [i]and St Paul’s call to pray for all in authority.[ii]
[i] 1 Peter2:13-17
[ii] 1Timothy 2:1-2