Change UK and the Brexit Party – collective versus authoritarian leadership?

by Colin Talbot

Change UK, the TIGgers, the Indepenent Group, or whatever they are called this week seem to be having problems.

Rachel Johnson, who is top of the new Party’s list for the southwest of England in the EU Elections, in a rather candid moment said “they want to focus group everything and they have a leadership team of about 11 people”. Change UK only have 11 MPs.

To be fair Ms Johnson is not the only one to criticise the apparent indecision and muddle in the way the new Party has launched itself. The general verdict from the political commentariat, even those sympathetic to the new project, is that it has been a bit of a shambles. The question is why?

It’s not like the new group lacks talent. Although they have only 11 MPs they are mostly seen as some of the best and most competent performers in Parliament. Youngish, intelligent, articulate and thoughtful. So why are they struggling?

For a possible explanation let’s go back to the 1970s and a small management college in Henley-on-Thames. Established as The Administrative Staff College in 1945, Henley Management College, as it later became known, was the civilian equivalent of the military staff colleges.

In the 1970s a small group of academics at Henley began a series of experiments that still have a major impact in management thinking today. Dr Meredith Belbin, a graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, led a small team including Bill Hartston, a mathematician and international chess master; Jeanne Fisher, an anthropologist; and Roger Mottram, an occupational psychologist.

Together they conducted a seven year investigation into management team-working by selecting and combining different individuals on various intelligence and behavioural traits into groups in a competitive management game called ‘Teamopoly’. Belbin published an account of their work and findings in 1981 in his book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’.

Their findings about different but complementary ‘team roles’ continue to be influential in management development circles to this day.

What’s most interesting for thinking about what has gone wrong with the TIGgers is the early part of the Henley teams work.

One of their first set of experiments consisted of creating one “A team’ – a group composed of individuals with the highest IQ and ‘extrovert’ scores, on the assumption they would win at ‘Teamopoly’ against other, more randomly constructed teams. Instead they almost always lost, sometimes actually disintegrating as teams and failing to even complete their tasks on time.

Why? The answer was fairly revolutionary – teams made up of highly intelligent and assertive, if not aggressive, individuals tended to fall apart because they were unable to reach agreement about what to do. They were just too confident in their individual abilities to easily compromise, and they tended to get too engaged in the joys and jousting of debates and lost sight of the job to be done.

(In case you are wondering, the teams did have formal leaders, but it didn’t seem to make much difference in Alpha groups because all the participants saw themselves as equals.)

So is this what’s happened to the Change UK group. Is Rachel Johnson right is saying, in effect, they are all trying to be leaders and the result has been, shall we say, suboptimal?

Looking at the other new Party – the Brexit Party – it seems to be operating on completely the opposite end of the decision-making spectrum. It’s a dictatorship. Farage has established it as a limited company, which he owns. There are no members, with membership rights, just registered, fee-paying, supporters. It has opaque finances, but clearly plenty of money. It has not formal policies except whatever Nigel says – no manifesto.

In the short-term this seems to have worked. It has surged to an apparently commanding lead as the single biggest party in the EU elections, on about a third of the vote.

But authoritarianism has its own drawbacks. It can work, sometimes, in the short-term but is prone to all sorts of pathologies – not least that it is highly reliant on a single ‘strong leader’ who inevitably cannot actually take all the decisions. And their judgement can be wrong, subject to hubris, distorted by sycophantic followers telling them what they want to hear, and so on.

The crisis of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party after its leader Heinz-Christian Strache, and Austria’s vice-chancellor, was caught on video apparently offering lucrative government contracts in exchange for political support. Closer to home, the implosion of Farage’s previous Party, UKIP, when he left them straight after the EU referendum, also demonstrates how fragile and dependent authoritarian Parties can be.

Parties that survive, adapt and thrive in the long run tend to be ones that strike a dynamic balance between the ‘leader principle’ and too much deliberation and indecision. They need both to succeed. And maybe its much too early to judge the ability of either Change UK or the Brexit Party on the basis of just a few weeks existence? It may well be both assume very different trajectories in longer term. And their leadership styles won’t be the only deciding factors, obviously. But they will matter.








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