Leaders, leaders, leaders and leaders

Leader’ is a word much bandied around in the left and the labour movement, with both positive and negative connotations. Unite the Union activist Ian Allinson discusses the uses of the word, and what different types of leader are good for.

A UCU picket line at Manchester University

The most common understanding of ‘leader’ is what organiser and writer Jane McAlevey describes as a position holder’. Position holders include people on the committees of campaigns, union General Secretaries and the rest. Holding a position doesn’t necessarily mean you lead anything, or that if you do, you lead in a good direction. But by dint of holding a position, this type of leader can often do a lot to enable or block action. They typically have resources at their disposal not available to others – which can include money, people, information, contact or membership lists, passwords to web sites and social media accounts, and access to structures and other individuals. Their position can also give them credibility in the eyes of people who aren’t that involved. For example, the pronouncement of a union General Secretary is likely carry more influence with people than a member saying the same thing, even if they said it in the same way to the same audience. It’s not wise to ignore position holders for two main reasons. Firstly, their support or opposition can make a big difference to any action. Secondly, most people assume that position holders fight strongly for the cause of their organisation, and most people can’t be won into greater grassroots self-reliance and independence without seeing for themselves that this isn’t always the case.

Some parts of the left are influenced by Trotsky’s saying that to lead is to foresee. There’s an obvious logic to this view. To lead in the right direction, a leader needs to understand the current situation confronting the movement, how it may develop, and how different forces may react, in order to argue for the course of action likely to lead to the most favourable outcome. It is easy to imagine analogies with a game of chess, or a battle, where correctly anticipating the enemy’s moves enables wise choices. Just as a good general or chess player needs to study and learn from past battles and games, leaders in our movement benefit from studying its history and theories that attempt to explain it and predict future events. It’s easy to see how leftists who act like armchair generals, can be particularly attracted to this notion of leadership – which can be (mis-)applied to elevate those who study and pontificate even if they make little or no effort to apply their ideas or win them in the movement. The ability to foresee is a vital resource for the movement, and for its leaders in particular, but foresight does not make someone a leader.

Many in the movement see activists’ as leaders. Activists are people who have commitment to a cause, turn up, and put work in to it. Activists, with their commitment, energy and time, play a vital part in any movement. However, a useful practical definition of a leader is ‘someone with followers’ – people they influence to think or do things. Anyone with any experience of activism will have met many people who are deeply committed but have almost no influence with anyone else, don’t bring people to movement events, and don’t convince people who don’t already agree of their views. Some activists will be leaders of various types, but by no means all. For the movement to succeed, activists need to take on useful roles, most of which won’t involve ‘having followers’.

A fourth view of a leader is what Jane McAlevey calls “organic worker leaders”, some have called “opinion-leaders”, and Billy Nugent, the Unite/UCATT rep who organised the union ready for the successful Mears housing maintenance strike calls ‘ringleaders’. In any group of people, there is someone who is most trusted and respected, who has most influence. Ringleaders may not be the loudest, the most opinionated or the most popular, but they will be someone who their colleagues have learned over time gives good advice on day to day issues. They are usually seen as good at their job. McAlevey argues that it’s generally impossible for an activist, organiser or campaigner to build stronger relationships with everyone in a workplace, housing estate or other organising target than the people there have built for themselves from their daily interactions. Ringleaders are rarely the first to come on board with a campaign, they tend to be relatively cautious. They may be supportive, neutral, or downright hostile to the cause. Jane’s organising model, which consistently gets 90 per cent or more of people on board, is based on correctly identifying these ringleaders (by talking to their colleagues) and systematically winning them over, training them, and building a network of ringleaders who become the core of the campaign. They can get everyone else on board much more effectively than anyone else.

This approach, of building power and participation through a focus on ringleaders, has big implications for activists. Few activists will happen to be ringleaders – we tend to be too opinionated and willing to go out on a limb to be the most influential amongst the majority of our colleagues. Instead of trying to lead everyone directly, and usually failing to take most people with us, activists need to take on other roles – particularly that of ‘organiser’. An effective organiser identifies the ringleaders already chosen by their colleagues and helps them learn activist skills, along with the politics to gain foresight and the ability to deal effectively with and/or replace position holders.

An example may help. In the recent Universities strike over pensions, the UCU leadership tried to do a deal with the employers, which members reacted to with a magnificent #NoCapitulation campaign which succeeded in gaining very significant improvements in the offer, whatever reservations people have about the eventual settlement. The #NoCapitulation campaign involved large numbers of members active on social media, signing statements and open letters, sending emails, lobbying delegates – and being active on the picket line the morning after the initial offer was announced. On a picket line I visited, a striker turned up with a huge No Capitulation banner they had made overnight. People loved it, crowded around it, had their photos taken and tweeted with it. It was a great initiative. That person wasn’t one of the ‘position holders’, who were noticeably absent from the picket lines that day. They had some ability to foresee – they realised that a better deal could be won. But this wasn’t some special insight, it was a view shared by thousands of members by this stage. They may or may not have been an activist – they certainly didn’t need to be to make a banner. And the fact that they led people on that occasion, with people rallying around a banner that articulated how they felt and reinforced those feelings, didn’t require them to be a ringleader amongst their work colleagues. Though the UCU picket lines were very well attended that day, it was still a self-selecting minority of workers taking part, rather than almost everyone – as it would have been if the ringleaders had been fully on board.

The reason all this matters is that it influences what we do and how we do it. Most people who start organising a campaign or a union in a particular population have to start with a small band of people already convinced of the cause enough to act. These people are activists. The reason Jane McAlevey’s latest book is called No Shortcuts is because there is a great temptation for activists to rush to try to mobilise the people who already agree, rather than learning to act as organisers who identify ringleaders, win them to the cause, and train them in the politics and practical skills they need to build power and lead a successful fight involving high participation.

We have a thousand important causes, fighting every symptom of this rotten capitalist system, but if we want to bring about real change we need to organise for mass participation, not to settle for the diminishing returns of mobilising those who already agree with us.


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