What’s the value of loyalty?

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

In a week in which Jeremy Corbyn has sacked a Shadow Cabinet member and the party spokesman on Europe for ‘disloyalty’ and David Cameron has announced he’ll allow his Cabinet to actively campaign against his desired outcome in the referendum on EU membership – I am moved to ponder the meaning and value of loyalty.

These musings have been prompted by the spectacle of the someone who has made a career of being a maverick requiring unswerving and unquestioning loyalty from his team.

Loyalty is widely perceived as a virtue. It seems to embody resilience, consistency and selflessness and to bring with it an aura of warmth derived from a sense of togetherness and mutual trust. Beneath that soft and fluffy exterior, loyalty drives and maintains very complex political and organizational machinery. That is demonstrated loyalty is withdrawn by followers which not only renders leaders powerless but also delivers a profound and negative judgment on their fitness for leadership. David Cameron’s decision not to enforce the traditional expectations of collective Cabinet responsibilities may be viewed as preemptive measure to avoid that that judgment being delivered on his leadership in relation to the EU issue. The extent to which he has been threatened into making such a move suggests that the followers, not the leader, have set the collective standards of loyalty – and that they are very low.

Leaders who inspires loyalty gain not only the warm glow of approval from their followers but also significant extensions to their power and influence. This may be through benign mechanisms such as the creation of a compelling vision but the extension of power through loyalty can have a darker side. The loyal fixer or enforcer who says and does nasty things to achieve the leader’s goals while protecting the leader from responsibility for the damage caused is part of the standard dramatis personae of both local and national politics.

Clearly, loyalty can be both a force for good or ill. Blind or unquestioning loyalty is has been a contributing factor in failures in leadership, governance and decision making in many types of organization – including governments.   If leaders surround themselves with loyal supporters, who will ask the difficult questions? Who will put principle before loyalty and argue for what they believe to be right even if it runs counter to the beliefs and wishes of the leader?

Are our expectation of loyalty in politics unreasonably high? Is loyalty to an individual leader, an idea, or a political party, based on deeply rooted, or even visceral emotions, governing the thoughts and behaviours of the loyal or is it the balance remaining when self-interest has been set off against the interests of a group, in the contested space between ideology and pragmatism?

Does this concession simply demonstrate that loyalty in politics is, of necessity, conditional on there being sufficient congruence between the leader and the followers? Is it possible, or even desirable for politicians to be unconditionally loyal to a leader, a party or an idea?

Perhaps the answer lies is not in loyalty but consistency? If Jeremy Corbyn made a career of being a principled maverick, defying the party whip on hundreds of occasions, then he can hardly demand that his followers give him the unswerving and even unquestioning loyalty he so vocally denied his leaders in the past. David Cameron set out a clear expectation of Cabinet unity on the ‘in-out’ referendum last year. This year he has relieved his Cabinet colleagues of that responsibility. Both, though their inconsistency, have devalued the currency of loyalty and both are likely to suffer negative consequences – not least in the damage to their personal reputations.


Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

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