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Jeremy Corbyn follows the example of Lincoln

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Possibly the best film I have ever seen about politics is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It is partly inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s extraordinary book, Team of Rivals, that includes biographies of Edward Bates, Salmon Chase and William Seward, who served in Lincoln’s cabinet, but were also opponents of his who had themselves sought the Republican nomination.

Lincoln of course had an extraordinarily difficult task, as he was a relatively obscure figure compared to his opponents, all of whom had more experience than him in the corridors of power. Lincoln won due to superior organisation in the nomination contest, and a grassroots reputation gained following his success in the famous debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1858, after which he toured, for example accepting the invitation to speak against slavery in Seward’s powerbase in New York

Once elected President, Lincoln had to contend with the chronic disloyalty of Salmon Chase who despite being a Cabinet member schemed and conspired to replace the President, and was deeply resentful that a political outsider like Lincoln should occupy the highest office of state. Lincoln had the advantage of his mandate as elected President of the United States, but his rivals were better connected within the political establishment.

The genius of Spielberg’s film is showing how Lincoln holds together the disparate coalition of interests from the extreme radicals who believed that blacks should have the same rights as whites ( in 1860 a fringe view amongst white Americans), to the conservative Republicans and War Democrats who were prepared to compromise with the slave owners’ rebellion.

In one scene in the film that stuck in my mind, Lincoln discusses the role of political principles as a compass which shows you the direction to travel, but that a compass doesn’t tell you how to deal with lakes, rivers and cliffs that you might meet when traveling in that direction which might require you to detour or even temporarily turn around.

The former Whig Congressman, Lincoln, whose political career had earlier been cut short by his outspoken opposition to President Polk’s military aggression against Mexico had a distinct advantage over – for example – our own Jeremy Corbyn, because Lincoln was the leader of a new political party, the Republicans, that had coalesced out of the Whig Party, the few anti-slavery Democrats, and the northern part of the anti-immigrant but otherwise progressive Know Nothing Party. The Republican Party had not developed its own conventions and institutions that Lincoln’s political opponents could leverage against him. The authority of the President of the United States is also through direct suffrage to choose state representatives for the electoral college, which gives an independent mandate, and a constitutional position of patronage and veto that allows leverage against Congress.

In contrast, the British Labour Party is a highly complicated organism where the parliamentary party has more than a century of tradition behind its convention of autonomy; an autonomy that has also been long respected by the affiliated unions. What is more, the labourist traditions that derive from the party’s relationships with these trade unions have underpinned an acceptance of the economic benefits of Britain’s imperial heritage, and there is a strong interpenetration between parts of the parliamentary party and the British state, the British military and therefore directly or indirectly with American influence. These institutionalized interests are imperiled by Corbynism, and sometimes consciously and sometimes instinctively they will feel more comfortable supporting the establishment than the new direction of the Labour Party.

The Tsunami of popular support that swept Corbyn to the office of Party leader is a mighty social phenomenon, based at least partly upon the movement that derived from the anti-war protests over Iraq, partly from the Peoples’ Assemblies, and partly from the loose but engaged networks that social media have enabled over the last decade. It has enormous potential, and over the last week the movement against the bombing of Syria, both inside and outside of the Labour Party, has significantly shifted public opinion and effectively turned the terms of the debate, so that last night’s vote saw Jeremy Corbyn backed by the majority of the parliamentary party, the majority of the shadow cabinet, and the majority of the wider party. This includes support from a number of MPs who are seen as on the right of the party.

It is important to understand three things though. Firstly, while the grassroots base of Corbyn’s support are extremely exercised by opposing British military involvement in the Middle East, this is an issue of relatively marginal concern among the wider electorate. Secondly, Corbyn’s principled challenge to the military instincts of the establishment, its NATO alliance and the prestige of the UK as a nuclear power will be determinedly, irreconcilably and ruthlessly opposed by not only the Conservative Party, but also the newspapers and BBC, and parts of the Labour Party. Thirdly, Corbyn’s mandate of support and powerbase in the Labour Party has limited purchase in the PLP.

Whether or not Jeremy was right or not to offer a free vote on the Syria debate is a matter of judgement and opinion. But it is entirely plausible that had he imposed the whip, then several Shadow Cabinet members would have resigned, creating a media circus and mood of crisis that would have led to Corbyn’s demise, especially as it might have played into a self fulfilling narrative of catastrophe in Oldham. Furthermore, the determination of some MPs to vote with the government, as Alan Johnson explicitly said in his parliamentary speech yesterday, would have meant they did not feel obliged to follow the whip. It is entirely plausible that as many MPs would have voted with the government. What is more, the opportunity to embarrass and possibly remove Corbyn would have been likely to ensure that Cameron proceeded to the vote, even had Labour been whipped to oppose.

In my view, Corbyn did well over the last week. The parliamentary vote in favour of war was contained to mainly the most predictable suspects. Corbyn spoke for the anti war opinion in the country, and the campaign against British military involvement in Syria continues.


  1. Matty says:

    Very good article. JC himself said in the leadership campaign that he would act as an Abraham Lincoln type figure.

  2. Verity says:

    In some ways though of course, Syria was Corbyn’s strongest card. In addition to Shadow Cabinet and PLP majority support, he also had majority Labour Party support, Labour conference clarity and quite possibly now (or shortly) electorate support.

    There are a number of other even more challenging issues. Trident does not have Labour Conference clarity and NATO will probably not even emerge as an issue; internal Party democracy has no proposals (and a lot of vested interests may be at stake); the ‘new’ economics of ‘anti – austerity’ has still not been adequately formed and (except at a minimum level) is not without argument. In my own personal opinion, the open EU commitment will not be comprehensively sustainable

    The upsurge of support so often relied upon as an answer has not yet developed an effective, democratic, institutional or programmatic form. Unfortunately there probably is considerable indiscipline, inexperience and indulgence amongst some Corbyn Supporters. After all some people’s livelihoods are so much more affected than others by an emerging, latent Con-Lib-Lab (minority Lab) coalition. I am sure the Chartists, suffragettes indulged in some ‘finger stabbing’. But the onus on us is to compensate for the years of few followers with greater clarity in policy and communication; considerable thought in implementation and patience with many who have never even heard of viable alternatives.

    1. Andy Newman says:

      It may be the issue where Jeremy has a lot of support, but it is also an issue that is a potential trap, where there is the biggest gap between how important these activists see the issue and how relatively umimportant it is to millions of potential voters.

      We need to keep sight of the need to build a sufficiently broad base of electoral support, and a coalitional approach to the party itself with the aim of winning in 2020.

  3. Syzygy says:

    Lincoln is a good analogy for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in another respect. In issuing Greenbacks, he was able to pay for the war and to revitalise the economy without ‘borrowing’ or interference from the banks. Sounds perfect for funding the NHS, education, social care and investing in job creation etc:

    ‘The bankers had Lincoln’s government over a barrel, just as Wall Street has Congress in its vice-like grip today. The North needed money to fund a war, and the bankers were willing to lend it only under circumstances that amounted to extortion, involving staggering interest rates of 24 to 36 percent. Lincoln saw that this would bankrupt the North and asked a trusted colleague to research the matter and find a solution… Colonel Dick Taylor of Illinois reported back that the Union had the power under the Constitution to solve its financing problem by printing its money as a sovereign government…. Lincoln took Col. Taylor’s advice and funded the war by printing paper notes backed by the credit of the government…. The Greenbacks aided the Union not only in winning the war but in funding a period of unprecedented economic expansion. Lincoln’s government created the greatest industrial giant the world had yet seen.’

  4. David Ellis says:

    Corbyn is in danger of becoming a prisoner of the right wing and if he does the pasokification of the Labour Party that his election seemed not just to have halted but to have dramatically reversed will begin again and by 2020 if he is leader or not Labour will be looking at Lib Dem levels of Parliamentary representation in England and Wales and their complete eradication in Scotland after collaborating with Cameron on the referendum will be confirmed. Let’s face it, if the Corbynistas don’t start de-selecting the electorally toxic New Labour MPs the British electorate will. Look at Oldham where the local party have selected a Blairite to fight the seat for them. That and the ridiculous spectacle in Parliament yesterday will almost certainly mean that Labour’s majority will fall dramatically. And who will get the blame: Corbyn even though it will not be his fault except from the point of view of his continuous ditching of principles and radical policies in the name of party unity with the Tory-collaborating New Labour MPs. Corbyn needs a relaunch. He needs to get radical and anti-establishment and he needs to replace his extremely mild keynesian economic policy already largely stolen by Osborne with a genuinely socialist manifesto. He could kick start that relaunch by shuffling all the warmongers out of the shadow cabinet.

  5. Laurie Rhodes says:

    I wonder of Senator George McGovern, the Democratic Presidential Nominee actually is a better parallel than Lincoln. In 1972 the Democratic Party, swelled with activists from the civil rights and anti-war movement, chose one of the most progressive candidates ever to represent the party in a Presidential election. Rarely has any candidate been so endeared or had such a reasoned and clear commitment to peace, justice and democracy.

    The fact that McGovern, a leading anti-war voice, won the nomination at all was described by has campaign manager as a miracle. He is accredited with opening up the structures of the Democratic Party to encourage diverse representation of its membership. He was ridiculed by the press and uniformly reviled by all established power groups.

    McGovern’s campaign was electorally a disaster for the Democratic Party as it eventually lost every state but Massachusetts. The result was decried as evidence that his message was un-electable. In-spite of the personal attacks made against McGovern, his inspired Presidential bid resulted in (only) a 5% swing away from the Democrats & Richard Nixon won with a landslide.

    The “moderates” within the party took this to be clear evidence that the Democratic Challenger should have really been more like Nixon…

  6. stewart says:

    the trouble here is lincoln was a great leader and respected,corbyn comes across as such an bungling ametuer and does not even gain the respect of the likes of tom Watson in his own cabinet,corbyn is finished,i predict he will resign in the new year and hilary benn will be elected on a landslide as the new leader of the labour party.

    1. Robert says:

      What can one say but Rubbish.

  7. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    “and the only sound that’s left,
    After the ambulances go,
    Is Cinderella sweeping up
    On Desolation Row.”

    Bob Dylan.

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