Possibly 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 1958, 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.